NBC News   |  July 02, 2010

Obama: Hope, Byrd's greatest achievement

President Barack Obama eulogized the late Sen. Robert Byrd as a Senate icon, party leader, elder statesman, and a friend.

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>>> want you all ton that all america shares your loss. may we all find comfort in a verse of scripture that reminds me of our dear friend. the time of my departure has come. i've fought the good fight, i've finished the race and i've kept the faith. it's interesting that you've heard that passage from several speakers now because it embodies somebody who knew how to run a good and long race and somebody who knew how to keep the faith , with his state, with his family, with his country and his constitution. years from now, when i think of the man we memorialize today i'll remember him as he was when i came to know him. his white hair full like a mane, his gait steadied with a cane, determined to make the most with every last breath. the distinguished man of virginia could be found at his desk doing the people's business. delivering soul-stirring speeches, a hint of the appalachians in his voice, stabbing the air with his finger, fiery as ever years and the decade. he was a senate icon. he was a party leader . he was an elder statesman. and he was my friend. that's how i'll remember him. today we remember the path he climbed to such extraordinary peace. born cornelius calvin, jr., corny, he joked for short. his mother lost her life in the great influenza pandemic of 1918 . from the aunt and uncle who raised him amid west virginia 's coal camps, he gained not only his byrd name, but a reverence for god almighty , a love of learning that was nurtured at mark twain school, and there he met irma, his sweetheart for over 70 years by whose side he will now rest for eternity. unable to afford college, he did what he could to get by. finding work as a gas station attendant, a produce salesman, a meat cutter , and a welder in the shipyards of baltimore and tampa during world war ii . returning home to west virginia after the war he ran for the statehouse of delegates using his fiddle case as a briefcase, the better to stand out on the stump. before long he ran for congress, serving in the house before jumping over to the senate where he was elected nine times and held almost every leadership role imaginable and proved as capable as swaying others as standing alone, marking a roll of milestones along the way. longest serving member of congress, nearly 19,000 votes cast, and not a single loss at the polls, a record that speaks to the bond that he had with you, the people of his state. transplanted to washington, his heart remained here in west virginia , in the place that shaped him were the people he loved. his heart belonged to you, making life better here was his only agenda, giving you hope, he said, was his greatest achievement. hope in the form of new jobs and industries, hope in the form of black lung benefits and union protection it, hope through roads and research centers, schools and scholarships, health clinics and industrial parks that bear his name. his early rival and late friend ted kennedy used to joke about campaigning in west virginia when his bus broke down ted got a hold of the highway patrol who asked where he was. he said i'm on robert byrd highway, and the dispatcher said which one?

>> it's a life that immeasurably improved the lives of west virginians. of course, robert byrd was a deeply religious man, a christian. and so he understood that our lives are marked by sins as well as virtues, failures as well as successes, weakness as well as strength. we know there are things he said and things he did that he came to regret. i remember talking about that the first time i visited with him. he said there are things i regretted in my youth, you may know that. and i said none of us are absent of some regrets, senator. that's why we enjoy and seek the grace of god . as i reflect on the full sweep of his 92 years it seems to me that his life bent towards justice like the constitution he tucked in his pocket, like our nation itself robert byrd possessed that quintessential american quality, and that is a capacity to change. a capacity to learn, a capacity to listen, a capacity to be made more perfect. over his nearly six decades in our capitol, he came to be seen as the very embodiment of the sena senate, prchronicling its history in the volumes he gave to me as he gave to president clinton . i too, read it. i was scared he was going to quiz me. but as i soon discovered, his passion for the senate's past, his mastery of even its most arcane procedures, it wasn't an obsession with the trivial or the obscure. it reflected a profoundly noble impulse, a recognition of a basic truth about this country that we are not a nation of men. we are a nation of laws. our way of life rests on our democratic institutions precisely because we are fallible, it falls to each of us to safeguard these institutions even when it's unconvenient and pass on our republic more perfect than before. considering the vast learning of the self-taught senator, his speeches sprinkled with the likes of cicero and shakespeare. it feels fitting, from moby dick . there is a catskill eagle in some souls that can alike dive down into the gorges and soar out of them again and become invisible in the sunny spaces. and even if he forever flies within the gorge, that gorge is in the mountains so that even in his lowest swoop the mountain eagle is still higher than any other bird upon the plain even though they soar. robert byrd was a mountain eagle, and his lowest swoop was still higher than the other birds upon the plain. may god bless robert c. byrd , may he welcomed kindly by the righteous judge and may his spirit soar forever like a catskill eagle high above the heavens. thank you