Tales from the Trail

‘If I could live another 100 years, I’d like to continue in the Senate’ – Robert Byrd

July 2, 2010

CHARLESTON, W.Va. – It was a sight that would have seemed unimaginable when Senator Robert Byrd was growing up in West Virginia.

On Friday at a memorial service for the longest-serving member of the U.S. Congress, the first black American president paid tribute to a man who in his youth had belonged to the Ku Klux Klan.

OBAMA/It was just a moment in time, but reflected the sweep of social and political change in U.S. history during the 92 years of Byrd’s life.

Former President Bill Clinton addressed Byrd’s fleeting association with the white supremacist KKK in the early 1940s before he was elected to Congress.

“I’ll tell you what it means, he was a country boy from the hills and hollows of West Virginia, he was trying to get elected,” Clinton said. “And 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.”

Byrd, who once personally filibustered for 14 hours against the 1964 Civil Rights Act that lowered barriers to black Americans, in 2008 endorsed Obama for president and cited among other issues their opposition to the Iraq war.

Obama, a former senator, said he will remember Byrd as he was when he came to know him — a Senate icon, a party leader, an elder statesman “and he was my friend.”

“We know there are things he said and things he did that he came to regret. I remember talking about that the first time I visited with him,” Obama said.

OBAMA/BUDGET“He said: There are 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. And as I reflect on the full sweep of his 92 years it seems to me that his life bent towards justice,” Obama said.

Fiddle and banjo music played at the outdoor service at the state Capitol where U.S. leaders including Obama, Clinton and Vice President Joe Biden honored the Democrat from West Virginia.

They stood with their right hands across their hearts when Byrd’s casket was carried down red carpeted steps as a bell tolled.

USA-CONGRESS/BYRDThey honored the West Virginia senator who rose from the humblest of beginnings to a seat of power in Washington.

“Here in West Virginia one can’t help but be reminded first and foremost of the challenges he overcame to achieve all this,” Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell said.

“It is one of the glories of our country that success isn’t restricted to the connected or the well-born, that anyone with enough talent and drive can rise to the heights of power and prestige,” McConnell said.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid said Byrd taught him to carry a copy of the U.S. Constitution in his pocket, and that he has one now signed by the late senator.

Byrd was first elected to the U.S. Senate in 1958 after six years as a member of the House of Representatives, serving a total 57 years in the U.S. Congress.

He had a courtly demeanor and a tendency to display his oratorical skill with long speeches on the Senate floor. Above all, he was an absolute stickler for the tradition, rules and decorum of the U.S. Senate.

“I love the Senate,” he said in a 2006 interview with Reuters.

“If I could live another 100 years, I’d like to continue in the Senate.”

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Photo credit: Reuters/Larry Downing (Obama speaks at memorial service for Byrd in Charleston, West Virginia); Reuters/Jonathan Ernst (Byrd doffs hat to reporters at Capitol in 2009); Reuters/Molly Riley (Military pall bearers carry Byrd’s casket down the Senate steps)

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