And yet it’s probably true that he’ll be remembered above all for his longevity.
Everyone seems to have a different way of communicating just how long a time he spent here. For me, it’s enough to note that Robert Byrd had already spent nearly 20 years serving in elected office in West Virginia and in the House of Representatives before he was elected to the U.S. Senate — during the Eisenhower administration.
And over the years, he would walk the floor with four future presidents, four of the 12 he would serve alongside in a 57-year career in Congress. I won’t enumerate all the legislative records Senator Byrd held. But I would venture to say that the figure that probably made him proudest of all was the nearly 70 years of marriage he spent with a coal miner’s daughter named Erma.
If he was synonymous with the Senate, he was no less synonymous with West Virginia. Here’s how popular Robert Byrd was in his home state: In the year Robert Byrd was first elected to the U.S. Senate, 1958, he won with 59 percent of the vote — a margin that most people around here would consider a landslide. In a record nine Senate elections, it was the smallest margin of victory he would ever get.
Members will offer tributes of their own in the coming days.
I’ll just close with this. Last year, in becoming the longest serving member of Congress in history, Senator Byrd surpassed another legendary figure, Carl Hayden of Arizona. Hayden was known to many as the “Silent Senator” — a phrase few would use to describe Senator Byrd.
But what the two men shared was a devotion to the United States and, in particular, to the legislative branch of our government, which the founders envisioned and established as coequal with the other two.
A few years ago, Senator Byrd’s official portrait was unveiled at an event in the Old Senate Chamber. And I think that portrait pretty well sums up the image Senator Byrd wanted to leave of himself. It’s the image of a dignified man, in the classical mold, supported by three things: the Bible, the U.S. Constitution and his wife. A lot of people looked at Senator Byrd’s record-long tenure in Congress, his immense knowledge of poetry, history and the Senate, and wondered where he got the strength. With this painting, he gave us the answer. He showed us the anchors.
As I noted at that ceremony, Senator Byrd once wrote that if the question was whether to be loved or respected, he always chose to be respected. Yet his real accomplishment is that, in the end, he managed to be both.
So I join my colleagues, my fellow Americans, the people of West Virginia, and the Byrd family today in remembering our colleague. We’ll surely miss him.