THOUSANDS of West Virginians can say, "He was my senator. He was my parents' senator. He was my grandparents' senator." Depending on how young you are, he may have been your great-grandparents' senator.
The life of Robert C. Byrd, longest-serving Congress member in U.S. history, touched many, many lives.
His Senate career, spanning 50 years, covers slightly more than a fifth of the nation's history, if you count from 1776. If you reckon from 1789 -- when the country ratified the Constitution that he carried in his pocket and that defined his role -- his tenure approaches one-fourth of the republic's existence.
But there was more to him and his Senate career than sheer longevity.
Sen. Byrd was much loved by people who voted for him again and again, who turned out to hear and cheer him when he told stories or fiddled. Some of the appeal was habit. It was the comfort of the known and even the self-interest of keeping a senior senator in power. Some of his popularity came from genuine gratitude for good work -- either in helping constituents when they called, or winning federal funding for projects that stimulate local economies. Certainly the lure of a winning streak -- and even participating in it -- had its appeal. How long could he go?
Still, there was more.
Throughout his life he demonstrated a great capacity to learn and to change. He repudiated the racism of his youth. Perhaps it was politically expedient to do so at first. Later, he spoke in the same breath of two votes in his Senate career that he regretted -- his vote against the Civil Rights Act and his vote for the Tonkin Gulf resolution, both in 1964. The statute he opposed outlawed racial segregation in schools, workplaces and public spaces. The one he supported opened the way for the long, protracted and deadly war in Vietnam.
Nearly four decades later, Byrd, citing lessons learned from Vietnam, urged Congress to oppose a similar resolution loosing war in Iraq. Byrd warned his colleagues they would regret the "war of choice" just as he and many of his contemporaries regretted ignoring warnings in 1964.
Most recently, after a career allied to coal interests, Byrd urged mine owners to "embrace the future." He said West Virginians must not deny the science pointing to climate change. He criticized efforts to vilify safety and health regulators. Coal still satisfies a big part of the nation's energy appetite, he said, but demand for coal, coal employment and support for mountaintop removal are all diminishing. West Virginia has plenty of work to do to find a "prudent and profitable middle ground," he said.