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Public Statements

Remembering Senator Robert C. Byrd

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC


Mr. KERRY. Mr. President, the Senate, in its 223-year history, has never had a greater champion than Robert Byrd. West Virginia, in its 147-year history, has never had a more powerful advocate or public servant than Robert Byrd.

Like so many Senators elected before and after me, I learned very quickly how passionate Robert Byrd was about this institution, its roots in the Constitution. As all of us remember, he had that dog-eared copy of the Constitution he carried in the front pocket of his suit, and sometimes in the caucus or other times on the floor, he would pull it out to help reinforce a point he was making, even though we all knew he could recite the Constitution by memory. But he consulted it often without hesitation. In its words, he reminded us that he always found wisdom, truth, and excitement--the same excitement he felt as a young boy in Wolf Creek Hollow, reading by kerosene lamp about the heroes of the American Revolution and the birth of our Nation. Those words literally guided him through the 58 years he spent in Washington as a Member of the Congress and as a Senator.

It is fair to say that no one knew the Senate--its history, its traditions, and its precedents--better than Robert Byrd. It is all there in the four-volume collection of his speeches on the Senate, which we were all privileged to receive from him.

Every freshman Senator got a personal crash course on the Senate's history from Robert Byrd himself. I was one of five Democratic freshmen elected in 1984. The class of 1984 was privileged to share some lofty hopes and goals. Four of the five of us eventually ran for President: Al Gore, Paul Simon, Tom Harkin, and myself. All of us can tell you that we arrived in the Senate with a thirst for action and an impatience for delay. Then-minority leader Robert Byrd didn't discourage any of that. In fact, he encouraged it, and he helped all of us with our committee assignments so we could push the list of our policy ideas that we exuberantly believed we could and would pass into law. But in meetings with us individually, he also helped each of us to see the bigger picture, to impress upon us the fact that one of our most important responsibilities as Senators was to be caretakers of this institution--an institution he regarded as both the morning star and the evening star of the American constitutional constellation.

To Robert Byrd, the Senate was, as he said, ``the last bastion of minority rights, where a minority can be heard, where a minority can stand on its feet, one individual if necessary, and speak until he falls into the dust.'' Indeed, earlier this year, when many of us felt frustration over the Senate's rules governing filibusters--specifically, the requirement of 60 votes to cut off debate--Robert Byrd cautioned against amending the rules to facilitate expeditious action by a simple majority. In a letter sent to all of us, he observed that:

The occasional abuse of the rules has been, at times, a painful side effect of what is otherwise the Senate's greatest purpose--the right to extended, or even unlimited, debate.

The Senate is the only place in government where the rights of a numerical minority are still protected.

He added:

Majorities change with elections. A minority can be right, and minority views can certainly improve legislation. ..... Extended deliberations and debate--when employed judiciously--protect every Senator, and the interests of their constituency, and are essential to the protection of the liberties of a free people.

Robert Byrd also impressed upon us the fact that we did not serve ``under'' any President; that as a separate but equal branch of government, we served ``with'' Presidents, acted as a check on the executive's power. Robert Byrd was the longest serving Member of Congress in all of our Nation's history, and as such he served with 11 Presidents.

At no time in his career was Robert Byrd's defense of legislative prerogatives more pronounced and more eloquent than in arguing against granting the Bush administration's broad power to wage preemptive war against Iraq. He chided the Senate for standing ``passively mute ..... paralyzed by our own uncertainty,'' ceding its war powers to President Bush.

Robert Byrd was, as we all know, a lot more than the guardian of the Senate. He was a major figure in the great panorama of American history over more than half a century. He was a thinker--thinking and reevaluating more in his eighties and nineties than many Senators do in a lifetime. He was an ardent supporter of the Vietnam war but surprised many with his fierce opposition to President Bush's invasion of Iraq. He was a protector of West Virginia's coal industry but came to accept the mounting scientific data of global warming and took part in finding a solution. To do otherwise, he said, would be ``to stick our heads in the sand.''

Robert Byrd cast more than 18,500 votes in the Senate--a record that will never be equalled. His last vote was June 17 against a Republican proposal to prevent the extension of unemployment benefits. Earlier this year, even with his health failing, he cast one of the most historic votes of his career in support of legislation to expand health care to all Americans--the life work of his old and departed friend Ted Kennedy.

Whether he voted with you or against you, it was never hard ideology with Robert Byrd. He had no use for narrow partisanship that trades on attack and values only victory. I learned that as a candidate for President in 2004 when Senator Byrd came to my defense after opponents aimed religious smears at me. I was forever grateful to him for doing that.

It all began one Sunday when Senator Byrd was home in West Virginia and found that a brochure had been inserted in a church bulletin saying that if elected President, I would ban the Bible. Senator Byrd exploded. ``No one side has the market on Christianity or belief in God,'' said this born-again Baptist. Later at a rally in Beckley, he accused my opponents of having ``improperly hijacked the issue of faith'' and said that the suggestion that I intended to ban the Bible was ``trash and a lie.''

But Senator Byrd was not done. He also went to the Senate floor to denounce this kind of politics:

Paid henchmen who talk about Democratic politicians who are eager to ban the Bible obviously think that West Virginians are gullible, ignorant fools. They must think that West Virginians just bounced off the turnip truck. But the people of West Virginia are smarter than that. We are not country bumpkins who will swallow whatever garbage some high-priced political consultant makes up.

That was Robert Byrd telling it the way he thought.

Anytime Senator Byrd spoke, any of us who had the privilege of serving with him remember his speeches were filled with as many Bible references as historical references. When the Senator spoke, the Senate kind of came to a halt. Senators would lean forward and listen, as they did not necessarily do otherwise, and learn.

It is fitting that this teacher in the Senate, this guardian of the Senate, will lie in state in this Chamber on the floor of the institution he revered and which also had so much respect for him. He is as much a part of this Chamber in many ways as the historic desks or galleries or the busts of Senate presidents.

He ran for public office 15 times, and he never lost. He was first elected to the West Virginia legislature in 1946 and served three terms in the House of Representatives before his election to the Senate. It is no wonder that he was such a keen observer of politics.

I remember when I decided to run in 2004, I went to talk with Senator Byrd. His advice, in fact, was among the first I sought. He advised me to ``go to West Virginia,'' ``get a little coal dust'' on my hands and face and ``live in spirit with the working people.'' In keeping with his advice, I did just that. What a great experience it was.

He was deeply proud of West Virginia and its people. He proudly defended his work to invest Federal dollars in his State, the kind of spending that some people deride as pork. Robert Byrd knew it was something else. It was opportunity for his people. He took pride in the way that Federal funding helped to lift the economy of West Virginia, one of the ``rock bottomest of States,'' as he put it. He breathed new life into so many communities across that State with funding for highways, hospitals, universities, research institutes, scholarships, and housing--all the time giving people the opportunities that he knew so many West Virginians of his generation never had. ``You take those things away, imagine, it would be blank,'' he once said.

Robert Byrd's journey was, in many ways, America's journey. He came of age in an America segregated by race. But like America, he changed, even repenting, and he made amends. Not only did he come to regret his segregationist past, but he became an ardent advocate of all kinds of civil rights legislation, including a national holiday honoring Dr. Martin Luther King. And in the end, Robert Byrd endorsed Barack Obama for President. ``I have lived with the weight of my own youthful mistakes my whole life, like a millstone around my neck,'' he wrote in 2008. ``And I accept that those mistakes will forever be mentioned when people talk about me. I believe I have learned from those mistakes. I know I've tried very hard to do so.''

That is the expression of a man with a big heart and a big mind.

The moments that define most men's lives are few. Not so with Robert Byrd. He devoted his life to Erma and his family and to public service, compiling an extraordinary record of accomplishment and service in more than half a century in Congress. His mastery of Senate rules and parliamentary procedure was legendary. His devotion to his colleagues and to this institution was unequaled. And his contributions to his State and to the Nation were monumental.

Robert Byrd spent most of his life making sure the Senate remained what the Founding Fathers intended it to be: a citadel of law, of order, of liberty, the anchor of the Republic. And in doing so, he takes his place among the giants of the Senate, such as Daniel Webster, John C. Calhoun and, of course, his and our dear friend Ted Kennedy.

May Robert Byrd rest in peace.


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