Sadly, Eduflack awoke this morning to learn that U.S. Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia had passed away, at the age of 92. Senator Byrd was a true institution, a policymaker, a statesman, a voice for the voiceless, and a true senator in the classical definition of the word.
Nearly 20 years ago, the senior senator from the Mountain State took a chance on dear ol’ Eduflack. While still in college, I joined his press office. I learned how to write press releases and floor statements. I would field calls from reporters across West Virginia and around the globe (learning that those reporters from the weekly newspapers in the hills of West Virginia were far more important). And before many of those West Virginia newspapers had computers or fax machines, I would read them press releases over the phone, as you could hear the clickety-clack of the typewriter as they took down every word.
Then, a little over 15 years ago, he asked me to serve as his press secretary, and it was a true honor. Having just graduated from college, at the age of 22, I was a public representative for the senior senator from West Virginia and the top Democrat on the Senate Appropriations Committee. One of my first assignments — write a draft of an hour-long floor statement he could deliver on the historical meaning of Independence Day (going all the way back to Aristotle). I learned more in my time as Byrd’s press secretary than I have in any job since.
In my professional life, Senator Byrd was one of my great teachers. He taught me history. He taught me about American government. He taught me about the Constitution. He taught me about legislative processes and about the federal appropriations system. He taught me the differences between a politician and a public servant. And he taught me the true value, and potential dangers, of a representative democracy. I treasure the autographed copies of his books that I proudly display in my home office, and I still take great pride in the fact that I was a Robert C. Byrd Scholar in high school (a West Virginia high school to boot!).
While most primarily talk about his work as the leader of Senate Appropriations for nearly two decades, Senator Byrd also did tremendous things for education. He was a strong advocate for rural education, a champion for community colleges, and a firm believer in the value of a college education. The Robert C. Byrd Scholars program has made a difference in the lives of thousands of young people (and needs to be saved from its proposed elimination in this year’s presidential budget). And along with Senator Lamar Alexander (TN), Byrd has long been an advocate for increased instruction in civics and the U.S. Constitution in our K-12 classrooms.
He was also a pioneer in online learning and teaching, bringing telemedicine to West Virginia long before most saw the value of sharing information and engaging via satellite or computer.
I recognize that some like to dwell on the missteps and mistakes of Byrd’s past, but I also hope we can recognize that, unlike many who serve in public office, he regularly reflected on his past and learned from it. When I had the privilege of working for Senator Byrd, he would often say his greatest regret was voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964. While he was mindful that his past would always be part of the “official bio,” as we see in obits today, he did not let it distract him from doing what was right in the now. And he did do what was right, for both the people of West Virginia and for the nation he loved so much.
The Washington Post has its story here. The Charleston Gazette has its story here. And my friend Marty Kady at Politico has his here.
As WaPo reminds us, after the 2000 elections, Senator Byrd said, “West Virginia has always had four friends. God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter’s Liver Pills, and Robert C. Byrd.” Nothing could be more true.
I am incredibly fortunate that I had RCB as a boss, mentor, teacher, and friend. The Great State of West Virginia and the United States of America are better places because of Senator Byrd’s service to our great nation. There is no replacing Robert C. Byrd. One can only pick up where he has left off, building on the legacy he has left us all.