By Mannix Porterfield
Eulogies flowed freely and abundantly Friday like the megabucks he delivered to his adopted and beloved West Virginia in a tribute that ushered in the big league players of politics to pay respects to Sen. Robert C. Byrd.
On the steps of the Capitol’s north side, awash with patriotic bunting and fairly hopping at times with bluegrass music — Byrd’s personal favorite — speaker after speaker told of his untiring labor, love of the Constitution and an uncanny skill in recalling history and literature.
From the White House on down, luminaries honored the man who had done his homework by kerosene lamp in a poverty-stricken coal camp to become the longest serving senator in American history.
“All America shares your loss,” President Obama assured hundreds of Byrd fans who stood under a taxing sun that prompted one woman on the steps where dignitaries sat to require medical aid just before the two-hour ceremony started.
Obama told the audience to seek comfort from Apostle Paul’s farewell exhortation in 2 Timothy 4:7: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”
“Years from now, when I think of the man we memorialize today, I’ll think of the man I came to know — his white hair full, like a mane, his gait steadied with a cane, and determined the make the most of every last breath,” the president said.
Obama characterized the late West Virginia senator as a Senate icon, a party leader and a statesman, “and he was my friend.”
The president recalled Byrd’s youthful struggles, holding a variety of dead-end jobs such as gas station jockey, produce salesman, butcher and a shipyard welder during World War II, then embarking on his first political venture in the state Legislature, “using his fiddle case as a brief case.”
“His heart belonged to you,” Obama said.
“Making life better here was his only agenda. Giving you hope, he said, was his greatest achievement — hope in the form of new jobs and industries, hope in the form of black lung benefits and union protections, hope for roads and research centers, schools, scholarships, health clinics, industrial parks.”
A rich sense of humor was part of Byrd’s life, and Obama recalled a funny episode the last time the late Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., ventured into West Virginia and the campaign bus broke down.
“He called the Highway Patrol and said, ‘I’m on the Robert Byrd Highway,’ and the dispatcher said, ‘Which one?’” the president said, prompting raucous laughter.
Obama called the 92-year-old senator, who died Monday after seeing his health plummet in recent years with frequent trips to the hospital, “a deeply religious man, a Christian ... so he understand that our lives are marked by sins as well as virtues.”
In a veiled reference to Byrd’s youthful fling with the Ku Klux Klan, the president said, “We know there are things he said, things he did, that he came to regret,” but Obama hastened to add, “All of us have some regrets.”
“Like the Constitution, Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality, that is, a capacity to change,” Obama said.
“For over six decades on Capitol Hill, he was the very embodiment of the Senate.”
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Vice President Joe Biden, who served with Byrd for 36 years, said, “The Senate was his cathedral and West Virginia was his heaven.”
“If there was ever a senator who was the embodiment of his state, if there was ever a senator who in fact reflected his state, it was Robert C. Byrd,” he said.
“The fact of the matter is, the pick of the banjo, the sweet sound of the fiddle, ramp dinners in the spring, country fairs in summer, the beauty of laurel from the mountains, the rush of the rapids through the valleys — these things not only describe West Virginia, from an outsider’s point of view, and I’ve been here many times at the invitation of (former Sen.) Jennings Randolph and Robert C. Byrd, it seems to me they define a way of life.
“West Virginia was not only written in his heart, he wore it on his sleeve. He took such a pride in his state. He took such pride in all of you.”
Former President Clinton said he wanted to “humanize” the senator, since others took turns “canonizing” him speeches, standing to the left of his casket, draped with a West Virginia flag.
Clinton recalled a campaign rally in Arkansas back in 1974, a time when in either his home state or West Virginia, “playing a fiddle was a lot better politics than playing a saxophone.”
The former president said he once was “ragging” the senator “about all the federal money he was hauling out to West Virginia,” when his own Arkansas constituency ragged him about his inability to match it, although he was in the White House.
“I told Byrd if you pave every single inch of West Virginia, it’s going to be much harder to mine coal,” he said, drawing a hearty laugh.
“And he told me, ‘The Constitution does not prohibit humble servants from delivering whatever they can to their constituents.’”
Clinton mentioned the senator’s onetime role as a Klan leader in Raleigh County, and sought to explain that chapter in Byrd’s life.
“He was a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia,” he said.
“He was trying to get elected. Maybe he did something he shouldn’t have done. And the senator spent the rest of his life making it up. That’s what a good person does. There are no perfect people. There certainly are no perfect politicians.”
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Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., recalled a letter the late Sen. Barry Goldwater, R-Ariz., once wrote, advising Byrd, “Keep it up. When you get to heaven, I’m there. I want to have someone to listen to.”
Byrd’s brilliant memory skills astonished him, proven when he told the senator that he had read a literary classic, “Robinson Crusoe,” and Byrd promptly issued this: 28 years, two months and 19 days — the exact time the novel’s hero spent on the island. And to think, Reid said, Byrd had read the book fully five decades ago.
House Republican Leader Mitch McConnell, R-Ky., referred to Byrd as “a sentry in a three-piece suit, watching over the legislative branch.”
Byrd was so poor as a youngster that he couldn’t afford socks to wear to Sunday school, but finished his life with a likely never-to-be-rivaled niche in political history, he said.
“One of the glories of our country is that success isn’t restricted to the connected or the well born,” McConnell said.
“We are reminded that America’s promise reaches into the remotest corners of Harlan County, Ky., and the winding hollows of Raleigh County, W.Va.”
Victoria Kennedy, wife of the late Sen. Kennedy, recalled how her late husband and Byrd once were political adversaries but cemented a strong friendship as the years wore on.
“He was a giant in the history of the Senate and a giant in the history of West Virginia,” she said of Byrd.
Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., speaking for the state’s congressional delegation, said it was “difficult” to bid farewell to his mentor, “our friend and our Big Daddy.”
“He was so eloquent,” Rahall said. “It’s daunting to find the words that can encompass the enormity of the man and all that he has left behind.
“I believe the most lasting legacy will come from the example he set with his own life, full of lessons for each of us to learn from and build on.”
House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., termed it “a day of great sadness” and said she was thankful Congress honored him in December after becoming the longest serving member on Capitol Hill.
As soon as he became a member of the House, she said, his first speech gave evidence of what would “become the hallmark of his commitment — a love for the people of West Virginia, his passion for history and public service and his remarkable oratory skills.”
“Today we come together to celebrate the outstanding life of a man, the likes of which we will never see again,” Gov. Joe Manchin said in opening the ceremony.
“Without question, Sen. Byrd is a pillar in our nation’s history. His leadership and influence stretched well beyond the borders of our Mountain State.”
Manchin recalled how Byrd and his grandfather, “Papa Joe,” discussed the Bible in the rear of the family grocery in Farmington.
“My personal memories are no different from so many West Virginians,” the governor said. “They mention Robert C. Byrd in every small nook and cranny in West Virginia.”
Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., said his Senate partner’s tribute was not easy for anyone who knew him.
“We have shed many tears at the news of his death,” Rockefeller said.
“Yet we stand together as a people, with warmth in our hearts, knowing that his legacy will live on, and grateful that the nation today pauses to honor him. He made me — and all of us — so very proud to be West Virginians. He took such a pure joy — and ferocious, unyielding pride — not just in the Senate as an institution, but in pulling the levers of power for West Virginia, for people, for education and veterans, and for health care and for economic opportunity.”
Before the ceremony began, Father Thomas Acker of Beckley, who was Byrd’s personal chaplain, saw joy where others were awash with gloom over his passing.
“It’s not so sad,” he said. “It’s very triumphant. Sen. Byrd answered his last roll call and he was ready and anxious to go. He wanted very much to see the Lord face to face and to reunite with Erma, and he’s there. So we should rejoice.”
John Protan, who served as Democratic chairman 27 years in Boone County, knew Byrd from his first plunge into political waters as a state delegate.
“I loved him,” he said. “I thought the world of him. He did a lot for West Virginia and Boone County.”
Kathy Barker of Danville made the trip out of respect for Byrd and his efforts to improve life for coal mining families.
“I loved him, for what he stood for, how he cared for coal miners,” she said.
Barker never got to meet her hero, but said she learned of his life through constant media coverage.
“I came here to pay tribute to someone I cared about and who cared about us,” she added.
Byrd’s tireless efforts on behalf of the West Virginia National Guard won him an ardent and enduring fan in the adjutant, Maj. Gen. Allen Tackett.
In full dress uniform, Tackett stood behind a temporary barrier bedecked in patriotic bunting and said, “I’m saddened as everyone in West Virginia is.”
“It’s certainly a sad day for the state. But it’s a reunion for the senator, now that he’s going to be with his beloved Erma. The only thing that gets me through this is knowing he’s in a better place. This is a sad day for the state of West Virginia. By far, he was the greatest elected official we’ve ever had and did more for the state than anyone in its history.”
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