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Story pick: The Byrd obits


Virtually every obituary recording the death of Senator Robert Byrd noted the same details: that he was the country's longest serving senator, that he was known as the "King of Pork," that he carried a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his left shirt pocket, that he once was a member of the KKK, and that his birth name was Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr.

Yet no two obits are the same. In words and tone, writers play up different aspects of Byrd's life and career. The Washington Post, for example, chose to note Byrd's association to the KKK in the third paragraph; The New York Times waited until the 16th.

The Times, in its lead, emphasized the record length of Byrd's service and his having built, through "uncanny political skill, a modern West Virginia." The Post used different language to note the same points, but also included in its opening paragraph that Byrd was an "orphan from the West Virginia coal fields." The Los Angeles Times took a more magisterial tact, describing how Byrd has been hailed as the "conscience of the Senate."

The Charleston Gazette, a West Virginia newspaper, pointed out Byrd's durability in its lead, and noted that he was a conservative Democrat who "fiercely" opposed the war in Iraq. The paper waited until the 15th paragraph to note Byrd's association to the KKK, and the 16th to report that in 1964, Byrd filibustered against the landmark Civil Rights act. "Forty years later," the paper reported in its next sentence, "he said that was the one vote of his congressional career that he regretted most."

Every obit includes a quote from a friend or associate that captures the essence of the man.

"His life is the Senate," Bob Dole told The Times. "He knows more about it than anyone living or dead. He doesn't watch television. He doesn't follow sports. He's dedicated his life to the institution and his family."

Dole's take is folksier than the more academic version offered up by Thomas Mann, a congressional scholar, who told The Post: "He played a unique role as a prime defender of the Senate during the decades of increasing power of the presidency."

The Charleston paper allowed Byrd to define himself: "West Virginia has always had four friends," he said in 2000. "God Almighty, Sears Roebuck, Carter's Liver Pills and Robert C. Byrd."

By Paul Schwartzman  | June 29, 2010; 12:36 PM ET
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