But he didn't reach hero status with me until 2002, when he became almost a lone-wolf voice against President Bush's clamor to invade Iraq. While most of Congress timidly sat mute, Byrd showed great courage as he stood time after time to warn that the White House was dragging America into a senseless, unnecessary, harmful war.
The Bush clique said Iraq possessed horror weapons and was in bed with terrorists who would unleash them on Americans. Byrd said there was no evidence to support this claim -- and it turned out that he was correct.
The Bush clique said Iraq's people would greet U.S. troops as liberators, and that Iraq's own oil wealth would pay America's military costs. Byrd said this prediction was nonsense -- and it turned out that he was correct.
His eloquent Senate speeches were mostly ignored by the Washington news media, but many Americans began savoring them and distributing them by e-mail. They spread around the world, reaching millions of people. Some of us in the Gazette newsroom almost cheered as we read his bold attacks on the warmongers. The speeches later were reprinted in Byrd's book, "Losing America: Confronting a Reckless and Arrogant Presidency."
This paper named him West Virginian of the Year a fourth time in 2002, and again he deserved it.
Byrd became so aged and feeble he no longer could walk. Yet he seemed like a lion to me in his brave resistance to the smirking, shallow president. After Democrat Barack Obama won the White House in 2008, Byrd remained an independent battler, not always following the party line. The ailing West Virginia senator hovered near death several times, but fought back bravely. He didn't lose his independent voice, even challenging the mighty coal industry. Last month, after the Massey Energy tragedy, he raged that "29 men are now dead. Dead. Dead. Simply because they went to work that morning."
It took nearly a half-century for me to see him as a genuine hero. Now, sadly, West Virginia has lost this courageous fighter. A long West Virginia epoch ended before dawn Monday.
Haught, the Gazette's editor, can be reached by phone at 348-5199 or e-mail at hau...@wvgazette.com. This column is adapted from a chapter in Haught's 2008 book, "Fascinating West Virginia."