CHARLESTON, W. Va. — Sen. Robert Byrd was memorialized Friday under warm skies and to the sound of fiddles, in a service attended by two presidents, Senate colleagues from both sides of aisle, and thousands of ordinary West Virginians.
The service took place in the north courtyard of West Virginia’s state capitol and was watched by a crowd of thousands that blinked back tears, took pictures and clutched blue-and-white signs from Byrd’s past reelection campaigns.
Over the course of two hours and 15 minutes, the West Virginia Democrat was remembered for his rise from a lonely, meager birth to become a champion of the Senate and a fighter for his home state — a man who quoted ancient poets and medieval authors, yet loved to play the fiddle and fought fiercely for money to pave his state’s dirt roads.
In his eulogy, President Barack ObamaBarack Hussein ObamaBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day RNC targets McAuliffe, Biden campaign event with mobile billboard The real reason Biden is going to the COP26 climate summit MORE recalled how Byrd was orphaned as an infant and raised by an aunt in deep, coal-country poverty to become the longest-serving member of Congress, casting 19,000 votes and never losing an election.
“Today we remember the path he climbed to such extraordinary peaks,” Obama said. “Transported to Washington, his heart remained here, in the place that shaped him with the people he loved. His heart belonged to you. Making life better here was his only agenda.”
The nation’s first black president also recalled Byrd’s 10 years in the Ku Klux Klan, from 1942 to 1952. Without mentioning the KKK by name, Obama recalled how Byrd apologized personally to him during their initial meeting.
“We know there were things he said, things he did, that he came to regret,” Obama said. “I remember talking about that the first time I visited with him. He said, ‘There were things I regretted in my youth. You may know that.’ I said, ‘None of us are absent some regrets, Senator. That’s why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.’ … Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality — the capacity to change, to learn, to listen, to be made more perfect.”
A remarkable collection of dignitaries were present on the capitol’s steps, which served as a massive, red-carpeted seating area. Byrd’s casket, draped in the white West Virginia state flag, lay in repose overnight in the State Capitol Rotunda and was placed near the speaker’s podium during Friday’s service, resting on a black bier and topped with a massive spray of red roses.
The occasion was a final home-state tribute to the 92-year-old senator, who died early Monday. The senator’s remains will be flown back to Washington later Friday, and a private funeral and interment is scheduled for Tuesday in Arlington, Va. Byrd’s family plans to re-bury him and his wife Erma, who died in 2006, at a later date in West Virginia.
In deference to Byrd’s love of music and his acuity with the fiddle, the service was sprinkled with music: A solemn performance of patriotic tunes by a military band, a spry burst of fiddle, a bagpipe rendition of “Amazing Grace” — and capping the ceremony, a singalong performance of John Denver’s “Take Me Home, Country Roads.”
Among a long list of senators in attendance: Chris Dodd (D-Conn.), Richard Lugar (R-Ind.), Maria CantwellMaria Elaine CantwellDemocrats haggle as deal comes into focus Democrats say they have path to deal on climate provisions in spending bill Infrastructure bill carves out boosts to first responders, wildland firefighters MORE (D-Wash.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandPaid family leave proposal at risk Which proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? Proposals to reform supports for parents face chopping block MORE (D-N.Y.), Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderMcConnell gets GOP wake-up call The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Alibaba - Democrats return to disappointment on immigration Authorities link ex-Tennessee governor to killing of Jimmy Hoffa associate MORE (R-Tenn.), Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorBottom line Everybody wants Joe Manchin Cotton glides to reelection in Arkansas MORE (D-Ark.), John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoSenate appears poised to advance first Native American to lead National Park Service Sunday shows preview: Senate votes to raise debt ceiling; Facebook whistleblower blasts company during testimony The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by Facebook - After high drama, Senate lifts debt limit MORE (R-Wyo.), Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenFranken targets senators from both parties in new comedy tour Al Franken on another Senate run: 'I'm keeping my options open' Andrew Cuomo and the death of shame MORE (D-Minn.), Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by the American Petroleum Institute — Democrats address reports that clean energy program will be axed Overnight Health Care — Presented by Carequest — Colin Powell's death highlights risks for immunocompromised On The Money — Democrats tee up Senate spending battles with GOP MORE (D-Vt.), Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusBiden nominates Nicholas Burns as ambassador to China Cryptocurrency industry lobbies Washington for 'regulatory clarity' Bottom line MORE (D-Mont.), Mark UdallMark Emery UdallKennedy apologizes for calling Haaland a 'whack job' OVERNIGHT ENERGY: Haaland courts moderates during tense confirmation hearing | GOP's Westerman looks to take on Democrats on climate change | White House urges passage of House public lands package Udalls: Haaland criticism motivated 'by something other than her record' MORE (D-Colo.), Charles SchumerChuck SchumerPricing methane and carbon emissions will help US meet the climate moment Democratic senator: Methane fee could be 'in jeopardy' Manchin jokes on party affiliation: 'I don't know where in the hell I belong' MORE (D-N.Y.), Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinIt's time to make access to quality kidney care accessible and equitable for all Charity game lets users bet on elections Progressives push back on decision to shrink Biden's paid family leave program MORE (D-Md.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyDemocrats haggle as deal comes into focus Democrats ready to put a wrap on dragged-out talks Glasgow summit raises stakes for Biden deal MORE (D-Ore.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownWhen the Fed plays follow the leader, it steers us all toward inflation Which proposals will survive in the Democrats' spending plan? Senate Democrats call for diversity among new Federal Reserve Bank presidents MORE (D-Ohio) and Arlen Specter (D-Pa.). Many wore hats and sunglasses to fend off the glaring sun.
Former President Bill ClintonWilliam (Bill) Jefferson ClintonBiden needs to be both Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside Republican spin on Biden is off the mark Bill Clinton shares video update after release from hospital MORE, who stood alongside Obama and Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenBiden invokes Trump in bid to boost McAuliffe ahead of Election Day Business lobby calls for administration to 'pump the brakes' on vaccine mandate Overnight Defense & National Security — Presented by Boeing — Afghanistan reckoning shows no signs of stopping MORE on the state capitol’s front steps, paid tribute to a senator who was often his adversary, recalling fights with Byrd over funding issues, the filibuster and the line-item veto during Clinton’s presidency. Yet, Clinton said he “loved our arguments and I loved our common causes.”
“Until Bob Byrd had lectured you, you’ve never known a lecture,” Clinton said. “I regret that every new president and every new member of Congress will never have the experience of being dressed down by Sen. Robert Byrd. He did as good a job for you as he could. As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as ‘too much’ for West Virginia. But the one thing he would not do even for you is violate his sense of what was required to maintain the integrity of the Constitution and the U.S. Senate.”
Clinton also referenced Byrd’s tenure in the Klan, the only speaker to reference the group by name.
“He was a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia. He was trying to get elected,” Clinton said. “Maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done. And he spent the rest of his life making it up. And that’s what a good person does. There are no perfect people. There are certainly no perfect politicians.”
Biden, who delivered the longest eulogy at 22 minutes, recalled how Byrd as majority leader was riled by a vote Biden made against mining interests. Byrd took a roll call sheet, drew a red circle around Biden’s name and vote, and screwed it into the door frame of his office — at eye-level for anyone who entered or left the office.
But Biden also remembered how Byrd traveled to Wilmington in 1972 to attend the funeral of Biden’s first wife and son, stood outside the crowded church in a driving rain and refused to come inside for fear of displacing someone else.
“He traveled a hard path in life, but he devoted his life to making that hard path a little easier for those who followed,” Biden said. “This is a guy who continued to taste and smell and feel the suffering of the people of his state. He tasted it. That’s why it was so deeply ingrained in him.”
Senate Majority Leader Harry ReidHarry Mason ReidHarry Reid calls on Democrats to plow forward on immigration Democrats brace for tough election year in Nevada The Memo: Biden's horizon is clouded by doubt MORE (D-Nev.) recalled how Byrd told a Charleston newspaper reporter in 1959, when asked about his aspirations, that he hoped to become the Senate’s Appropriations Committee chairman.
“Why did he dream that dream? Why didn’t he aspire to the White House, or the Governor’s Mansion, or any other high office?” Biden said. “It’s because Robert Byrd knew it was from that chair that he could best help his neighbors back home. He knew that was his first and most important job as their representative in the Senate. And of course — just as he’d predicted — Robert Byrd did indeed live long enough to hold the gavel he coveted.”
Rockefeller, Byrd’s home state colleague, spoke in a sometimes-wavering voice, recalling that in Byrd’s later years when speech was difficult, he would simply take Rockefeller’s hand and press it to his cheek in affection.
“Robert C. Byrd reached great heights because of the purity of his purpose and the depth of his determination,” said Rockefeller, who was in the Senate with Byrd for 25 years, since Rockefeller’s 1985 election. “He made me and all of us so proud to be West Virginians. He took such pure joy and ferocious, unyielding pride not just in the Senate as an institution, but, frankly, in pulling the levers of power for West Virginia — for people, for education, for health care, for veterans, for opportunity.”
Victoria Kennedy, the widow of the late Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.) came to Friday’s service to represent her husband, one of Byrd’s closest friends. Byrd delivered a tearful floor speech upon learning of Kennedy’s brain cancer, attended a brief memorial service for him on the Capitol steps as Kennedy’s hearse departed for burial, and dedicated his Dec. 2009 vote for healthcare reform to Kennedy’s memory.
“Briefly foes, they became the best of friends,” she said of the relationship between the two senators. “Robert Byrd moved with our country, and he moved our country forward. As the years passed, they were together in the quest for civil rights and equal rights. His friend Teddy had no patience for those who focused on a distant past instead of the Robert Byrd who, day after day at the center of our democracy, was giving heart, hand and his peerless parliamentary command to help those left behind.”
The only Republican to speak during Friday’s service was Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnellAddison (Mitch) Mitchell McConnellManchin backs raising debt ceiling with reconciliation if GOP balks Biden needs to be both Mr. Inside and Mr. Outside Billionaire tax gains momentum MORE (Ky.), who delivered warm remarks that honored Byrd’s humility. McConnell said Byrd was never embarrassed by his poor birth, but rather wore it with pride.
“It is one of the glories of our country that success isn’t restricted to the connected or the well-born,” McConnell said. “That anyone with enough talent and drive can rise to the heights of power and prestige. … The glory of our nation is reaffirmed every time a man or woman overcomes what some call disadvantages to achieve great things. And Robert Byrd may well be their patron saint.”
Several speakers on Friday referenced Byrd’s remarkable memory and life-long quest for learning. Biden said Byrd once shocked the Queen of England at a state dinner by reciting the entire ancestry of the Tudor royal family. And Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) remembered Byrd once quoted the Bible, Shakespeare, Rudyard Kipling and Sen. Daniel Webster — in a speech about world trade.
But West Virginia Gov. Joe ManchinJoe ManchinOvernight Energy & Environment — Presented by American Clean Power — Dems see path to deal on climate provisions Overnight On The Money — Senate Democrats lay out their tax plans Overnight Health Care — Presented by Altria — FDA advisers endorse Pfizer vaccine for kids MORE (D), who will appoint Byrd’s successor, said Byrd simply did more for the state than perhaps any other politician in Mountain State history, calling him “the architect of Appalachia.”
“When he launched a career in public service some 60-plus years ago, our state was a blank canvas, untouched by the colors of the modern ways of life,” Manchin said. “Sen. Byrd brought that blank canvas to life, using broad optimism and a can-do spirit that resonated throughout the hills of West Virginia. … No one, no one, can replace our senator.”
— An earlier version of this story was posted at 12:28 p.m.