Politician who began his career as a member of the Ku Klux Klan but came to embrace civil rights
Robert Byrd's middle name was Carlyle - but to watch him during a career in the Senate that shattered every record, the C might have stood for Cato, Cassius or Cicero. With his silvery mane of hair, a bearing that demanded a toga rather than the dark suit in whose pocket he unfailingly carried a copy of the US constitution, and the speeches sprinkled with classical quotations, you might have imagined he was an eye witness to the murder of Julius Caesar. Byrd did not merely acquire a vast institutional memory for the place in which he served for more than half a century and loved above all other. By the end, he almost was the place.
In November 2006 he was re-elected to an unprecedented ninth six- year term as Democratic Senator for West Virginia. A few months earlier, he had broken Strom Thurmond's record as the longest- serving Senator. By January 2007, Byrd was the last Senator from the 1950s still alive. In early 2008, there were eight of his colleagues not even born when he first took his seat in January 1959.
Over the years he held every senior position the body: majority leader (twice), minority leader, and majority whip. For three spells, as oldest member of the majority party, he was the Senate's president pro tempore, putting him third in line of succession for the White House, behind the vice-President and the Speaker of the House.
To be sure, Byrd was not to everyone's taste. He could be insufferably pompous and long-winded. His obsession with procedure and Senate rules was often infuriating. Undeniably, however, and even by the remarkable standards of America, he was a self-made man as few others.
The legislator who quoted Cicero and Demosthenes was born Cornelius Calvin Sale, Jnr, in the mountains of North Carolina. When he was a year old his mother died in the 1918 flu pandemic and his father sent the children to live with relatives. The young Cornelius was raised by Vlurma and Titus Byrd, an aunt and an uncle who lived in the coal-mining area of southern West Virginia.
The renamed Robert Byrd was a bright student, who finished top of his class at high school. But his adopted family, poor at the best of times, had no money to send their son to college in the depths of the Great Depression. Instead he worked as a petrol station assistant, butcher and welder, finding the time to obtain degrees as an outside student at three West Virginia colleges. (Only in 1963 - and long since installed as a US Senator - did he complete his post- graduate education by earning a law degree from American University in Washington DC, after seven years of part-time study). And like many a poor young boy with southern roots at that time, he joined the Ku Klux Klan.
Byrd was a Klan member for less than 12 months, between 1942 and mid-1943. But he kept up contacts for much longer, as proved by his own admission that it was a senior Klan official, the Grand Dragon Joel Baskin, who was then responsible for West Virginia, who encouraged him to enter politics.
In 1946 Byrd was elected to the state legislature - in part thanks to his charming voters with his virtuosity on the hillbilly fiddle. Six years later he went to Washington. His three terms as a Congressman were undistinguished, but in 1958 he defeated an incumbent Republican to win a seat in the US Senate. For Byrd, it was a second marriage. Entering the Senate, he once said, "was like falling in love with my childhood sweetheart. …