Washington How that man loved to speak.
Robert C. Byrd once talked in the Senate for 14 hours and 13 minutes straight. In his half century in that chamber he spoke of the Roman Empire, the West Virginia coal fields, the Peloponnesian War and the West Virginia mountains. He recited poetry, quoted the Bible like the lay preacher he once was and gave speeches about his little dogs Billy and Baby.
The Democrat talked about how vital it is to the very well-being of the nation that senators be allowed to talk as much as they want.
Byrd carried himself like a man from another century. Dead Monday at age 92, he nearly was.
A spokesman for the family, Jesse Jacobs, said that Byrd died about 3 a.m. at Inova Hospital in Fairfax, Va., where he had been since late last week. Byrd had been in frail health for several years.
His words seemed to spring from the flourish of a quill pen dipped in ink. He could channel Cicero and recite the names of all British monarchs in order.
A poorly educated son of Appalachia, Byrd became patriarch of the Senate, serving longer and casting more votes than any in history.
The West Virginian was its most passionate scold, teacher, interpreter, defender and manipulator.
Regardless of party, he took newcomers under his wing and never forgot a slight. He authored few pieces of groundbreaking legislation but ensured, in 2004, that every school that gets federal money and all federal civil servants must learn about the Constitution every Sept. 17, the date it was signed by the 1787 convention.
A de facto parliamentary overlord with a worn copy of that Constitution in his pocket, Byrd sought most broadly to restrain the power of the presidency — for America has no monarch — and to protect the minority party in the Senate from being crushed.
Byrd graduated from high school too poor to go to college. He pumped gas, cut meat, worked as a shipyard welder during World War II and drew crowds for his popular fundamentalist Bible lectures.
He had a segregationist past, vicious to modern eyes. In 1944 he wrote a letter against integration in military units by “race mongrels,” declaring “I shall never fight in the armed forces with a Negro by my side.”
He joined the Ku Klux Klan, becoming an Exalted Cyclops, and it was during his short time in that virulently bigoted organization that his talent for leadership was recognized and his aspirations for public office awakened.
Even years after disavowing the Klan, he stood for those 14 hours and 13 minutes in a vain attempt to stop the Civil Rights Act from becoming law, just one of the Southern Democrats clinging to the old ways.
Byrd “apologized a thousand times” for his Klan association and moved away from that past, a transformation now generations distant. In 2008 he lent a hand in electing the first black president, supporting Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination over Hillary Rodham Clinton.
In recent decades he railed against indignities to the institution, executed power plays behind the scenes and directed a gushing spigot of federal money to roads, bridge projects and buildings for his state. Byrd even managed to land a Coast Guard operation for landlocked West Virginia.