The other way Byrd sought to secure his position was clearly bad: to oppose civil rights for black Americans. He attracted attention by attacking welfare programs in Washington, D.C., with its rapidly rising black population. He filibustered for 14 hours against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. The interesting thing is that this wasn't politically compulsory in his state. His West Virginia colleague Jennings Randolph voted for the bill.
Byrd's alliance with Southern Democrats led him to seek a leadership post, and in 1971, with deathbed proxy of Georgia's Richard Russell in hand, he ousted Edward Kennedy from the whip position -- No. 2 in the leadership. By 1976, when Majority Leader Mike Mansfield retired, Byrd had done enough favors for colleagues that he was elevated to lead the Senate Democrats, and did so for 12 years.
During that time, he continually worked to learn more -- a good thing -- about the Senate and the Constitution, the Founding Fathers and classical Rome. He delivered a series of speeches about the history of the Senate that, with the help of the Senate historian's office, were reprinted in a handsome book.
He celebrated the traditions of the Senate, including the filibuster, and insisted that the legislative branch was the co-equal of the executive. He justified pork-barrel spending as a prerogative of Congress sanctioned by the Constitution and successfully brought suit against the line-item veto passed by a Republican Congress and signed by Bill Clinton -- two stands in which he had the support of his scholarly colleague Daniel Patrick Moynihan.
He relinquished the majority leadership in 1988 for the position he had set about seeking 30 years before, the chairmanship of the Appropriations Committee, and was the lead Democrat there until the travails of age prevented him from carrying on.
He leaves the scene when his beloved earmarks are in disfavor with most voters and his long-ago cultivation of racism seems despicable to all. But he embodied many of the good things in America as well -- determination to rise, hard work, respect for tradition. Quite an American life.