Robert Byrd, Marking 50 Years in Senate, Has Advice for Obama

02/07/2009 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

It wasn't quite like the night at Camden Yards when Cal Ripken became baseball's Iron Man with his consecutive-games streak, but West Virginia Senator Robert Byrd nonetheless reached a similarly untouchable milestone today when he marked his 50th consecutive year serving in the Senate.

Byrd, now 91, busted out with some of his trademark throwback eloquence, referring to the Senate, whose constitutionally protected autonomy he has long fought to preserve, as "the morning and evening star in the American constitutional constellation," and adding, "I look forward -- yes, I look forward -- to the next 50 years. Amen. Amen."

This week marked another milestone for Byrd -- the paperback publication of his book, "Letter to the New President," in which he set down what he hoped would be timeless advice for whomever would succeed George W. Bush, drawing on his decades in Washington and personal relationships with 11 different presidents.

The book was published in hardcover last year, but was based on a series of conversations I had with Byrd (as co-author) the year before -- well in advance of Obama's historic path through the primaries and general-election calendar. What's fascinating, then, is how often the book tracks with themes Obama has been hitting in recent weeks.

For example, Obama impressed many with his Election Night speech, widely hailed as one of the best ever by a victorious U.S. presidential candidate. That night, Obama declared, "(W)hile the Democratic Party has won a great victory tonight, we do so with a measure of humility and determination to heal the divides that have held back our progress. As Lincoln said to a nation far more divided than ours, 'We are not enemies, but friends...though passion may have strained it must not break our bonds of affection.' And to those Americans whose support I have yet to earn -- I may not have won your vote, but I hear your voices, I need your help, and I will be your President too."

To readers of the Byrd book, published in hardcover last June and excerpted at Huffington Post, this passage would have held pleasant echoes of Byrd's advice in the book, in which he wrote, "One of George W. Bush's most grievous failings was the extent to which he acted as if he were the president of only that small portion of the country that voted for him, and that everyone else was somehow un-American and rude if they declined to give him unconditional love and support. You, dear president, are the president of every single American."

Obama clearly would have struck his graceful note of inclusion on Election Night with or without suggestions from Senator Byrd or anyone else, but as we as a nation hold our breaths, waiting at long last for this interminable interregnum to be over, for Obama to be in and Bush to be out, it's worth mulling over one Washington veteran's views of the challenges Obama will face -- not only this month, but for years to come.

Given the multiple crises awaiting President Obama, he will inevitably fall short on some promises. There is also room for great optimism based on Obama's strong handling of the transition so far and the sense that he is growing in stature before our eyes. Still, the White House pressure-cooker, once he enters it, can force a thoughtful man -- or woman -- to obsess on the current news cycle, at the expense of long-range thinking, let alone vision.

So here's hoping that Obama keeps in mind Senator Byrd's advice in his short chapters on "LET THE PRESS DO ITS JOB, EVEN WHEN THAT MIGHT STING," 'WE CAN DO BETTER THAN PHOTO-OP DIPLOMACY," AND "DON'T FORGET THE BASICS: HAVE THE PATIENCE TO REFLECT," the last chapter of the book, in which Byrd advises:

"One has to guard against the acceleration of everything in our culture, including thought itself. America has become a place obsessed with speed. We rush to eat, we rush to work, we rush to sleep, we rush to get from one place to another. No one wants to hear an old man complaining about being out of step with the latest technologies, but we can and should ask ourselves about the price we pay for this constant acceleration. My idea of reading involves marking my progress through a good book by feeling the pages against my fingertips. It should take some time to read or to engage in meaningful conversation, and in both cases, if we are in a rush, thinking we have all the answers, we will be deaf to a capacity for surprise. Nothing could be more damaging to the soul."