Fresh Air Remembers Sen. Robert Byrd

WASHINGTON - JUNE 28: A flag flies at half staff outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in honor of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), who died this morning.
WASHINGTON - JUNE 28: A flag flies at half staff outside the U.S. Supreme Court building in honor of Sen. Robert C. Byrd (D-WV), who died this morning. Brendan Hoffman/Getty Images

The longest-serving U.S. Senator in history died Monday. He was 92. In a 2004 interview on Fresh Air, Byrd discussed his 50-year Senate career with Terry Gross -- and talked about the noteworthy votes he cast over the years.

Sen. Robert Byrd of West Virginia, who became the longest serving senator in U.S. history, died early Monday morning at a hospital outside Washington, D.C. He was 92.

Byrd, who joined Congress in 1959, was known for his lengthy speeches, often infused with references from Biblical passages and historical facts, and his veneration of the U.S. Constitution.

Byrd grew up in the coal camps of southern West Virginia. His early resume was as colorful as his later language: He made a living as a gas station attendant, a welder, a meat cutter and a store owner before going to law school and running for a seat in the state house, then Congress in 1952.

Byrd, a two-time Senate majority leader and the chairman of the Appropriations committee, was especially proud of his early warnings before the U.S. invaded Iraq in 2003. He made a now-famous speech in which he criticized the Bush administration for the first test of a revolutionary doctrine of preemptive war. He also criticized his colleagues for standing "passively mute in the U.S. Senate, paralyzed by our uncertainty, seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events."

In a 2004 interview on NPR's Fresh Air, Byrd explained to Terry Gross how he felt about delivering that speech, just 35 days before the U.S. bombed Baghdad.

"I was astonished to see a Senate which I had long, long come to revere stand mute," he said. "The men who were there and the one woman who was there when I came to the Senate would not have stood still. How changed this Senate was. How intimidated the members were. How afraid they were, many of them, of being called 'unpatriotic' if they didn't support the commander in chief."

Byrd told Gross that he had several regrets in his own career. He voted for the Gulf of Tonkin resolution, which authorized the president to use force to repel armed attack and prevent further aggression in Vietnam. He also apologized throughout his career for voting against the 1964 Civil Rights Act -- and for being a member of the Ku Klux Klan in the 1940s.

"I joined for a number of reasons. In that day and time, things were different than they are now," he told Gross. "Lawyers, judges, bankers and others were in the Klan, and so I joined it. I've regretted that. I've apologized for it. There's nothing more I can do, except I speak plainly when I condemn the Klan and its tactics. I've, I think, improved and grown since that time. And I would urge young men not to join the Klan."

Later in his career, Byrd would write a four-volume history of the Senate and deliver a series of lectures on the fall of the Roman Empire -- which, he warned, should be carefully observed by the United States, so as not to see those mistakes repeated.

Byrd is survived by two daughters. His wife of 69 years, Erma Ora James Byrd, died in 2006.

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