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Byrd eulogized as one who ‘bent toward justice’

Obama, Clinton recall his prowess in the Senate

President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and former president Bill Clinton at the memorial service for Senator Robert Byrd yesterday. B President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and former president Bill Clinton at the memorial service for Senator Robert Byrd yesterday. B (Larry Downing/Reuters)
By Tim Huber
Associated Press / July 3, 2010

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CHARLESTON, W.Va. — Craning their necks and clapping to Appalachian music, West Virginians bid farewell yesterday to Robert C. Byrd, their beloved senator who rose from childhood poverty in a coal mining town to become the nation’s longest-serving member of Congress.

President Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former president Bill Clinton, and other dignitaries watched as Byrd’s casket was carried down the red-carpeted steps of the state Capitol, where he began his political career in 1947. Byrd, who died Monday at 92, never lost an election.

“I’ll remember him as he was when I came to know him,’’ Obama said, “his white hair flowing like a mane, his gait steady with a cane, determined to make the most of every last breath. The distinguished gentleman from West Virginia could be found at his desk to the very end and doing the people’s business.’’

Obama recalled an early discussion with Byrd, who as a young man joined the Ku Klux Klan.

“He said there are some things I regretted in my youth,’’ Obama said. “I said, ‘None of us are absent of some regrets. . . . That’s why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.’ ’’

“As I reflect on the full sweep of 92 years, it seems to me that his life bent toward justice,’’ Obama said. “Robert Byrd possessed that quintessential American quality. That is a capacity to change, a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen, to be made more perfect.’’

Clinton sought to humanize Byrd, a fellow Democrat, after other speakers canonized him.

Recalling Byrd’s ability to bring billions of dollars to West Virginia, Clinton said he told the senator: “If you pave every single inch of West Virginia, it’s going to be much harder to mine coal.’’ Byrd responded that “the Constitution does not prohibit humble servants from delivering whatever they can to their constituents.’’

Victoria Kennedy, widow of Senator Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, recalled watching Byrd vote in favor of Obama’s health care bill on Christmas Eve.

“I was in the gallery, and tears flowed down my cheeks when he said, ‘Mr. President, this is for my friend Ted Kennedy. Aye.’ ’’

Kennedy and Byrd became close friends after a brief rivalry for power in the Senate. When Kennedy, who was diagnosed with brain cancer in 2008, became ill during Obama’s inauguration, Byrd was overcome with emotion and had to leave.

Some in the crowd came because they knew Byrd. Others came because of Byrd’s place in history as a US senator for 51 years.

Howard Swint of Charleston said he brought his daughters Maddie and Arianna to the event “to celebrate Senator Byrd’s life and public service to West Virginia.’’

Swint recalled meeting Byrd. “I found him to be a man of tremendous grace, despite his years of powerful positions.’’

Graduate student Matt Noerpel came though he’d never met Byrd. Noerpel attended a visitation as the senator lay in repose at the Capitol overnight. “It’s Robert Byrd. He’s as much a political legend as there is.’’

Byrd began his political career at the state Capitol when he was elected to the West Virginia House of Delegates in 1947. He went on to serve in the West Virginia Senate before being elected to Congress in 1953.

He spent nearly six decades in Congress, first in the House of Representatives and then his final 51 years in the Senate. As a senator, he developed a reputation as a master of the chamber’s rules and an oft-feared advocate for West Virginia.

In his home state, Byrd cemented larger-than-life status for directing billions of dollars to projects ranging from the courthouses to the FBI’s national repository for computerized fingerprint records. Many bear his name, including the Robert C. Byrd Green Bank Telescope.

Byrd evolved over the decades, from a segregationist opposed to civil rights legislation to a liberal hero for his opposition to the Iraq war and a supporter of the rights of gays to serve in the military.

And he proudly became a free-spender as chairman of the Appropriations Committee. It took him just two years to reach his goal of bringing more than $1 billion in federal funds back to West Virginia.

The money went to build highways, bridges, buildings and other facilities.

After the ceremony, Byrd’s body was to be flown back to Virginia, where he will be buried Tuesday next to his wife Erma, who died in 2006.

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