Image: Obama, Clinton, Biden
MANDEL NGAN  /  AFP - Getty Images
President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, former president Bill Clinton and Sen. Jay Rockefeller pay their resepcts as the casket bearing US Senator Robert Byrd.
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updated 7/2/2010 3:38:15 PM ET 2010-07-02T19:38:15

President Barack Obama and thousands of ordinary West Virginians honored the late Robert C. Byrd at a memorial service in the late senator's home state Friday.

With the president, Vice President Joe Biden and other dignitaries on hand, pallbearers carried the late senator's casket down the red-carpeted steps of the Capitol to its main courtyard for the service honoring Byrd, who died Monday at the age of 92.

"I'll remember him when I came to know him," Obama told the gathering, "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 also 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."

Former President Bill Clinton sought to humanize Byrd 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."

Kennedy called herself "humbled" to speak for her late husband. She recalled Byrd voting in favor of Obama's health care reform law 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."

Vice President Joe Biden reminded the crowd how much Byrd cared about his state and improving conditions. "This is a guy who continued to taste, smell and feel the suffering of the people of his state," Biden said. "Because of that service you have gained greatly."

West Virginians stood atop curbs, craned their necks for a better view and clapped along with Appalachian music — Byrd was an accomplished fiddler — and the West Virginia National Guard's 249th Army Band playing John Denver's "Country Roads."

Byrd's casket was draped with a West Virginia flag and a bouquet of red roses.

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

Charleston's Howard Swint, said he brought 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 thought 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."

The nation's longest-serving member of Congress 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.

Byrd was born Nov. 20, 1917 in North Wilkesboro, N.C., as Cornelius Calvin Sale Jr. His mother died before his first birthday and his father sent him to live with aunt and uncle Vlurma and Titus Byrd. They renamed him and moved to Stotesbury, W.Va.

After the ceremony, Byrd's body will be flown back to Virginia, where he will be buried on Tuesday.

Copyright 2010 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Photos: Honoring Sen. Robert C. Byrd

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  1. The casket of Sen. Robert Byrd is carried down the steps during a memorial service, Friday, July 2 at the West Virginia State Capitol in Charleston, W.Va. Senator Byrd, a Democratic Senator from West Virginia, was the longest serving Senator in U.S. history. Byrd passed away on June 28. (Steve Hleber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. Gayle Conelly Manchin, US West Virginia Governor Joe Manchin, President Barack Obama, Vice President Joe Biden, and former President Bill Clinton sing the National Anthem during a celebration of the life of Sen. Robert C. Byrd at the Capitol in Charleston on Friday, July 2 in West Virginia. (Davis Turner / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. Sen. Jay Rockefeller, D-W.Va., pauses during his tribute to Sen. Robert Byrd, Friday, July 2. (Steve Helber / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Audience members stand during a memorial service for Sen. Robert C. Byrd, Friday, July 2. (Charles Dharapak / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden escort family members of Senator Robert C. Byrd following a memorial service in celebration of the life of US Senator Robert C. Byrd at the Capitol in Charleston, West Virginia on Friday, July 2. (Davis Turner / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. The casket of Sen. Robert Byrd is carried up the stairs after a memorial service, Friday, July 2. (Gene J. Puskar / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. People pay their respects to the late Sen. Robert Byrd during a public viewing in the Capitol rotunda in Charleston, West Virginia. (Davis Turner / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. West Virginia State Troopers bow their heads during a prayer at the public memorial for Senator Robert Byrd in Charleston, West Virginia, on Thursday July 1. (Davis Turner / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Pall bearers carry the body of the late Senator Robert Byrd up the steps of the Capitol building in Charleston, West Virginia. (Davis Turner / EPA) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. The flag-draped casket of Sen. Robert Byrd is guarded as he lies in repose in the Senate Chamber of the U.S. Capitol on July 1, 2010 in Washington, DC. Senator Byrd, a Democrat from West Virginia, was the longest serving Senator in U.S. history. (Pool via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. The flag-draped coffin carrying the remains of Sen. Robert Byrd passes through the U.S. Capitol. (Roger L. Wollenberg / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. A U.S. military honor guard carries Sen. Robert Byrd’s flag-draped casket into the U.S. Capitol. (Chip Somodevilla / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. A U.S. military honor guard carries the casket of Sen. Robert Byrd up the Senate steps at the Capitol as family members look on. Byrd, the longest-serving member of Congress, died Monday at the age of 92. (Paul J. Richards / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. Family members watch as an honor guard carries the flag draped casket of Sen. Robert Byrd up the Senate stairs at the U.S. Capitol on Thursday, July 1. (Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
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Video: Clinton: Byrd 'left us a precious gift'

  1. Closed captioning of: Clinton: Byrd 'left us a precious gift'

    >> say first that i come here to speak for two members of my family. hillary wanted to be here today and she paid her respects to senator byrd as he lay in state in the united states senate before making a trip on behalf of our country to central and eastern europe . i am grateful to bob byrd for many things, but one thing that no one has given enough attention to, in my opinion, today is that while he always wanted to be the best senator and he always wanted to be the longest-serving senator, he wanted every other senator to be the best senator that he or she could be, and he helped hillary a lot when she came to represent the people of new york. i am forever grateful for that. everybody else has been canonizing senator byrd . i would like to humanize him a little bit. because i think it makes it more interesting and makes his service all the more important. first of all, most people had to go all of the way to washington to become awed by, you might even say intimidated by robert byrd . not me. i had advanced experience before i got elected president because the first time i ever ran for office, at the opening of campaign season in arkansas just below the wachita and o zarbing mountains which once were connected to the appalachians, we had this big rally, and the year that i started don't you know, robert byrd was the speaker. 1974 , april. i'll never forget it. it was a beautiful spring night. and he gave one of those stem-winding speeches and then he got up and he played the fiddle and the crowd went crazy, and you 1974 in a place like arkansas , west virginia , playing the fiddle was a whole lot better for your politics than playing a saxophone. so i am completely intimidated and then all the candidates get to speak. you're all limited to four, five minutes. some went over. all the candidates for governor and every state officer and the members and the people running for the house of representatives , and there were five of us and we were dead last and i drew the short straw. i was dead last among them. by the time i got up to speak it had been so long since robert byrd spoke, he was hungry again, and i realized in my awed state, i couldn't do that well so i decided the only chance i had to be remembered was to give the shortest speech. i spoke for 80 seconds, and i won the primary. and i owed it to robert byrd . now -- when i was elected president i knew that one of the things i needed to do before i took the oath of office was go to the senate and pay my respects to senator byrd . in 1974 when i first met him he had already been the leading authority on the institutional history of the senate and the senate rules for some years, and he certainly was by the time i was about to become president, so i did that, and i got a copy of his history of the senate and his history of the roman senate , and i read them and i'm proud to say still on my bookshelf in my office in harlem in new york city today because i was so profoundly impressed. n now, robert byrd was not without a sense of humor. for example, i was the one dragging him about all of the federal money he was hauling down to west virginia . in arkansas , we weren't much better off than you, and every friend i had in arkansas said he's just a senator. you're sitting in the white house we don't get squat compared to what they get. what is the matter with you? i was getting the living daylights beat out of me about once a week. so i said to him early in my first term i said you know, senator, if you pave every single inch of west virginia , it's going to be much harder to mine coal. and he smiled and he said, the constitution does not prohibit humble servants from delivering whatever they can to their constituents. and -- but let me say something, seriously. he knew people who were elected to represent states and regions and political philosophies were flesh and blood people which means they would never be perfect. he knew they were subject to passion and anger and when you make a decision that's important when you're mad it's about an 80% chance that you'll make a mistake and that's why he thought the rules and the institution and the constitution were so important and he put them before everything, even what he wanted. i'll never forget when we were trying to pass health care reform in 1993 and '94. senator byrd was a passionate supporter of the efforts we were making just as he was the efforts that president obama 's made, but we only had 55 votes and we could not defeat a filibuster. and so i said senator, why don't you let me stick this in the budget because it's the only thing you can't filibuster. that violated something called the byrd rule. they knew he was running the senate and it would name the rule for him, and i said, you know, you really ought to suspend it because the budget is going to be bankrupt if we don't quit spending so much money on health care and we can't do it unless we offer health care to everybody, and he looked at me and said that argument might have worked when you were a professor in law school . but you know as well as i do it is substantively wrong. he wouldn't do it and then in his defense he turned right around and he worked his heart out to break that filibuster and he was trying until the very end not to get me to give up the fight because he said if we just tried we could find some errant republican who would make a mistake and vote with us. he would never give it up. the point i want to make is he made a decision against his own interest, his own conviction, his own fight and that's one reason i thank god that he could go in his wheelchair, in his most significant vote at the end of his service in the senate and vote for health care reform and make it real.

    >> now -- i will say this. if you wanted to get along with senator byrd and you were having one of these constitutional differences, it was better for your long-term health if you lost the battle. i won the battle over the line- item veto . oh, he hated the line- item veto . he hated the line- item veto with a passion that most people in west virginia reserve for blood feuds like the hatfields and the mccoys. you would have thought the line- item veto had been killing members of the byrd family for 100 years. it made his blood boil. you've never been lectured by anybody until bob byrd has lectured you. you have never known a lecture. i regret that every new president and every new member of congress will never have the experience of being dressed down by senator robert byrd and i'll be darned if he wasn't right about that, too, that the supreme court ruled for him instead of me on the decline for the line- item veto . the point i want to make here is a serious one. he did as good a job for you as he could. as far as he was concerned there was no such thing as too much for west virginia , but the one thing he would not do even for you is violate his sense of what was required to maintain the integrity of the constitution and the integrity of the united states senate so that america could go on when we were wrong as well as right. so we would never be dependent on always being right. let me just say, finally, it is common place to say that he was a self-made man, that he set an example of life time learning. he was the first and as far as i know, maybe the only member of congress to get a law degree while serving in the congress, but he did more learning than that and all you have to do is look around this crowd today and listen to that music to remember. there are a lot of people who wrote these eulogies for senator byrd in the newspapers, and i read a bunch of them and they mentioned that he once had a fleeting association with the ku klux klan and what does that mean. i'll tell you what it means? he was a country boys 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. so, yeah, i'm glad he got a law degree , but by the time he got a law degree he knew more than 99% of the lawyers in america anyway. the degree he got in human nature and human wisdom, the understanding that came to him by serving you and serving in the senate that the people from the hills and hollows of west virginia in their patriotism, they provided a disproportionate number of the soldiers who fought for our independence from england and they provided a disproportionate number of the soldiers in every single, solitary conflict since that time whether they agreed or disagreed with the policy. the family feeling, the klan loyalty, the fanatic independency, the desire for a hand up and not a handout. the willingness to fight when put into a corner, that has often knot the people from whom senator byrd and i sprang in trouble because we didn't keep learning and growing that all of the africans that were left up and left down and lived to go to church, and live to see a better deal and have their children sign up for the military when they were needed, they're just like we are. that all of the irish catholics used to fight, everybody, the italian immigrants , the people from latin america who have come to our shores, the people from all over the world, everybody who has ever been let down, left out and ignored and abused or who have a terrible family story. we are all alike. that is the real education robert byrd got and he lived it every day of his life in the united states senate to make america a better, stronger place. so -- not long after, maybe right before senator byrd lost irma i said in a fleeting world of instant food and attention deficit disorder , he had proved and so had she that some people really do love each other until death do them part. i've been thinking about that today thinking maybe we ought to amend the marriage vows and say that 'til death to us part until death do bring us back together. i -- i admired senator byrd . i liked him. i was grateful to him. i loved our arguments and i loved our common causes, but most of all i loved it that he had the wisdom to believe that america was more important than any one individual, any one president, any one senator, that the rules, the institutions, the system had to enable us to keep forming a more perfect union through ups and downs and good times and bad. he has left us a precious gift. he fought the good fight. he kept the faith. he has finished his course, but not ours. if we really would honor him today and every day, we must remember his lessons and live by them. thank you.

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