Dignitaries pack final farewell for Byrd

Dignitaries pack final farewell for Byrd

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 Obama'Nationalize' Facebook and Twitter as public goods Millennials and the great reckoning on race Biden's chief aide says president wants teams, no rivals 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 CantwellHillicon Valley: Texas, other states bring antitrust lawsuit against Google | Krebs emphasizes security of the election as senators butt heads | Twitter cracks down on coronavirus vaccine misinformation Senators press federal agencies for more information on Russian cyberattack New FCC commissioner's arrival signals gridlock early next year MORE (D-Wash.), Kirsten GillibrandKirsten GillibrandDemocrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial With Senate at stake, Georgia is on all our minds Build trust in vaccines by investing in community workers MORE (D-N.Y.), Lamar AlexanderLamar AlexanderCongress addressed surprise medical bills, but the issue is not resolved Trump renominates Judy Shelton in last-ditch bid to reshape Fed Senate swears-in six new lawmakers as 117th Congress convenes MORE (R-Tenn.), Mark PryorMark Lunsford PryorCotton glides to reelection in Arkansas Live updates: Democrats fight to take control of the Senate Lobbying world MORE (D-Ark.), John BarrassoJohn Anthony BarrassoMcConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time Georgia keeps Senate agenda in limbo Spending bill aims to reduce emissions, spur energy development MORE (R-Wyo.), Al FrankenAlan (Al) Stuart FrankenHarrison seen as front-runner to take over DNC at crucial moment The Hill's Morning Report - Presented by the UAE Embassy in Washington, DC - Trump, Biden clash over transition holdup, pandemic plans The Hill's Morning Report - Fearing defeat, Trump claims 'illegal' ballots MORE (D-Minn.), Patrick LeahyPatrick Joseph LeahyPompeo's flurry of foreign policy moves hampers Biden start Senior Democrat says Hawley, Cruz should step down from Judiciary Congress unveils .3 trillion government spending and virus relief package MORE (D-Vt.), Roland Burris (D-Ill.), Kent Conrad (D-N.D.), Max BaucusMax Sieben BaucusBottom line Bottom line Bottom line MORE (D-Mont.), Mark UdallMark Emery UdallHickenlooper ousts Gardner in Colorado, handing Democrats vital pickup Live updates: Democrats fight to take control of the Senate The 10 Senate seats most likely to flip MORE (D-Colo.), Charles SchumerChuck SchumerBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs 'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate Democrats looking to speed through Senate impeachment trial MORE (D-N.Y.), Ben CardinBenjamin (Ben) Louis CardinGeorgia keeps Senate agenda in limbo Trump signs bill authorizing memorial to fallen journalists Sweeping COVID-19, spending deal hits speed bumps MORE (D-Md.), Daniel Inouye (D-Hawaii), Jeff MerkleyJeff MerkleyBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Flags, signs and other items left behind in Capitol riot to be preserved as historical artifacts Laptop stolen from Pelosi's office during Capitol riots MORE (D-Ore.), Sherrod BrownSherrod Campbell BrownBiden and the new Congress must protect Americans from utility shutoffs Streamlining the process of prior authorization for medical and surgical procedures Top Democrat pushes for tying unemployment insurance to economic conditions 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 ClintonOvernight Health Care: Biden unveils vaccine plan with focus on mass inoculations | Worldwide coronavirus deaths pass 2 million | CDC: New variant could be dominant US strain by March Biden chooses Amanda Gorman as youngest known inaugural poet Biden taps former FDA commissioner Kessler to head vaccine efforts MORE, who stood alongside Obama and Vice President Joe BidenJoe BidenAzar in departure letter says Capitol riot threatens to 'tarnish' administration's accomplishments House Democrats introduce measures to oppose Trump's bomb sale to Saudis On The Money: Retail sales drop in latest sign of weakening economy | Fast-food workers strike for minimum wage | US officials raise concerns over Mexico's handling of energy permits 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 ReidThe Memo: Democrats scorn GOP warnings on impeachment Trump, Biden face new head-to-head contest in Georgia The fight begins over first primary of 2024 presidential contest 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 McConnellPelosi mum on when House will send impeachment article to Senate Democratic senator: COVID-19 relief is priority over impeachment trial The Hill's Morning Report - Biden asks Congress to expand largest relief response in U.S. history 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 ManchinJoseph (Joe) Manchin'Almost Heaven, West Virginia' — Joe Manchin and a 50-50 Senate McConnell about to school Trump on political power for the last time GOP lawmakers introduce resolution to censure Trump over Capitol riot 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.