A Somber Celebration Of Sen. Byrd's Life

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At the West Virginia state capitol building Friday, President Obama eulogized Sen. Robert Byrd as a Senate icon, an elder statesmen and as his friend. Obama headed a long list of dignitaries who attended the memorial for the senator who passed away this week.


This is WEEKEND EDITION from NPR News. I'm Scott Simon.

At the West Virginia state capitol building yesterday, President Obama eulogized Robert Byrd as a Senate icon, as an elder statesman, and his friend. Mr. Obama headed a long list of dignitaries who attended the memorial for the senator who died this week.

Mr. Byrd rose from deep poverty to become the longest-serving member of Congress in U.S. history. NPR's Don Gonyea was at yesterday's service and has this report.

DON GONYEA: Thousands of West Virginians turned out to say farewell to Senator Byrd. The mood was somber but celebratory. Now, Senator Byrd was an accomplished fiddler, so it was appropriate that Appalachian music flowed through the sound system and out over the lawn on this perfect summer day.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: Byrd's casket was draped with the West Virginia state flag. It sat on the steps of the capitol. In the background, giant banners with the stars and stripes hung between the massive columns of the building. The bright sun bouncing off the golden dome made you squint. Governor Joe Manchin began the tributes.

Governor JOE MANCHIN (Democrat, West Virginia): He is the most historic figure to ever call West Virginia home and will forever live in our hearts and those of our children.

GONYEA: Then came the Senate's Republican leader, Mitch McConnell, so often at odds with Byrd over the years but who called him a patron saint for those struggling to overcome disadvantages. One of Senator Byrd's closest friends in life was the late Senator Edward Kennedy. The two spent countless hours together, over four-plus decades they served together in the Senate.

Yesterday, Kennedy's widow, Victoria, recalled how last Christmas Eve, a frail, ailing Senator Byrd made his way to the Senate floor to cast the decided vote on health care.

Ms. VICTORIA KENNEDY: I was in the gallery, and tears flowed down my cheeks when he said, Mr. President, this is for my friend, Ted Kennedy: Aye.

(Soundbite of applause)

GONYEA: Vice President Biden spoke, noting that 11 U.S. presidents knew Byrd. Each, he said, got respect from the late senator - respect, said Biden, but never deference. Biden then shared his reaction when he heard of Senator Byrd's passing this week.

Vice President JOE BIDEN: I said, you know, to paraphrase the poet, we shall not see his like again. Had he been there, he would've said: Joe, that's Shakespeare, "Hamlet" Act 1, Scene 2, and the actual quote is: I shall not look upon his like again. Mr. Leader, we're not going to look upon your like again.

GONYEA: Two U.S. presidents spoke yesterday: Mr. Obama and former President Bill Clinton. Each lavished praise on Byrd's career and his work to improve lives in West Virginia, but each also held Byrd up as an example of how people can change. As a young man, Byrd was associated with the Ku Klux Klan. President Clinton noted that it's a fact that was mentioned in every comprehensive obituary.

President BILL CLINTON: What does that mean? 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. 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. There are no perfect people. There are certainly no perfect politicians.

GONYEA: President Obama recalled his first meeting with Senator Byrd in Byrd's office after Mr. Obama's 2004 election to the Senate. He said Byrd raised the issue of his past and told the young African-American senator how he regretted that chapter in his life.

President BARACK OBAMA: And I said none of us are absent some regrets, Senator. That's why we enjoy and seek the grace of God.

GONYEA: The memorial concluded with a 21-gun salute and the playing of one of the senator's favorite popular songs, a tune that celebrates the state Robert C. Byrd served and loved till his final days.

(Soundbite of music)

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, Charleston, West Virginia.

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