Byrd sets record for senatorial service

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After almost 48 years in the Senate, Robert Byrd is still working. On Monday, the West Virginia Democrat passed the late GOP Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina as the longest serving senator in history.

And Byrd is not finished.

Slowed by age and grief-stricken over the recent death of Erma, his wife of almost 69 years, Byrd still is running for an unprecedented ninth term. At 88, he uses two canes as he slowly makes his way around the Capitol. Yet he can thunder orations from the Senate floor.

"I can speak with fire because my convictions run deep," Byrd said in an hourlong interview in his Capitol office. "I'm not just an ordinary senator. I know it and you know it."

That uncharacteristic bit of immodesty came shortly after Byrd was asked whether he will be able to complete a full six-year term that would end when he is 95. When asked about his age and his stamina, Byrd bristles.

"Age has nothing to do with it except as it might affect one's strength, endurance and stamina. Age does not affect me except in my legs," Byrd said. "And I've got a head up here that hasn't changed one iota in the last 25 years."

Byrd's improbable rise began in the coalfields of West Virginia. The adopted son of a miner, he grew up as poor as any American politician, living in a house without electricity, running water or indoor plumbing. His rise to the upper echelons of U.S. politics began in 1946 when, as a fiddle-playing butcher, he won a seat in the state's House of Delegates.

Within 12 years, Byrd had made his way through the West Virginia Senate and the U.S. House. He won election to the Senate in 1958. Dwight Eisenhower was president and it was a year after the Soviet Union beat the U.S. into space with Sputnik.

Eschewing the limelight to focus on the nuts and bolts of Senate business, Byrd quickly became an inside player. He did a lot of grunt work in junior leadership posts, focusing on little details that made his colleagues' lives easier: arranging times for votes and colleagues' floor speeches, and making sure their amendments got votes. He became majority leader -- the Senate's top post -- in 1977.

He admits to a few errors along the way.

Byrd participated in an unsuccessful filibuster of the 1964 Civil Rights Act. As a young man, he join the Ku Klux Klan, a mistake he has been saddled with since the early 1940's.

Byrd is a senator from another era. In an age where politics has long since been dominated by soundbites and snappy visuals, he cites Roman history, quotes from the Bible and reads poetry in his Senate speeches.

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Stephen Kislock - 6/14/2006

If there is one Voice that must be heard in the United States it is that of US Senator Byrd!