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Published: Friday, 6/16/2006

The remarkable evolution of a rare Byrd

HE IS an old, frail man whose hands tremble when he tries to make a point. But his mind is as sharp as his tongue on convictions he believes to the core. The white-haired gentleman from West Virginia is a rare Byrd on Capitol Hill, and not just because he recently became the longest serving U.S. senator in history.

Robert Byrd is unusual for what he has become after working almost 48 years in his beloved Senate. He is one of the few people elected to high office who came to Washington a politician and became a statesman. It is a transformation that so seldom occurs with partisans from either side of the aisle that it is worth noting for far more than a milestone reached.

The adopted son of a coal miner rose from dirt poor to political prominence in the Mountain State not as a saint but as a Dixiecrat with a past he's not all proud of today. In his youth he joined the Ku Klux Klan, a mistake he's lived with since the early 1940s. He was once an opponent of civil rights legislation - to his great regret - and was one of 11 senators to vote against Thurgood Marshall to become the first black on the Supreme Court.

But the venerable Senate Democrat has exemplified political evolution. And far more than simply spinning his way out of positions and actions that haunted him personally or professionally, the senator owned up to his blunders outright, admitting he was unequivocally wrong to say and do what he did. Maybe the advancing years have allowed him to be more forthright without the hesitation of a politician consumed with his career.

At 88, he's still in the game. He's running for an unprecedented ninth term that would take him to his 95th birthday if he completes it. And he remains hugely popular with his constituents, who've been lavished with government largesse from the ranking Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. Some outsiders have labeled Mr. Byrd the champion of pork-barrel politics, but the feisty West Virginian makes no apologies about taking care of the folks back home.

And they love his candor, his commitment, and his renown conviction to "speak with fire" - as the senator puts it - because his beliefs run deep.

In an era of 10-second soundbites and flashy visuals, the lawmaker who embraced the conservatism of Southern Democrats reigns as one of the last, true orators of our time. His pointed eloquence in capturing what seemingly wiser heads have missed can be stunning.

The man can quote from the Bible or Cicero or cite the Constitution from memory. He always carries a copy of what he calls "the greatest document of its kind" in his breast pocket and gives each incoming freshman senator a copy. His thunderous orations from the Senate floor on whatever rankles him are legendary.

He is without peer in upholding the prerogatives and traditions of the Senate and it pains him to witness its metamorphosis into a classless joint where partisan politics is everything.

In the run-up to the Iraq war he delivered striking, passionate speeches appealing to his honorable colleagues to fulfill their solemn duty to vigorously dissect "the one topic on the minds of all Americans."

He scolded the politically timid for standing passively mute, paralyzed by their own uncertainty, "seemingly stunned by the sheer turmoil of events."

But his honorable colleagues capitulated at a most unfortunate time for the country. The Senate patrician lamented the pall that had fallen over the chamber as the country was about to embark on its first pre-emptive war. "This chamber is, for the most part silent - ominously, dreadfully silent. There is no debate, no discussion, no attempt to lay out for the nation the pros and cons of this particular war. There is nothing."

Now there is nothing but excuses. Just once on Meet the Press I'd like to hear a prominent Senate Democrat like Joe Biden or John Kerry or Hillary Clinton or Harry Reid acknowledge their mistakes and admit that they were unequivocally wrong to vote to authorize the war in Iraq. Just once I'd want them to confess without evasion that they were as hoodwinked as the rest of the country by leaders who exaggerated the necessity for invading Iraq.

But they can't do it. Politicians yet to evolve into statesmen can't jeopardize career for conviction. Taking responsibility for bad decisions or going out on a limb for unpopular ones might backfire on political ambitions. Too risky.

A newly widowed octogenarian with a quaver in his voice and a tremble in his hands may seem an improbable role model for distinction amid Washington's elite.

But the old senator from another era is the real deal.

And Robert Byrd can still thunder orations from the Senate floor that make the timid "sleepwalking through history" blanch with the rudest of awakenings.



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