While One Grand Senate Spirit Wept For Another

05/21/2008 03:26 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It's a rare, riveting sight to see in Washington, one senator weeping for another on the august floor of the U.S. Senate. For me, it was even more extraordinary because the two, Sens. Robert C. Byrd and Edward Kennedy, are my two favorites out of one hundred.

Byrd of West Virginia shed tears on hearing his Democratic friend from Massachusetts, Kennedy, has a brain tumor. For all that Byrd has seen and suffered in his time, including the recent death of his wife Erma, this blow looked like more than he could bear.

They are white-maned Democratic senators who have served since the Kennedy Administration in the early 1960s, at or near the top of the seniority pole. Both are members of the Armed Services Committee. Both are feared and respected by their colleagues: Byrd for his mastery of the rules and history of the Senate, Kennedy for his brilliant staff and the social justice legislative record he has compiled, second to none. They each know how to roar on the Senate floor, as when Byrd conjures the ghost of Aaron Burr warning that if this democracy ever dies, it will happen right there.

Yet Byrd and Kennedy are as different as Massachusetts and West Virginia, salt and sand, water and wine. One is 90 and clearly frail; one is 76 and still seemingly vigorous, eager to sail his boat on the waters by Cape Cod. One was born to a young woman who died in the influenza epidemic of 1918 and raised by his aunt and uncle, a coal miner. The other was born in 1932, deep into the Depression, to one of the richest families in America. He was the youngest, called Teddy, and doted on by all in the exuberant, extravagantly privileged family. His brother Jack asked if he could be the baby's godfather.

When his brothers, John F. Kennedy and Robert F. Kennedy, were slain in 1963 and 1968, the youngest showed his shoulders were broad enough for everyone else to cry on. The senator's "hideaway" office in the Capitol has beautiful pictures of his brothers, including a Wyeth portrait. Their deaths were not only a national tragedies, but personal agonies that stayed to live with him. I think of my brothers every day, he tells friends. When his nephew John died, a broken-hearted Kennedy again gave the eulogy, wistfully noting the president's son did not live long enough to comb gray hair.

Both Byrd and Kennedy went to law school, like many of their colleagues. But Byrd studied at American University at night, as a new member of Congress, while Kennedy attended the more posh University of Virginia School of Law. The self-taught Byrd is given to quoting Shakespeare and telling tales of Roman history. Kennedy is a mighty orator, perhaps best known for his last line of his only presidential race: "The dream shall never die." He quoted Wordsworth on dancing with the daffodils at his second wedding to Victoria Reggie in 1992.

On the political map, of course, Kennedy is by far more liberal, while Byrd has inched away from his conservative leanings over the years. His greatest regret was voting against the Civil Rights Act of 1964, he has said. He will never live down his early association with the Ku Klux Klan, a shameful mark on his record which he said he will carry to the grave. In crafting legislation, Byrd was always centered on West Virginia more than anything else, bringing the bread, bacon and butter, along with highways, home to his state, one of the poorest in the nation. He likes to call West Virginia the "Daughter of the Rebellion," a name earned when it separated from Virginia during the Civil War and became a state of its own in the Union.

Let it not be forgot that when it was time to vote on confirming Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court, Byrd had the honorable distinction of being the only senator to say he believed Anita Hill was telling the truth. Kennedy voted against Thomas, but his voice was stilled in the debate because of his bad track record, personally, with women dating back to a death on a bridge called Chappaquidick.

Both senators bemoaned the war in Iraq and have little good to say about President Bush. Byrd has called him "pigheaded."

Finally, it's worth noting that both men endorsed Barack Obama, Kennedy back in January and Byrd just this month. The two have met on common ground before, but this time is the most profound. It's no small thing when the senior senators from Massachusetts and West Virginia agree on something this big. They know sensational political talent when they see it. For them to support an African-American man from a new generation and the Midwest shows these giants know how to read the future. In each case, it would have been easier to endorse Hillary Clinton.

One more thing they share: music. Byrd played the fiddle and folk tunes as he campaigned in the hills and villages of West Virginia. Kennedy loves to lead the singing at his annual Christmas party. A favorite is the Woody Guthrie song: "So Long, It's Been Good to Know You."

Jamie Stiehm is a political journalist in Washington.