06.28.10

Remarks on the Passing of Senator Robert C. Byrd of West Virginia

Mr. LEAHY. Madam President, I appreciate the words of the Senator from North Dakota. I recall sitting here on the floor, I tell my friend from North Dakota, who may well have been here at that time when Senator Byrd spoke of the pygmies strutting like a colossus. We both know who he meant and we both know the effect it had, and I thank him for reminding us of that.

I believe all of us who served with him and knew Senator Byrd were saddened by the news of his passing. No Senator came to care more about the Constitution or was a more effective defender of our constitutional government than the senior Senator from West Virginia. How many times did we see him reach into his jacket pocket and hold up the Constitution? He would say: This is what guides me.

I said in the Judiciary Committee today that many of us carry the Constitution and we can turn to it and read from it. Senator Byrd, if asked, would recite it verbatim from memory from page 1 straight through.

Senator Byrd was a Senator's Senator. During the time before he stopped playing, some of us would be at an event with him where he would play the fiddle. I recall one of those times when he played the fiddle, and now his successor as President pro tempore, Senator Inouye, played the piano, playing compositions only requiring one hand, and the two of them played in the caucus room now named after our late Senator Ted Kennedy. I heard him play in the happy times and the enjoyable times when he would try to bring Senators of both parties together and act like human beings.

I have also sat here with him when he reminded Senators of what the Constitution stood for, what our role was in the Constitution, when he spoke against going to war in Iraq without reason and without a declaration of war. It was one of the most powerful speeches I have heard him give. In over 36 years of serving with him, I heard many speeches.

Others will speak of his records for time served in the Senate and in Congress and the number of votes he cast. I think of him more as a mentor and a friend. I recall in the fall of 1974 becoming the Senator-elect and coming down here to talk to Senators and meeting with Senator Byrd and Senator Mansfield, Senator Mansfield being the leader, Senator Byrd the deputy leader. I recall one of the things he told me--both of them did: Always keep your word. ROBERT Byrd, ROBERT CARLYLE Byrd, if he gave you his word, you could go to the bank with it, but he would expect the same in return, as he should. That is something all of us should be reminded of and all of us should seek to achieve.

I was honored to sit near him on the Senate floor. Sitting near him in the same room we would engage in many discussions about the Senate and the rules or about the issues of the moment, or about our families. But now I sit here and I look at the flowers on his desk; I look at the drape on that desk. Over the many years I have had the privilege of representing the State of Vermont in this body, I have had to come on the floor of the Senate to see the traditional drapery and the flowers on either side of the aisle when we have lost dear colleagues; more than that, we have lost dear friends. Party is irrelevant. The friendship is what is important. It tugs at your heart and it tugs at your soul to see it. Walking in here and looking down the row where I sit and seeing that, I don't know when I have felt the tug so strong.

Marcelle and I were privileged to know BOB and Erma, his wonderful Erma. We would see them in the grocery store in Northern Virginia. Our wives would drive in together for Senate matters. I recall sitting with him in his office 1 day when we spoke of the death of his grandson and how it tore him apart to have lost him in an accident. He had his portrait in his office with a black drapery. We sat there--this man who could be so composed--we sat and held hands while he cried about his grandson. At that time I did not have the privilege of being a grandfather yet. Today, I think I can more fully understand what he went through. I remember the emotion and the strength of it. This was not just the person whom we saw often as the leader of the Senate, the chairman of a major committee, ready and in control, but a human being mourning somebody very dear to him.

He was a self-educated man. He learned much throughout his life, but then he had much to teach us all. It has been spoken about how he talked to the pages, but he would talk to anybody about his beloved Senate. He did more than that. He wrote the definitive history of the Senate. We all learned from him. He was a symbol of West Virginia. He was an accomplished legislator. He was an extraordinary American.

As a form of tribute I suspect Senator Byrd himself would appreciate--let me quote from Pericles' funeral oration from Thucydides History of the Peloponnesian War about the inherent strength of democracy. Senator Byrd was well familiar with this passage, and with its relevance to our Constitution and our form of government. I heard him use it before. Pericles is said to have spoken this:

   Our form of government does not enter into rivalry with the institutions of others. Our government does not copy our neighbors, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as a reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition.

Senator Byrd believed in this country. He believed that a youngster who had been adopted, who lived in a house without running water, who had to work for every single thing he obtained, could also rise to the highest positions in this body, a body he loved more than any other institution in our government, save one: the Constitution. The Constitution was his North Star and his lone star. It was what guided him.

Senator Byrd was such an extraordinary man of merit and grit and determination who loved his family. I recall him speaking of his grandchildren and great-grandchildren and he would proudly tell you about each of them. I remember even after he was a widower walking by and leaning over and saying, How are you? He would say, I am fine. How is Marcelle? And Senators from both sides of the aisle would come just to talk with him.

He drew strength from his deep faith. He took to heart his oath to support and defend the Constitution of the United States. The arc of his career in public service is an inspiration to us all, and it will inspire Americans of generations to come.

So, Robert, I say goodbye to you, my dear friend. I am not going to forget your friendship. I am not going to forget how you mentored me. But, especially, I will not forget, and I will always cherish even after I leave this body, your love of the Senate.

Senator Byrd, you are one of a kind.

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