Sen. Robert Byrd died early Monday. Joe Holley of the Washington Post began with a mildly surprising label for a senator who was a Bush-bashing hero of the anti-war left this decade (with a lifetime American Conservative Union rating of 28):
Robert C. Byrd, a conservative West Virginia Democrat who became the longest-serving member of Congress in history and used his masterful knowledge of the institution to shape the federal budget, protect the procedural rules of the Senate and, above all else, tend to the interests of his state, died at 3 a.m. Monday at Inova Fairfax Hospital, his office said.
Mr. Byrd had been hospitalized last week with what was thought to be heat exhaustion, but more serious issues were discovered, aides said Sunday. No formal cause of death was given.
Starting in 1958, Mr. Byrd was elected to the Senate an unprecedented nine times.He wrote a four-volume history of the body, was majority leader twice and chaired the powerful Appropriations Committee, controlling the nation's purse strings, and yet the positions of influence he held did not convey the astonishing arc of his life.
Holley did include his time in the Ku Klux Klan, in paragraph nine. He also wrote this sentence (perhaps this is his idea of what earned the label "conservative"):
As chairman of the Senate Appropriations subcommittee on the District from 1961 to 1969, he reveled in his role as scourge, grilling city officials at marathon hearings and railing against unemployed black men and unwed mothers on welfare.
But it was hardly in sync with conservatism to trash the war in Iraq and President Bush's decision to liberate the country from Saddam Hussein:
In addition to his multivolume history of the Senate, he was author of a 770-page memoir as well as "Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency" (2004), a well-received and stinging critique of what he considered President George W. Bush's rush to war with Iraq.
Well-received by whom? Holley suggested the book had more power since Byrd was seen as a staunch supporter of the Vietnam War.
In his book and on the Senate floor, he was scathing in his contempt for the Bush administration's doctrine of "preemptive war" and "regime change." He castigated his fellow lawmakers for swiftly delegating to the president the decision to go to war.
On March 19, 2003, he delivered the first of what became regular attacks on the Bush administration's decision to invade Iraq. "Today I weep for my country," he said in a speech on the Senate floor. "I have watched the events of recent months with a heavy, heavy heart. No more is the image of America one of strong yet benevolent peacekeeper. The image of America has changed."
In fact, in a Time magazine story weeks later headlined "Lionized in Winter," Matthew Cooper raved that "due to his fierce opposition to the Iraq war, Byrd at 85 has become an Internet icon with a rash of young and liberal admirers, which is ironic given that Byrd fought civil rights in the '60s and, as is often noted, briefly joined the Ku Klux Klan. Once known as a hawk (‘I was the last man out of Vietnam,’ he says), Byrd has become the Senate's new Paul Wellstone."