About 10,000 men and women have served in the United States Congress. Robert C. Byrd, who died Monday at age 92, served longer than all the rest - -more than 57 years, with six in the House and 51 in the Senate.
In 1917, the year he was born, the United States had 103 million people and the nation had just entered World War I. The year he died, the United States had 310 million people, with military personnel in more than 100 countries around the world.
Byrd's life and career tell us many things about our country -- some good things, some bad.
Among the good things is that he was a paragon of upward mobility. Raised in a West Virginia coal camp, he was determined not to go into the mines. Like Charles Dickens' David Copperfield, he believed he was meant for better things. He studied hard and got good grades but was forced to drop out of college.
He was 24 when Pearl Harbor was attacked, already a husband and father. Byrd worked at shipyards in Baltimore and Tampa, Fla., during the war. Then he returned to West Virginia and worked as a butcher.
But then come the bad things. In Raleigh County, W.V., he organized a 150-member klavern of the Ku Klux Klan. That led the young kleagle to politics, and he was elected to the West Virginia legislature in 1946.
That episode did not prevent and may have helped his rise. In 1952, Democratic leaders wanted him to drop out of the race, but he was elected to Congress and served in the last days of Harry Truman's administration.
That gave him a reputation for independence, enhanced when he ran for the Senate in 1958 over the opposition of United Mine Workers President John L. Lewis. He won handily, and the man who worked as a butcher a dozen years before was a U.S. senator at age 41.
As a young senator, he eyed a long career. One way to achieve that goal was to bring federal dollars -- a billion dollars -- to West Virginia. He pledged allegiance to Majority Leader Lyndon Johnson (and at his behest supported Hubert Humphrey over John Kennedy in the 1960 West Virginia presidential primary) in return for a seat on the Appropriations Committee. A good thing or a bad thing? You decide -- the voters of West Virginia always thought the former.