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Sen. Byrd learns from, shapes history

Washington Bureau Chieffritz
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By SARA FRITZ, Times Washington Bureau Chief

© St. Petersburg Times
published September 23, 2002


WASHINGTON -- In an era when most U.S. senators come with an Ivy League diploma and a restless urge to live in the White House, Robert C. Byrd is an anomaly.

One senator describes the 84-year-old West Virginia Democrat as "a legend in his own time." Another compares him to two historical giants -- Daniel Webster and Henry Clay. And a third has called Byrd -- the orator, historian and former former member of the Ku Klux Klan -- "the weirdest man in the Senate."

When Byrd takes the Senate floor, spectators feel as if they are being transported to the late 18th century. He quotes Cicero from memory. He finds precedents for today in the senate of ancient Rome.

Although he did not get a bachelor's degree until eight years ago, Byrd is perhaps the best educated man in the Senate, said Donald Ritchie, assistant Senate historian. He learned what he knows the old-fashioned way: by reading books and memorizing a staggering number of facts that he can reel off on command.

"Education is something he missed as a child, and he is not going to give up learning," says Ritchie. "He is dogged about it."

For the past few weeks, Byrd has controlled the floor of the Senate for many hours at a time, explaining the weaknesses he sees in President Bush's proposal to create a Homeland Security Department. Work on the bill in the Senate is likely to culminate in a vote this week.

Byrd supports the creation of a new department, but he is upset that the idea was hatched in secrecy by a few of the president's aides, and that the administration wants to protect many of the department's activities from public and congressional scrutiny.

"I have often felt, in recent days, as if this 84-year-old man is the only thing standing between a White House hungry for power and the safeguards in the Constitution," Byrd said on the Senate floor last week, with a dramatic sweep of his arm. "That is not bragging; that is lamenting."

History is Byrd's favorite teacher, and Watergate is the antecedent he seizes upon to demonstrate what can go wrong when a president prefers operating in secrecy. Watergate, he said in one of his many recent floor speeches, "did not just happen -- years of executive secrecy and arrogance and contempt for Congress created it."

Nor has Byrd forgotten how Republicans vilified President Clinton for drafting a health care plan in secret. "If health care is too important an issue to the American public to deliberate behind the secretive walls of the White House," he said, does that not also apply to the security of the nation?

And he warns against giving the military new powers under the homeland security bill, saying: "The wall between civil and military government may be eroding as we speak!"

Byrd's colleagues are unrelenting in their praise for him in public, as is his due as the Senate's second-oldest member (Strom Thurmond, who will soon be 100, is retiring when his term ends in January). But they often joke behind his back about his archaic speech and mannerisms, and groan about the length and self-importance of his floor speeches.

Even in his eighth term as a senator, he seems to be struggling to overcome the shame he felt as a child growing up in the coal fields of West Virginia. His mother died when he was 1 year old, and he was adopted by relatives who were poor and unfeeling. He met his real father only once, he says, and he's "never known a mother's kiss."

He was already serving in the Senate when he earned a law degree from American University in 1963, after a decade at night school, and a bachelor's degree from Marshall University in 1994.

Despite his education, Byrd has made more than a few political faux pas. On a television broadcast in March 2001, he said something that caused his staff to issue immediate public apologies.

"My old mom told me, 'Robert, you can't go to heaven if you hate anybody,' " he said. "We practice that. There are white n------. I've seen a lot of white n------ in my time; I'm going to use that word."

Byrd joined the klan in his youth, but African-Americans in West Virginia seem to have forgiven him. He was invited two years ago to address a state NAACP gathering, where he declared: "I made a bad mistake then." As chairman of the Appropriations Committee, he has funneled hundreds of millions of federal dollars into that state.

In fact, Byrd's life and accomplishments have been so varied that Diana Sole, who is making a movie about him, says it is "going to call for brutal decisions in the editing room."

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