Senator Robert C. Byrd, a son of West Virginia coal country who used his mastery of Senate rules and a taste for hardball tactics to become a passionate and often feared advocate for the state and the Senate he loved, died Monday at age 92.
The Democrat's 51 years in the Senate made him the longest serving senator in history, while his white mane, stentorian voice and flamboyant speeches citing Roman emperors gave him the presence of a man from a grander, distant time.
In many ways, Byrd embodied the changes the nation has undergone in the past half century. A one-time segregationist and opponent of civil rights legislation, he evolved into a liberal hero as one of the earliest, unrepentant and most vocal foes of the Iraq war and a supporter of the rights of gays to serve in the military. He was the acknowledged Senate Renaissance man, who could recite poetry by memory for hours and yet be ruthless in advancing his legislative agenda — which often involved corralling federal dollars for his perpetually struggling state.
As the Senate opened Monday, Byrd's desk was draped in black cloth with a bowl of white roses. Flags outside the White House and the Capitol flew at half-staff.
Senators who came to the floor to pay tribute recognized both his longevity — he served longer and cast more votes than any senator in history — and the tenacity in which he defended the traditions and prerogatives of the Senate.
"Senator Byrd's ambition was legendary," said Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid.