Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Remembering Robert Byrd, U.S. Senator from West Virginia

Byrd died early Monday morning in a Washington area hospital. He was 92 and had served in the U.S. Senate for 51 years, well over half of his life. His New York Times obituary, which is available in full here, highlights the "pork" he brought home to West Virginia. The lede, for example, refers to his "building, always with canny political skills, a modern West Virginia with vast amounts of federal money." Byrd referred to his home state as "one of the rock bottomest of states." When asked his proudest Senate achievement in 2005, he said it was bringing federal money to West Virginia, adding "I’m proud I gave hope to my people."

John D. Rockefeller IV, the junior Senator from West Virginia is quoted as saying that Byrd knew, “before you can make life better, you have to have a road to get in there, and you have to have a sewerage system.”

The obituary uses the word "rural" only once, to refer to how he "played the fiddle at one rural stop after another," campaigning for public office in the 1940s and 1950s. But it provides this information about Byrd's indisputably rural, hardscrabble upbringing:
As a boy, living on a small farm, he helped slaughter hogs, learned to play the fiddle and became a prize-winning Sunday school student after the manager of the local coal company store gave him two pairs of socks so that he could attend without embarrassment.
Byrd was the valedictorian of his high school class but unable to attend college. Later, in his 30s and 40s, he took college courses. He ultimately earned a law degree, cum laude from American University in 1963, after 10 years of taking night courses.

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