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Byrd: Last chapter isn't written yet

Democrat reflects on 48 years in Senate, hopes for ninth term
Sen. Robert C. Byrd, D-West Virginia, began serving in the Senate when Dwight D. Eisenhower was president.



Robert C. Byrd
West Virginia
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WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Sen. Robert C. Byrd on Monday became the longest serving senator in history, passing the record held by the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina.

Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, sat down recently with CNN correspondent Dana Bash to discuss his nearly 48 years in the Senate, his opposition to the Iraq war and the death of his beloved wife, Erma, in March.

The following are highlights from Bash's interview with the 88-year-old lawmaker:

On reaching a milestone

BASH: The longest serving senator in U.S. history. What does that milestone mean to you?

BYRD: What does it mean to West Virginia? The people of West Virginia send me here. So I think it is a milestone for the people of West Virginia. A milestone of allegiance and faith and trust for the people of West Virginia.

On why he is running again

BYRD: Now I have the experience. And I'm going to run again. And I believe the people will re-elect me in West Virginia. And I'm telling you right now and anybody else that I may be an old man in years -- that's alright, Moses was quite an old man, I suppose. I can name others. But I am a United States senator.

I am a unique United States senator in many ways. And it isn't Robert Byrd, it's the people I serve. For eight terms, they've sent me here. And I running for a ninth term. [It's] unheard of, but if it's the Lord's will, the people will send me there. Why? This Constitution needs a champion.

BASH: You are not only a student of the history of the Senate, but you wrote the history of the Senate. So given that, what will the paragraph or the chapter on Robert C. Byrd say?

BYRD: The chapter isn't written yet, the last chapter, and there may be several chapters ahead, so we'll wait and see. I love the Senate. It was the premier spark of genius I think that the Framers had. A forum in which one could speak his or her wishes and feelings and opinions free of any king , any president, and only the people reign. And it's the people's branch. The upper branch, the greatest upper branch in the world along with the Roman senate -- the ancient Romans -- and British House of Lords.

On opposing 1964 Voting Rights Act and being an ex-Klansman

BASH: Fourteen hours and 13 minutes, you filibustered on the Senate floor against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. ... Is that something you regret now?

BYRD: I do regret my vote against the 1964 Civil Rights Act. But I saw the act in the kaleidoscope of life, liberty and property. ...

That was a different time. I'm from the South, grew up in a Southern home ... and it was that Southern atmosphere in which I grew up and with all of its prejudices and its feelings.

BASH: ... You have said that one of your biggest regrets is briefly being a member of the Ku Klux Klan. Is that something that you just think you will never be able to get away from?

BYRD: No, I will never be able to get away from that albatross. ... I've been accustomed to people asking me the question about the Klan, and I've never hesitated to say that was the greatest mistake of my life, and it's a lesson to the young people of today, that once a major mistake has been made in one's life, it'll always be there, and it will be in my obituary. I hope that's a long time off, but it'll be there. ...

I'm accustomed to being angry at myself and disappointed with myself in having joined it, but it's there. And I've tried to be a senator, and as time has gone on, I think I have broadened my views with my education and my experience, and, of course, I regret that great mistake, and I hope that young people will learn from my mistake.

On wearing 'King of Pork' badge

BASH: You have gotten the label the "King of Pork," but you wear that as a badge of honor, don't you?

BYRD: I do. I am here to represent the people of West Virginia, and they want me to serve them. My state has been a landlocked state, a poverty-ridden state, although it's rich in natural resources.

... We know what poverty is. We're not ashamed of it. I'm a hillbilly, glad of it, and I can put my mind against the best minds in the Senate or elsewhere. My memory is as good as it ever was, and it's stock full of recollections of the poor people of West Virginia -- how they were laughed at. They were the laughingstock. Yes, I'm a hillbilly, proud of it, proud of it, but I knew what the people of West Virginia sent me to Washington for. They sent me to Washington to represent them.

BASH: And to people who say some earmarks are excessive, especially in a time of deficit spending?

BYRD: The people of West Virginia, as I have said, have needed somebody in Washington who will put aside the criticism that comes with bringing home the taxpayers' money in the form, as you please, of so-called "pork." But pork to the critic is service to the people who enjoy some of the good things in life, and I've been happy to bring to West Virginia the projects to which they refer. I have no apology for it.

On voting against Iraq war:

BYRD: That is the vote of which I am most proud. I have cast more than 17,000 of them. ...

I was right. I did not believe what the [Bush] administration was saying as to why we should invade Iraq. I felt it was a great blunder. It was the blunder of the age. But we're there. Our soldiers are there. Our fighting men and women are there. And I will support them to the last breath, the last dollar. ...

I said it was wrong to do it, and 22 other senators said it was wrong, and we were right. I was right then. We were right then, and I still say we were right.

BASH: President Bush in fact still says he was right, and in fact he believes that in some time -- 25 to 30 years -- history will prove that he was right.

BYRD: History will prove it was wrong to invade another country without provocation. That is wrong. That was wrong then, and it would be wrong 50 years from today, to attack a country without provocation. Pre-emptive strikes -- that doctrine is unconstitutional.

BASH: You seemed during the Vietnam War to be weary of divisive rhetoric, and how the enemy would see that. Does the same not apply [today]? You are very outspoken about your criticism of Iraq.

BYRD: Yes, I was right in my support of our being in the Vietnamese War. I was right according to the times, in the context of the times. Looking back, we were wrong, but I supported my country, I supported the president, and I have often said that I was the last man out of Vietnam.

On evaluating Bush

BYRD: I looked with great hope upon our president when he first came to the Oval Office. I was moved by his reference to the Scriptures. ...

[Sen.] Ted Stevens and I visited at the president's dinner table at his invitation. I was very impressed and I told my wife on the way home so, very impressed that he said grace at the meal; he didn't ask me to say grace. He didn't ask Ted Stevens to say grace. He said grace; I was very impressed. He was a humble man, I thought. A man who will think of the Scriptures, a man who will think of the Constitution. A man who will listen. Indeed, I told my wife that -- my darling wife -- on my way home.

So I had great hopes. My hopes have not been fully sustained. I'll not go into that. I'll simply say that the president is still my president. I will respect him but I will feel free to criticize him by my own lights, and I may be wrong -- I try to keep that in mind. But no president is above the law and above the Constitution, and I have to say that this White House, I think, has disregarded the Constitution in many ways.

And I think the people are going to make a judgment and so will history, and history will be fair -- both to me and the present occupant of the White House.

On recalling his wife of nearly 69 years

BYRD: What a woman of grace; [Erma] was the greatest woman I have ever met. I have met queens and the wives of shahs and great women from all over the world. ... To me, to me now, this was the greatest woman I ever met in this world. Yes, she was great because she was good. ...

I loved her for 69 years. She was a sweetheart -- [my] childhood sweetheart.

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