CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Robert Carlyle Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress in United States history, who spent much of his career as a conservative Democrat and ended it by fiercely opposing the war in Iraq and questioning the state's powerful coal industry, died Monday. He was 92.
He had become an institution within an institution, as President Obama suggested in a statement of tribute on Monday, hours after Senator Byrd died at the age of 92 in a hospital in Fairfax, Va. Mr. Byrd, his health failing in recent years, had been admitted there late last week, experiencing heat exhaustion and severe dehydration as temperatures in the Washington area approached 100 degrees.
“America has lost a voice of principle and reason,” the president said.
Sen. Byrd rose from the grinding poverty that has plagued his state since before the Great Depression, overcame an early and ugly association with the Ku Klux Klan, worked his way through night school and, by force of will, determination and iron discipline, made himself a person of authority and influence in Washington. His fortitude propelled him to defy President George W. Bush on Iraq and to deliver to President Obama a critical yea vote last winter on the health-care insurance overhaul. He bested a blizzard and raised a weak hand from his wheelchair to do it.
Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia was never a political relic, though the media and late-night comics often portrayed him as one. His style—the florid, halting speeches on the Constitution and the glories of the Senate—was certainly a blast from the past. And the most recent front-page story in the Washington Post involving Byrd focused on him as "one of Congress's most famous dog lovers."
But Byrd, who died yesterday at 92 after 51 years in the Senate, epitomized what most members of Congress try to do: maximize the flow of federal funds to their state or district.
Photo: Charleston Gazette. Gov. Joe Manchin directs placement of drapery above Byrd statue.