When Senator Robert C. Byrd died at 3:00 this morning in a Fairfax, Virginia hospital, it literally marked the end of an era. Byrd was an institution in Washington, DC, and a legend in the Mountain State. Whether one agreed with his politics or not, there is no question that this was one remarkable individual. In the 234 year history of our nation, no man has served longer in the halls of Congress than the Senior Senator from West Virginia.
Byrd served in the West Virginia House of Delegates with my grandfather, Jerry Stidham, in the late 40's and early 50's . Papaw Stidham, an official with the United Mine Workers of America, had a lot of contact with Byrd over the years, and considered him a good friend until his death in 1968. The young man from Raleigh County was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1952, playing "Cripple Creek" on his fiddle at every campaign speech or rally. Six years later he was elected by the voters in West Virginia to the U.S. Senate - the only man in history elected to nine full terms in the Senate.
Byrd's career was a long, and strange one. The man never lost an election. He dismissed his earlier membership in the Ku Klux Klan as "a mistake of my youth". He voted against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. In the early 70's he upset Ted Kennedy in the Senate Democrat caucus for the post of Majority Whip, and he later served a number of years as the Democrat's leader in the Senate. As the years passed, his vote began to swing from conservative to liberal. I often disagreed with his politics, but had to respect the seriousness he brought to the job. He cast more than 18,000 votes in his Senate career (an obvious record) and had a 98% attendance record! He always carried a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his jacket pocket, and was considered by his colleagues as an expert on the Constitution and the unique rules of the Senate.
Like him or not, the man showed up for work, and as long time chairman of the powerful Senate Appropriations Committee, he brought home the bacon to the people of West Virginia. Wherever you go in the Mountain State, you'll find something - a bridge, a school, a building, or a highway, named for Robert C. Byrd. At the age of 92, Robert Byrd was an institution, yet he lived a quiet personal life, deeply devoted to his wife, who passed away about four years ago.
Back in the 90's, my mother wrote Senator Byrd a letter. The Senate had passed a bill, which banned the abominable practice known as "Partial Birth Abortion". President Clinton had vetoed the bill. Senate Republicans and conservative Democrats sought to over ride the veto. Byrd voted to uphold the veto and Mom was incensed! She wrote him a letter telling him so. She mentioned his long ago association with her father in the West Virginia Legislature and allowed as to how ashamed Papaw would have been of his stance.
Several days later, Mom heard the phone ring while she was doing some yard work just outside the back door. Quickly going inside to answer it, she heard a feminine voice say, "Patsy Adkins?" When she replied that she was, the voice said, "Please hold for Senator Byrd". To Mom's astonishment West Virginia's Senior Senator came on the line greeting her and thanking her for her note. He spent several minutes explaining to her why he had voted the way he did (which I can't explain), but nevertheless, he claimed good reason. He continued by talking about his 20 year friendship with my grandfather, and asked, "What about Mary? (my grandmother) Is she still living?" Learning that she had recently passed away, the Senator offered his deep condolences and assured Mom that our family would be in his prayers. Mom was deeply gratified and her anger over his unpopular vote was gone.
That, my friends, (along with pork barrel politics) is a prime example of how a guy can cast a vote contrary to the views of the majority of voters in his state, but keeps getting elected to represent them!
The Republic goes on, but we will most surely never again see another person like Robert C. Byrd on Capitol Hill.