On January 3, 1959, Democrat Robert C. Byrd was sworn in as a member of the U.S. Senate—in the presence of three future presidents: then-Vice President Richard Nixon and Senators John Kennedy and Lyndon Johnson.
Byrd was assigned to the powerful Appropriations Committee. He used his political skills to become Democratic majority whip in 1971, upsetting the incumbent, Ted Kennedy. Byrd’s mastery of the rules and popularity among fellow senators helped him defeat Hubert Humphrey to become majority leader in 1976.
In 1989, Byrd became chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and announced plans “to be West Virginia’s billion-dollar industry.” Over the next two decades, he more than fulfilled that promise.
With the assistance of Senate historian Richard Baker, he also wrote a two-volume history of the institution—first delivered as speeches on the Senate floor. And he staunchly defended Congress’s power of checks and balances—for instance, challenging the constitutionality of the line-item veto and of President George W. Bush’s call for war against Iraq.
Robert C. Byrd remained in the senate for 51 years, making him the longest-serving senator in American history.