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Monday, June 28, 2010

Tribute to West VA Senator Robert Byrd - Longest serving Member of Congress

Senator Robert Byrd died today at age 92.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

In 2006, while visiting Washington DC, I had the privilege of seeing Senator Robert Byrd deliver a short speech on the Senate floor. It was not the most significant or important issue he was addressing (it was about preserving Amtrak), but I recall the power and eloquence of the moment, and his dynamic and theatrical flair.  He waived his arms and bellowed "All aboard for Amtrak!" as a part of his plea.

I don't even know the fate of that particular legislation. But I was so impressed and even thrilled to have a chance to watch this amazing Senate institution in action. It was equally impressive to see him in that setting, rather than just an aging fellow who I passed in the hallway (he had just been out walking his dog).

Photo credit - Senator Byrd website

Robert Byrd was first elected to the Senate in 1958. He was the adopted son of a coal miner, and received his law degree from American University in 1963 (while serving in the Senate).  He was considered an expert and defender of the US Constitution and according to an NPR story today, he said  in a speech:

In 2004, he warned his colleagues that the same fate could befall the United States.
"Why so deferential to presidents? Under the Constitution, we have three separate but equal branches of government," Byrd said. "How many of us know that? How many of us know that the executive branch is but the equal of the legislative branch, not above it?"
As he often would, Byrd then pulled out the well-worn copy of the Constitution that he always carried in his breast pocket.
"This Constitution impacts your life," Byrd said. "Every day that you are here on this planet, this Constitution has a bearing on it."
And the Constitution, Byrd said, empowers Congress — not the president — to declare war.
I also recall the thrill of watching him on TV deliver his impassioned and inspiring speech against the Iraq War resolution. He spoke with pride at the time about the amazing response from peace activists and citizens supporting his efforts. He said that his office had received over 50,000 emails and 18,000 phone calls from all across America, which was considered remarkable in 2002.

He was elected both Senate Majority and Minority leaders, and was still Chair of the Senate Appropriations Committee when he died.

He even showed the courage to admit he was wrong. He had filibustered the Civil Rights Act in 1964, but later renounced his position on that manner and had since become a crusader for Civil Rights.

He garnered the respect of lawmakers from both parties over his career.

Robert Byrd loved poetry and also played the fiddle. He even produced an album of Blue Grass fiddle tunes.

Rest in peace defender of the US Constitution.

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