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Byrd leaves behind an impressive legacy for West Virginia

July 03, 2010

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Thirty years ago, acting out of a sense of duty that probably only he could articulate, U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd appeared at the offices of West Virginia University's student newspaper to meet with me and two other beer-swilling, borderline-anarchist editors.

The offices at the time were in an old, two-story house that, to my knowledge, was never cleaned. And if anyone who happened to work there uttered a marginally witty line, someone would invariably whip the cap off of a magic marker and write the phrase straight onto the wall.

It was into this Helter Skelter world that the senator gingerly stepped, protecting what he could of his dignity within the folds of a London Fog trench coat.

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Byrd came to the paper to talk about super colliers, massive coal-bearing ships that he viewed as crucial to West Virginians' economic well-being.

Well, none of us sitting in the room with him knew a super collier from super glue, and worse, in his soft drawl, it came out "supper call ya" and so we didn't stand a chance at figuring out his message.

I came to that meeting all prepared to be impressed by the great senator. I wasn't. I found him to be cold, a bit awkward and obsessed with super colliers. He didn't even care to talk about WVU football.

It was only later I learned that he didn't care to talk a whole lot about anything that didn't in some way help West Virginians or protect the United States Senate.

As we mark Byrd's passing this week, there are far worse legacies.

Lots of people seemed to hate Byrd, much in the way lots of people hate the New York Yankees. He always came through with the cash and he always won, even if he had to job the system to do so.

Websites dedicated to excess government spending try to ridicule Byrd, but in fact they wind up being quite a monument to a remarkable public life. Included among his "wasteful" projects are a number of hospitals, industrial parks, libraries and scientific research centers.

Say this about Robert Byrd's pork-barrel projects: At least his bridges went somewhere.

And pork, plainly put, is a spending trifle. In his half-century in the Senate, the total amount of money that Byrd spent on pork-barrel projects would have barely built even a single B-2 bomber.

Byrd had no problem with pork because he believed that West Virginia had been overlooked for so long that it was about time that it got its fair share.

As people in other states benefited from federal handouts for airports and art museums, subways and shipyards, roadways and research projects, West Virginians received precious little.

Byrd would half grumble, half brag that when he came to Washington, West Virginia had only four miles of divided highway. He changed all that, of course, earning the ridicule of people who failed to understand that he wasn't giving West Virginia an unfair advantage - he was merely playing catch-up, making up for decades of neglect.

But Byrd, for better or worse, will not be remembered by history for a few buildings and bridges. It will be his tenacious defense of the Senate that will enchant future historians, who just might conclude that it was Byrd who prevented the emasculation of a Congress that once was too fearful of the polls to stand up to the sitting president.

Asked how many presidents he served under, Byrd would snarl "none." Senators serve with, not under, the president. So it galled him that the legislative branch would cede powers - such as the declaration of war - to the executive.

As Byrd became more infirm and more dated, those inclined to publicly snicker at him were emboldened. They chided his old Klan membership, his antiquated language and even his quotations of Cicero and Pliny the Elder.

But while politicians change, the Constitution doesn't, and Byrd was the political embodiment of the parchment. When constitutional government was about to implode over a gum-popping intern, it was Byrd who stepped in to save the children on both sides of the aisle from themselves. When everyone else wanted blood, it was Byrd who warned against a knee-jerk, Middle Eastern war.

Yes, in his advancing years, Byrd could appear to be the drooling fool at times, but study his record of the past two decades and you will find that no lawmaker had a better handle on reality, pragmatism and common sense than Byrd. As all the others were watching the polls and playing politics, Byrd was the consummate workhorse, too busy protecting his people and protecting his government from neglect and ill-will to play today's omnipresent political games.

The senator was said to have a mammoth ego. I believe it. As a matter of fact, there might be only two things he held in higher esteem than himself: The greatest deliberative body on the face of the Earth and the lowliest, poverty-stricken infant asleep somewhere deep in a West Virginia hollow. We should all be so egotistical.

Tim Rowland is a Herald-Mail columnist. He can be reached at 301-733-5131, ext. 2324, or by e-mail at timr@herald-mail.com">timr@herald-mail.com. Tune in to the Rowland Rant video at http://www.herald-mail.com, on antpod.com or on Antietam Cable's WCL-TV Channel 30 evenings at 6:30. New episodes are released every Wednesday.

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