Insofar as I've been aware of politics, I don't think I would have cared very much for/about Robert Byrd: a conservative southern Democrat, albeit one who drifted toward the more progressive end of things as times changed and he got older. (Did he remakes himself, or did he remake himself because it was politically expedient? There are some very disgusting letters from the '40's...)
Senator Byrd was also known, of course, for his great knowledge of and interest in American (congressional) history -- and, where I know him, in its Roman precedents. I'm leery of that, too. American History as "traditional American history" and veneration for the Founders and their "original intent" makes me uncomfortable; it may be a profitable study, but I don't think that that sort of thing should guide policy. As for the Roman Republic as a model...we're talking about at least a second-order idealization (us thinking about The Founding Fathers thinking about [s]Cincinnatus et al.[/s] Livy thinking about Cincinnatus et al. et cet.). Actually, I don't think it's healthy, and the implications of The (western, European) Classics/Ancient history (of the Mediterranean) as the guiding principle for how we should conduct our public business simply by virtue of having been the Roman Way of the Good Old Days are very bothersome.
But, speaking as someone who does classics, I admired Senator Byrd's interest in the Roman origins of the United States (and I wonder if going via Rome was a way of reconciling his southern states' rights origins to the federalism of the national Democratic platform). It was a stupid sentimental ideal that was inculcated by St. Nicholas Magazine and that I perpetuated myself, the ideal of the learned senator who reads his Plutarch and Cicero before bed, and who tries to be a statesman after the examples he finds there. But that was the place Robert Byrd occupied for me.
It is not likely that that conception had very much to do with reality, but -- and I am not sure how I can actually be typing this, spending as much time thinking about biographical reality vs. idealization and examples, particularly since I am going to stick my Tacitus and Agricola icon on this post -- some part of me is always going to maintain it.
Oh, okay. The thing about Robert Byrd that most endeared me to him was his citation, while speaking against the passage of the Patriot Act in 2002, of Epictetus 1.19, which is a little dialogue between Helvidius Priscus and the Emperor Vespasian in which the former refuses to back down from either his principles or his traditional prerogatives. In one way, it's the best use of the ancient world that I think can happen in modern US politics: the exemplum serving its purpose as the encapsulation of principle for us to see and imitate. The rhetoric of using the Romans is still powerful, and I cannot say, of course, whether Byrd believed in Helvidius Priscus as a good model of oppositional senatorial behavior or constant dedication to virtue (this is not the place to worry about the fact the people who like individual Romans as political models tend to be people whose contemporary politics I find abhorrent). But. Helvidius Priscus. In the Senate of my country. Still an exemplum, after all these centuries. quo magis socordiam eorum inridere libet qui praesenti potentia credunt extingui posse etiam sequentis aevi memoriam indeed.
And that is why I have always had a great deal of affection for Robert Byrd, and why I am personally sad that he has died.