The Senate on any given day feels like a time machine, as if you'd just walked back into an America long dead and buried. There is still a rule in the Senate that senators should not address each other directly, which is a difficult task on the days when so many of them want to call each other by name. But the result is a kind of forced majesty, because first you address the senator through the chair, and then you refer to the senator by the state he represents. "Mr. President, if the senator from the great state of West Virginia would yield ... "
Senators who violated that no-direct address rule would often be taken to task by the senior senator from West Virginia, Robert Byrd. Watching Byrd on the Senate floor could transport you back to the '50s -- the 1850s. Byrd came to the Senate in 1959, a dyed-in-the-wool Southern Democrat who would end up on the losing end on all the great civil-right battles of the 1960s. But what he really wanted was to be in the Senate of Webster and Clay and Calhoun. Byrd lived long enough to outlast his mistakes. The onetime Klansman endorsed Barack Obama for president. He was old and he looked it, but he relished the idea of being an artifact. He came to work every day to defend the original idea about the role of the Senate. He reveled in being able to quote from the congressional record on 18-whatever, and he scoffed at all the young newcomers who wanted to change the Senate rules because they were too cumbersome and anti-Democratic. Democracy was messy and the Senate -- the greatest embodiment of American Democracy in Byrd's mind -- ought to reflect that. His speeches were often rambling and ostentatious, but they were always senatorial, even when he was just talking about his dog or wishing the American people Merry Christmas -- and it was always Merry Christmas, not Happy Holidays. On the night that Congress voted to give President Bush the power to go into Iraq in October 1992, Byrd was in full rant:
"The administration can say all it wants. ... It can bring the secretary of war, it can bring the vice president of the United States and the president to this body. And they can say whatever they want until they are completely out of breath, and I guarantee you they will not once mention this Constitution, which I hold in my hand, which says that Congress shall have the power to declare war." He knew he was losing that fight and he was frustrated, but that was no reason to not fight it. "I have fought the good fight," he said, but added. "I might as well talk to the ocean."