WASHINGTON—At the age of 88, Sen. Robert Byrd on Monday became the longest-serving senator in history, a milestone in a career that once put him on Richard Nixon's short list for the Supreme Court and now makes him an icon of the left.
Byrd, with 17,327 days of service since 1959 as a Democratic senator from West Virginia, has eclipsed the late Sen. Strom Thurmond, R-S.C., once the epitome of longevity.
In that time, Byrd has exemplified political evolution. Once an opponent of civil rights legislation who embraced the conservatism of Southern Democrats, he's now a darling of the liberal Internet blogosphere, where his floor speeches denouncing the war in Iraq are passed around Web audiences at the touch of a button.
Last year, he raised $800,000 through the help of MoveOn.org, the Internet-driven liberal movement launched in 1998 to fight the impeachment of President Clinton. Byrd now advertises on the liberal Daily Kos Web site, where a mouse click links to a fundraising appeal for his 2006 re-election campaign.
Reared in West Virginia coal country, he's one of the last true orators. He quotes Cicero and cites the Constitution from memory. He's been the Senate's majority leader and its minority leader. But his greatest congressional legacy is as protector of the Senate, its prerogatives and traditions.
Time after time he's fought efforts by the executive branch to encroach on what he deems exclusive legislative terrain. In that vein he became one of 23 senators who voted against giving President Bush authority to use force in Iraq. Since then he's been an ardent opponent of the war.
"He is a scholar and devotee of the doctrine of separation of powers, something which seems to have been forgotten lately," said Sen. Arlen Specter, R-Pa., who's clashed with the executive branch over President Bush's warrantless surveillance program.
West Virginians are heirs to another Byrd legacy. As the chairman and ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee, he's lavished government largesse on the mountain state to the point that he's considered a one-man economic-development force. Seen from outside the state, he's a champion of pork-barrel politics, loading major appropriations bills with his pet spending "earmarks."
According to Citizens Against Government Waste, a watchdog group, Congress has sent $2.95 billion worth of projects to West Virginia since 1991. Of that, $1.2 billion originated in the Senate. On Monday the group named Byrd its "Porker of the Month."
That kind of constituent attention helped make him the state's most popular politician. When Bush won West Virginia over Al Gore in the 2000 presidential election, Byrd still took 78 percent of the state's Senate vote.
His popularity is rooted in his generous gift of taxpayer dollars to his state, his selective embrace of Democratic ideology and his state's conservative working-class traditions. When he was young, he joined the Ku Klux Klan, a decision he says he came to regret. He filibustered civil rights legislation in 1964 and was one of 11 senators to vote against Thurgood Marshall to become the first African-American on the Supreme Court.
Byrd's views on race have evolved with time, but he still bucks his party on some social issues. Last week he was one of two Democratic senators who voted with supporters of a constitutional amendment that would outlaw gay marriage. The effort failed. He's supported voluntary prayer in public schools.
"He is not a liberal; he's obviously a long way from that," said James Thurber, an American University political scientist and an expert on Congress. "He's conservative on clean air because of his state's coal-mining industry, guns, conservative on social issues. But he's not conservative on giving West Virginians more earmarks."
The years have brought a quaver to his voice and a tremble to his hands, but his floor speeches are still thunderous.
He observed his own milestone Monday in silence. It was also the birthday of his late wife, Erma, his high school sweetheart. She died in March after a long illness.
On Monday he sat quietly in the chamber at his aisle seat as senators heaped praise on him, occasionally smiling or acknowledging an anecdote.
His longtime friend, Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska, called him a "patriarch of our Senate family."
Sen. John Warner, R-Va., a Senate elder even though he won election 20 years after Byrd, added: "No man hath a greater love for this Senate."
(c) 2006, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): BYRD
ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Robert Byrd
ARCHIVE CARICATURES on KRT Direct (from KRT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): Robert Byrd
Need to map