Robert Byrd of West Virginia has died at the age of 92. Most of the articles about his death point out two of his most salient characteristics: he was the longest-serving senator in American history, and in his early days he was a member of the KKK.
Actually, those two things are not unrelated. Byrd was a Democrat elected to the Senate for the first time in 1958 who served continuously till now. Just contemplate that for a moment; Eisenhower was president back then. In those days, the South was still solidly Democratic, and nearly as solidly anti-civil rights for blacks (in fact, Byrd famously filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1964). Byrd was not at all unusual for his times; his more distinguishing factor was that his career far outlived those times and he went along with the changes.
In later life Byrd repudiated his earlier views on race. On other topics, with a couple of exceptions, he pretty much voted the Democratic Party line during his career. He supported Barack Obama’s bid for the presidency, was an early opponent of the Iraq War, and was most notable as a rules and parliamentarian expert and a funneler of funds to his state, as well as for his personal and political longevity. Retirement was not in the cards for Byrd, no matter how old or infirm he became; he died, as it were, in the saddle. In a system in which seniority is very important, Byrd was king as the most senior senior of them all.
I have nothing more to add, except RIP and condolences to the family. Byrd’s death will not change the composition of the Senate politically, since the Democrat Governor of West Virginia will appoint his successor until the next election in 2012 (see this for some of the finer points of that process).