No senator left a more visible legacy in his native state than the late Robert Byrd of West Virginia. He was from Sophia, my father is from nearby Mount Hope, and everywhere you go in that part of the country you see signs proclaiming “Robert Byrd this” and “Robert Byrd that.”
“West Virginia has always had four friends,” Byrd once said, “God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Liver Pills, and Robert C. Byrd.”
Citizens Against Government Waste lists, among other West Virginia projects, the Robert C. Byrd Locks and Dam, Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope, Robert C. Byrd Drive, Robert C. Byrd Federal Correctional Institution, Robert C. Byrd Center for Hospitality and Tourism and of course the Robert C. Byrd Hardwood Technologies Center.
In effect orphaned at age 1, raised as the foster son of a miner in a home with neither electricity nor running water, Byrd’s story was an American story, from his dalliance with the KKK to his early endorsement of Barack Obama as president.
His proudest vote, he said, was that opposing military action in Iraq. Time has proven him prescient on that matter.
“If the United States leads the charge to war in the Persian Gulf, we may get lucky and achieve a rapid victory,” he warnd in 2003. “But then we will face a second war: a war to win the peace in Iraq. This war will last many years and will surely cost hundreds of billions of dollars. In light of this enormous task, it would be a great mistake to expect that this will be a replay of the 1991 war. The stakes are much higher in this conflict.”
That speech thoroughly refutes the claim of apologists today that no one could have known what the occupation of Iraq would be like. Byrd knew, as did others, but his warning fell on ears deafened to everything but the cry for war.
Over the years, people would often note Byrd’s knowledge of and affection for subjects such as Shakespeare, the Bible and Roman history, which he often mined for citations and allegoriess. But few understood that his deep immersion in such sources was the product of a poor boy’s striving to educate himself, a 19th century mindset that he shared with Abraham Lincoln, among others.
You could say that an era ended with his death this morning at age 92, but in reality his era ended a generation ago, maybe even a century ago, and Robert Carlyle Byrd was its last surviving dinosaur.