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.