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Profile of Robert Byrd
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|Also Know As:
|Date of Birth:
||20th November 1917
|Place of Birth:
||North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, USA
Robert C. Byrd
||Senior Senator, West Virginia
|Term of office:
||W. Chapman Revercomb
|Date of birth:
||November 20, 1917
|Place of birth:
||North Wilkesboro, North Carolina
||Erma Ora Byrd
Robert Carlyle Byrd (born November 20, 1917) is a West Virginia Democrat serving in the United States Senate. As of 2005, he is the longest-serving current member of the U.S. Congress, having served in the United States House of Representatives from January 3, 1953, until he entered the Senate on January 3, 1959; current Dean of the House John Dingell has served only since December 1955. At 87, Byrd is the oldest member of Congress. Some like to call Byrd a "walking encyclopedia" on the history of both the American and Roman senates. Byrd is married to Erma Ora, his wife of 67 years.
As the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate, Byrd was president pro tempore of the Senate from 1989 until the Republicans won control of the Senate in 1995. After the Democrats managed to forge a tie in the Senate in the 2000 elections, Byrd was president pro tem again briefly in 2001, when outgoing Vice President Al Gore's tiebreaking vote temporarily gave the Democrats a majority. He stepped down when George W. Bush took office as president, as Vice President Dick Cheney's tiebreaking vote gave the Republicans a majority. He served as president pro tem again from 2001 to 2003. He has served as a member of the Appropriations Committee since his first Senate term, and chaired the committee while serving as president pro tem. He is currently the ranking Democrat on the committee.
Byrd is currently serving his eighth six-year term in the Senate, which ends in January 2007. At that time, he will pass Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as the longest-serving senator in American history. He already holds the record for the longest unbroken tenure in the Senate (Thurmond served 48 years, but stepped down from April to November 1956). Byrd announced on September 27, 2005 at the State House in Charleston that he is running for a historic ninth term in 2006; should he win reelection and continue to serve through 2011, he will pass Carl Hayden of Arizona as the longest-serving member of both houses of Congress. Hayden served 57 years in Congress (in the House from 1912-27 and the Senate from 1927-69); upon completion of another term, Byrd will have served 60 years.
- I have given most of my life to serving the people of West Virginia, and today I stand before you ready to go another round. Today, I am here to announce my decision to run once again for the United States Senate and represent each of you, the people of our great State of West Virginia. - Robert C. Byrd Campaign Announcement Speech, September 27, 2005.
Early life and political career
Byrd was born Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. in North Wilkesboro, North Carolina, in 1917. When he was one year old, his mother died in the 1918 Flu Pandemic. In accordance with his mother's wishes, his father dispersed the family children among relatives. His father was a member of the KKK. He was given to the custody of an aunt and an uncle, Vlurma and Titus Byrd, who renamed him Robert Byrd; they raised him in the coal-mining region of southern West Virginia. His parents inculcated Byrd in "the typical southern viewpoint of the time," Byrd has written. "Blacks were generally distrusted by many whites, and I suspect they were subliminally feared." Byrd graduated as valedictorian of his high school class and, in 1937, married his high school sweetheart Erma Ora. It was twelve years before he could afford to go to college. He eventually attended Beckley College (now Mountain State University), Concord College (now Concord University), Morris Harvey College (now the University of Charleston), and Marshall College (now Marshall University, all in West Virginia). He worked as a gas-station attendant, grocery-store clerk, shipyard welder, and butcher before he won a seat in the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1946, representing Raleigh County. He served there from 1947 to 1950, then served in the West Virginia Senate from 1951 to 1952. He has never lost an election. After taking a decade of night classes while in Congress, he graduated from American University's Washington College of Law in 1963. He has two daughters, Mona and Marjorie, as well as several grandchildren and great-grandchildren.
Participation in the Ku Klux Klan
In the early 1940s, when Byrd was approximately 24 years old, he joined the Ku Klux Klan, which he had seen holding parades in Matoaka, West Virginia as a child, his father having been among the hooded marchers. He "recruited 150 of his friends and associates to form a chapter of the Ku Klux Klan. After Byrd had collected the $10 joining fee and $3 charge for a robe and hood from every applicant, the Grand Dragon Joel L. Baskin for the mid-Atlantic states came down to tiny Crab Orchard, W.Va., to officially organize the chapter... "When it came time to choose the Exalted Cyclops, the top officer in the local Klan unit, Byrd won unanimously." Byrd, in his autobiography, attributed the beginnings of his political career to this incident, though he lamented that they involved the Klan. According to Byrd's recollection, Baskin told him, "You have a talent for leadership, Bob... The country needs young men like you in the leadership of the nation." Byrd recalls that "suddenly lights flashed in my mind! Someone important had recognized my abilities. I was only 23 or 24, and the thought of a political career had never struck me. But strike me that night, it did."
He, like many southerners of the time, participated in the KKK for a period of time during World War II, holding the titles "Kleagle", which indicated a Klan recruiter, and "Exalted Cyclops." Byrd did not serve in the military during the war, working instead as a welder in a Baltimore shipyard, assembling warships.
Though Byrd did not serve himself, he commented on the 1945 controversy raging over the idea of racially integrating the military. In his book When Jim Crow Met John Bull , Graham Smith referred to a letter written that year by Byrd, when he was 28 years old, to racist Senator Theodore Bilbo of Mississippi, in which Byrd vowed never to fight:
- "with a Negro by my side. Rather I should die a thousand times, and see Old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels, a throwback to the blackest specimen from the wilds."
When running for Congress in 1952, he announced, "After about a year, I became disinterested, quit paying my dues, and dropped my membership in the organization. During the nine years that have followed, I have never been interested in the Klan." During this campaign, "Byrd went on the radio to acknowledge that he belonged to the Klan from 'mid-1942 to early 1943,' according to newspaper accounts. He explained that he had joined 'because it offered excitement and because it was strongly opposed to communism.' " ibid.
Byrd has often referred to his Klan membership as a mistake of his youth. As recently as 1997, he told an interviewer he'd encourage young people to become involved in politics, but with this warning: "Be sure you avoid the Ku Klux Klan. Don't get that albatross around your neck. Once you've made that mistake, you inhibit your operations in the political arena." Conservatives argue, however, that he has received preferential treatment concerning his KKK past and Byrd's Klan membership has been ignored by the mainstream media.
During the campaign, Byrd's Republican Party opponent "uncovered a letter Byrd had handwritten to [...] the KKK Imperial Wizard, recommending a friend as a Kleagle and urging promotion of the Klan throughout the country. The letter was dated 1946 -- when Byrd was 29 years old and long after the time Byrd claimed he had lost interest in the Klan. 'The Klan is needed today as never before, and I am anxious to see its rebirth here in West Virginia," Byrd wrote, according to newspaper accounts of that period."ibid
During his campaign for the U.S. Senate in 1958, when Byrd was 41 years old, Byrd defended the Klan. He argued that the KKK had been incorrectly blamed for much of violence in the South.
After Sixth District Congressman E.H. Hedrick decided to step down and run for governor, Byrd was elected to succeed him. He was reelected twice, then defeated Republican Senator W. Chapman Revercomb in 1958. He was reelected in 1964, 1970, 1976, 1982, 1988, 1994 and 2000. He has never had any real difficulty being reelected, and even ran unopposed in 1970. On two other occasions -- in 1994 and 2000 -- he carried all 55 of West Virginia's counties. In his last reelection bid, in 2000, he won all but seven of West Virginia's precincts.
In the 1960 Presidential election primaries, Byrd, a close ally of Lyndon B. Johnson, then Senate Majority Leader, tried to derail the Democratic front-runner and ultimately successful candidate John F. Kennedy in the crucial West Virginia primary. "Kennedy allies retaliated with leaks to the press about Byrd's work as a Klan organizer."
Byrd later joined with other southern Democrats to oppose the Civil Rights Act of 1964. Byrd filibustered the bill for more than 14 hours, saying it abrogated principles of federalism.
In 1965, the Robert C. Byrd Honors Scholarship Program was created by Congress as a federally funded, state-administered program. It awards $1,500 a year to graduating high school seniors who continue on to higher education on the basis of academic merit.
Byrd has been a member of the Democratic leadership since 1967, when he was elected as secretary of the Senate Democratic Conference (caucus). He became Senate Majority Whip, or the second-ranking Democrat, in 1971. From 1977 to 1989 Byrd was the leader of the Senate Democrats, serving as Senate Majority Leader from 1977-81 and 1987-89 and as Senate Minority Leader from 1981-87.
Byrd's ability to steer federal dollars to West Virginia, the nation's second poorest state (behind only Mississippi) has been remarkably effective--even before he became top Democrat on the Appropriations Committee in 1989. When he became chairman of the committee, he sought to steer, over time, a total of $1 billion for public works to West Virginia. He passed that mark in 1991, and the steady streams of funds for highways, dams, educational institutions, and federal agency offices has progressed unabated in the last 16 years (eight as chairman and eight as ranking minority member). More than thirty pending or existing federal projects bear Byrd's name. He is close friends with Ted Stevens (R-AK), with whom he has alternated as chairman of the committee and who is also legendary for sending federal money back to his home state. The two men have been longtime friends, but their relationship has been strained in recent years over Byrd's recent stands on Bush's policy.
Byrd has also been known for his versatility and prowess as Majority Leader. Before the "Reagan Takeover," he frustated Republicans with his encyclopedia-like knowledge of the inner workings and values of the Senate. In the period from 1977-1979 he was described as "performing a procedural tap dance around the minority, outmaneuvering Republicans with his mastery of the Senate's arcane rules."
Accusations of Racism
Some conservatives contend that Byrd's opposition to President George H. W. Bush's nomination of Clarence Thomas to the U.S. Supreme Court in 1991 to replace Thurgood Marshall -- making Byrd the only senator to have opposed the nomination of both of the only two black Supreme Court justices – and Byrd's 2004 opposition to some of George W. Bush's judicial and cabinet nominees who are black, notably Federal Judge Janice Rogers Brown and Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, was motivated by racism. The Congress of Racial Equality (CORE), a civil rights organization with conservative leanings, has stated that Byrd's hold on Rice's nomination was "racist." . Byrd has not opposed other people of color that Bush has nominated in the past, voting for Secretary of Education Rod Paige and Secretary of State Colin Powell.
On March 4, 2001, an interview with FOX News Sunday host Tony Snow was aired. In the interview Byrd was asked about race relations: "They are much, much better than they've ever been in my lifetime," Byrd said. "I think we talk about race too much. I think those problems are largely behind us ... I just think we talk so much about it that we help to create somewhat of an illusion. I think we try to have good will. My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody.' We practice that." Then Byrd warned:
- "There are white niggers. I've seen a lot of white niggers in my time; I'm going to use that word...We just need to work together to make our country a better country, and I'd just as soon quit talking about it so much."
Byrd later issued an apology: "I apologize for the characterization I used on this program. The phrase dates back to my boyhood and has no place in today's society. As for my language, I had no intention of casting aspersions on anyone of another race."
"Favorite son" presidential candidate
In 1976, Byrd announced that he would run for president as a "favorite son" candidate, campaigning in only his home state of West Virginia. Like many Democrats, Byrd thought that perhaps if the convention were deadlocked, he could use his delegates to hold some influence in the selection of a nominee.
Every other Democrat but George Wallace stayed off the West Virginia ballot in deference to Byrd, and even Wallace didn't campaign in the state. Byrd won by a near 9-1 margin. However, he was never a serious candidate for the nomination, and Byrd had set his sights instead on the position of majority leader after the retirement of Montana's Mike Mansfield. Byrd focused most of his time on campaigning for the office of majority leader, more so than for re-election to the Senate, as he was unopposed for his fourth term. By the time the vote for majority leader was at hand, he had it so wrapped up that his lone rival, Minnesota's Hubert Humphrey, withdrew before the balloting took place.
Television cameras were first introduced to the U.S. House of Representatives on March 19, 1979, with the launch of C-SPAN. Fearing that Americans only saw the U.S. Congress as the House of Representatives, Senator Byrd became a strong advocate for introducing the U.S. Senate to television coverage. Senator Byrd believed the change was neccessary to prevent the Senate and the Legislative branch from becoming the "invisible branch" of government and preserve true checks and balances. Thanks in large part to Byrd's efforts, cameras came to the Senate floor in June 1986. To help introduce the public to the inner workings of the legislative process, Byrd launched a series of speeches based on research and scholarly examination of the Roman Republic and the intent of the U.S. Constitution's Framers to vest in the legislative branch control over the purse strings, to ensure that the President gain Congressional approval before initiating action. Byrd used these speeches and his research to publish a four volume series on Senate history: The Senate: 1789-1989. Today, because of his extensive knowledge of the workings of the Senate, he is widely seen as the “Guardian of the Senate.”
Opposition to war in Iraq
In the 107th Congress, Byrd suffered some legislative defeats, particularly with respect to debates on homeland security. Byrd opposed the 2002 law creating the Homeland Security Department, saying it ceded too much authority to the executive branch. He led the opposition against the resolution granting George W. Bush broad power to wage a "preemptive" war against Iraq, but he could not get even a majority of his own party to vote against the resolution. He also led the opposition to Bush's bid to win back the power to negotiate trade deals that Congress cannot amend, but lost overwhelmingly. But, in the 108th Congress, Byrd won his party's top seat on the new Homeland Security Appropriations Subcommittee, positioning himself to use the subcommittee as a forum for oversight of the executive.
Byrd was one of the Senate's most outspoken critics of the 2003 invasion of Iraq and the Bush Doctrine's support of unilateralism and preemptive warfare.
On March 19, 2003, when President George W. Bush ordered the invasion after receiving U.S. Congress approval, Byrd stated:
- Today I weep for my country. I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong, yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed. Around the globe, our friends mistrust us, our word is disputed, our intentions are questioned. Instead of reasoning with those with whom we disagree, we demand obedience or threaten recrimination.
Byrd also criticized Bush for his speech declaring the "end of major combat operations" in Iraq, which Bush made on the U.S.S. Abraham Lincoln. Byrd stated on the Senate floor:
- I do question the motives of a deskbound president who assumes the garb of a warrior for the purposes of a speech.
On October 17, 2003, Byrd delivered a speech expressing his concerns about the future of the nation and his unequivocal antipathy to the policies of President Bush. Referencing the Hans Christian Andersen children's tale The Emperor's New Clothes, Byrd said of the president: "the emperor has no clothes." Byrd further lamented the "sheep-like" behavior of the "cowed Members of this Senate" and called on them to oppose the continuation of a "war based on falsehoods."
Byrd condemned what he saw as the stifling of dissent and the marginalization of the legislature: The right to ask questions, debate, and dissent is under attack. The drums of war are beaten ever louder in an attempt to drown out those who speak of our predicament in stark terms. Even in the Senate, our history and tradition of being the world's greatest deliberative body is being snubbed. This huge spending bill — $87 billion — has been rushed through this chamber in just one month. There were just three open hearings by the Senate Appropriations Committee on $87 billion — $87 for every minute since Jesus Christ was born — $87 billion without a single outside witness called to challenge the administration's line. The senator ended his speech by repeating a famous quote from the Nuremberg Diary by G. M. Gilbert. In the passage, Gilbert interviews Nazi war criminal Herman Goering.
Byrd has a cameo role as a Confederate general in the Warner Brothers film Gods and Generals (2003).
In July 2004, Byrd released the book Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency about the Bush presidency and the war in Iraq.
Byrd has cast a total of 17,319 votes as of September 2005--the most of any Senator in history. Though a former party leader, Byrd is one of the most independent members of the Democratic caucus. Byrd sees himself as placing the prerogatives of the Senate and the needs of West Virginia before the interests of politics.
He disagreed with some of President Bill Clinton's policies throughout his presidency. Byrd was initially a force in demanding that the impeachment proceedings against Clinton be taken seriously and conducted completely, harshly criticizing any attempt to make light of it, but in the end it was his motion to dismiss the charges against the president which brought about the end of what was left of the House prosecutors' case. Earlier, he strongly opposed Clinton's 1993 efforts to allow gays to serve in the military. He opposed affirmative action, and takes a moderately conservative position on abortion.
In the NAACP's Congressional Report Card for the 108th Congress (spanning the 2003-2004 congressional session), Byrd was awarded with an approval rating of 100% for favoring the NAACP's position in all 33 bills presented to the United States Senate regarding issues of their concern. Only 16 other senators of the same session matched this approval rating. In June of 2005, Byrd proposed an additional $10 million in federal funding for the Martin Luther King memorial in Washington, DC, remarking that "With the passage of time, we have come to learn that his Dream was the American Dream, and few ever expressed it more eloquently."
He also voiced praise for President George W. Bush's nomination of Judge John Roberts to fill the vacancy on the Supreme Court created by the retirement of Justice Sandra Day O'Connor. Like most members of his caucus, however, Byrd opposes the tax cuts implemented by President George W. Bush and Bush's proposals to change the Social Security program.
"The Gang of 14"
On May 23, 2005, Byrd was one of fourteen senators to forge a compromise on the Democrats' use of the judicial filibuster, thus blocking the Republican leadership's attempt to implement the "nuclear option". Under the agreement, the Democrats would retain the power to filibuster a Bush judicial nominee in only an "extraordinary circumstance", and three conservative Bush appellate court nominees (Janice Rogers Brown, Priscilla Owen and William Pryor) would receive a vote by the full Senate.
- West Virginia House of Delegates (1947-1950)
- West Virginia Senate (1951-1952)
- U.S. Representative from West Virginia's sixth district (1953-1959)
- Eight-term U.S. senator from West Virginia (1959-present)
- Democratic whip (1971-1977)
- Majority leader (1977-1980 and 1987-1988)
- Minority leader (1981-1986)
- President pro tempore (1989-1995; January 3, 2001-January 20, 2001; and June 6, 2001-2003)
- Sen. Robert C. Byrd. 2005. Child of the Appalachian coalfields. West Virginia University Press. ISBN 1933202009.
- Sen. Robert C. Byrd. 2004. Losing America: Confronting A Reckless and Arrogant Presidency. New York: W.W. Norton & Co. ISBN 0393059421.
- Sen. Robert C. Byrd. 1995. Senate of the Roman Republic: Addresses on the History of Roman Constitutionalism. United States Government Printing Office ISBN 0160589967
- Sen. Robert C. Byrd. 1993. Senate, 1789-1989: Historical Statistics, 1789-1992, Vol. 4. US Government Printing Office ISBN 0160632560
- Sen. Robert C. Byrd. 1995. Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993, Vol. 3. US Government Printing Office ISBN 0160632579
- Sen. Robert C. Byrd. 1991. The Senate, 1789-1989, V. 2: Adresses on the History of the United States Senate. US Government Printing Office ISBN 0160064058
- Sen. Robert C. Byrd. 1989. Senate, 1789-1989, V. 1: Addresses on the History of the United States Senate. US Government Printing Office ISBN 0160063914
Current Senate Committee Appointments
- Committee on Appropriations, Ranking Member
- Byrd was appointed to the Appropriations Committee by then-Majority Leader Lyndon B. Johnson when he first came to the Senate in 1958. Today, he is the Ranking Member, or top Democrat, of the committee.
- Committee on Armed Services
- The mission of this committee is the comprehensive study and review of all programs and initiatives that pertain to the nation's defense. They often hear from the top military officers and strategists on the current challenges and conditions of America's Armed Forces.
- Committee on Rules and Administration
- The Rules Committee acts as an oversight committee of the Senate itself. They work on issues pertaining to elections, candidate qualifications, and services offered by the Senate and related organizations.
- The Budget Committee each year establishes the parameters for federal spending. It also examines the close relationship between the nation's fiscal policy and economic strength.
Positions in the Senate
Secretary, Senate Democratic Conference 1967-1971 Democratic whip 1971-1977 Majority Leader 1977-1980, 1987-1988 Minority Leader 1981-1986 President pro tempore 1989-1995; June 6, 2001-January 3, 2003 Chair, Committee on Appropriations January 3-20, 2001; June 6, 2001-January 3, 2003 See more below.
Robert C. Byrd placenames
- Robert C. Byrd Drive, from Beckley to Sophia (Byrd's hometown)
- Robert C. Byrd Health Sciences Center of West Virginia University, Morgantown
- Robert C. Byrd Cancer Research Laboratory of West Virginia University, Morgantown
- Robert C. Byrd Technology Center at Alderson-Broaddus College, Philippi
- Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center, Princeton
- Robert C. Byrd Bridge, between Huntington and Chesapeake, Ohio
- Robert C. Byrd Addition to the Lodge at Oglebay Park, Wheeling
- Robert C. Byrd Community Center, Pine Grove
- Robert C. Byrd Expressway, U.S. Highway 22, near Weirton
- Robert C. Byrd Institute for Advanced Flexible Manufacturing; Huntington, Charleston, Bridgeport & Rocket Center
- Robert C. Byrd Visitor Center at Harpers Ferry National Historic Park, Harpers Ferry
- Robert C. Byrd Federal Building & Courthouse, Charleston
- Robert C. Byrd Federal Building & Courthouse, Beckley
- Robert C. Byrd Academic and Technology Center at Marshall University, Huntington
- Robert C. Byrd National Technology Transfer Center at Wheeling Jesuit University, Wheeling
- Robert C. Byrd United Technical Center
- Robert C. Byrd Hilltop Office Complex, Rocket Center
- Erma Ora Byrd Conference & Learning Center
- Robert C. Byrd Metals Fabrication Center, Rocket Center
- Robert C. Byrd Library & Robert C. Byrd Learning Resource Center at Mountain State University, Beckley
- Robert C. Byrd Rural Health Center at Marshall University, Huntington
- Robert C. Byrd Clinical Addition to Veteran's Hospital, Huntington
- Robert C. Byrd Industrial Park, Moorefield
- Robert C. Byrd Locks & Dam, Gallipolis Ferry
- Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, Green Bank
- Robert C. Byrd Science and Technology Center at Shepherd College, Shepherdstown
- Robert C. Byrd High School, Clarksburg
- Robert C. Byrd Biotechnology Science Center at Marshall University, Huntington
- Robert C. Byrd Conference Center at Davis & Elkins College, Elkins
- Robert C. Byrd Health and Wellness Center of Bethany College, Bethany
- Robert C. Byrd National Aerospace Education Center, Bridgeport
- Robert C. Byrd Appalachian Highway System part of the Appalachian Development Highway System
- (For Byrd's Wife) Erma Ora Byrd Center for Educational Technologies at Wheeling Jesuit University, Wheeling
Wife - Erma Ora Byrd Grandchildren - Erik, Darius, and Frederik Fatemi, Michael (deceased), Mona, and Mary Anne Moore Great-grandchildren - Caroline Byrd Fatemi, Kathryn Somes Fatemi, Anna Cristina Fatemi and Michael Yoo Fatemi, Emma James Clarkson and Hannah Byrd Clarkson.
- Robert Byrd is of no relation to Harry F. Byrd and Harry F. Byrd, Jr., both former U.S. Senators from Virginia.
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