Carper Statement on the Passing of Sen. Robert Byrd

WASHINGTON – Today, Sen. Tom Carper (D-Del.) released the following statement on the passing of Sen. Robert Byrd (D-WV):


"I was born in Beckley, West Virginia, just a dozen miles or so from a community called Sophia where Robert and Erma Byrd had once run a mom and pop store.  Born in North Carolina, he was sent to West Virginia to be raised by his mother’s sister and her husband following his mom’s death when Robert was just a toddler. 


"There was little to suggest in those early years that he would go on to become the longest serving Senator and Member of Congress in the history of our country. 


"But Robert Byrd realized early on that an education was not just a ticket out of that community, it was a ticket that would enable him to serve the people of that coal mining community.  First, he served them in the West Virginia legislature, later in the U.S. House where he worked every day to improve himself, even completing law school at night while serving in the Senate. 


"A self made man, he never forgot where he came from.  He was proud of his heritage, devoted to his wife Erma of nearly 69 years, devoted to West Virginia, devoted to the Constitution, and devoted to the U.S. Senate about which he wrote not one, but a four-volume book series. 


"Given our West Virginia roots, he took me under his wing shortly after I arrived in the Senate, almost ten years ago. He taught me -and other members of our freshman class- how to preside over the Senate, how to conduct ourselves in the Senate, and how to get things done in the Senate.  No one understood the rules of the Senate better than Robert Byrd, and no one was more effective at using them to look out for the best interest of West Virginia.


"When I arrived in the Senate, he was 83 and still in his prime.  An orator with few equals, he could hold forth on the Senate floor on the issue of the day without a note.  He would pepper his speeches with references to ancient Rome and Greek mythology to make his points.  While he was respectful of American Presidents with whom he served, he made it clear to everyone that Members of the Senate do not serve any President.  We serve the people who sent us to Washington, D.C. 


"I can still see him holding forth on the Senate floor, waving the well read copy of the Constitution in his hand, and defending the prerogatives of the Legislative branch from the encroachment of the Executive branch whether the President was a Democrat or a Republican.


"While he was not sensitive to the rights of minorities early on, that would gradually change over time.  With age, experience, and education, his views with respect to race changed, too.   In part -I suspect- from the prodding and cajoling of his close friend Ted Kennedy. 


"For the last nine years, I’ve made it a habit to call him on special days. His birthday (the same as Vice President Joe Biden’s). Wedding anniversaries. Christmas.  I’d also call him whenever I was back in West Virginia, driving on the Turnpike there, approaching the exit at Beckley with the sign for Robert C. Byrd Drive.  The calls would always begin the same way. ‘Leader?’  I’d say when he answered the phone.  ‘Governor, is that you?’ he’d respond.  I’d say yes and he would reply, ‘Where are you today?’  If it was his birthday, I’d kid him and say, ‘Now help me remember, Leader, is Joe Biden older or younger than you?’ He’d respond, ‘I’ve still got him beat by a couple of years.’ 


"As it turns out, Robert Byrd had us all beat and by more than a couple of years.  He made each one of them count, too.  And over those years, he made life better for a lot of people in West Virginia.  He also made life better for generations of Americans who he would never meet.  As a result, many of them would have the chance to live better lives too, gaining access to healthcare, a decent education, the chance to buy a home, and the opportunity to improve their station in life, much as he had improved his own."