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Remarks at a Dinner Honoring Senator Robert Byrd

July 17, 1994

Thank you very much. Thank you. Senator and Mrs. Byrd, Senator Rockefeller, Congressmen Mollohan, Rahall, and Wise, and Governor Caperton, and friends, I am glad to be here with all you folks from West Virginia, a small State with a lot of mountains. I identify with it.

I'm mostly glad to be here to speak for Senator Byrd tonight. You know, one of the first things I did on coming to Washington as President was to go by Senator Byrd's office and pay a visit. And on that visit, he gave me a copy of his "History of the Senate," which I actually proceeded to read, fearing he would one day give me an examination on it. [Laughter] Now, in this book, among other things, he has a very moving autobiography in which he expresses his respect for Senator Richard Russell and for Senator John Stennis because of the advice and kindness that they gave to him. I feel the same way; I've learned a lot from Senator Byrd. He's always been unfailingly kind, and he's given me a lot of information I've needed and a lot of wise counsel.

Senator Byrd also expresses in this book his friendship for the late President Johnson, and he describes his relationship with President Johnson. And I can identify with that, too. There's a particularly moving part of this autobiography where he describes how he talked L.B.J. into appointing a Federal judge he didn't really want to appoint, but Senator Byrd did. And then he turned around and voted against President Johnson on the next major issue in the Senate. [Laughter]

I will say this, though, for all of his principles, Senator Byrd believes in our democratic system enough to advocate compromise on occasion. The other day I was trying to persuade him to change his position on the space station, from "against" to "for." And he said he couldn't do that, unless I were willing to move the Capitol to West Virginia. I'm still considering it. [Laughter]

It took me about 8 months here to at least be in a meeting with Senator Byrd and pretend not to be intimidated. [Laughter] That's different from not being intimidated. This is a town where, when people get a free moment, they go jogging, they play golf, they play tennis. He reads Thucydides. [Laughter]

On the Senate floor, he's the only person ever with the memory and the talent to discuss the line-item veto in the same breath with the conspiracy against Caesar—and with equal accuracy. [Laughter] And it works, you know, I've always been for the line-item veto, but when I realized I was in league with those guys who did Caesar in, I had to revise my position. [Laughter]

In all seriousness, now, I must tell you, I admire Robert Byrd. And based on my own family's history, I identify with him so much. You know, our two States, Arkansas and West Virginia, actually have a great deal in common.

In the 1980 census, the counter said that our two States had the highest percentage of people living within our borders who had been born there. That roots, that attachment to the land, the beauty of the land, the history of the land, even the toil, the poverty, the excruciating and backbreaking work, all of it creates a strength of character that is very much needed in this country today.

In an era where it's fashionable to bemoan the breakdown of the American family, Senator and Mrs. Byrd have been married for 57 years. That's something all the rest of us would like to emulate.

In an era in which the American people are so sensitive about their need to know things, to create the ability to compete in a global economy, that I was actually able to be elected President in part by pledging to create a system of lifetime learning, I realize what an example he set, getting his college degree when he was in his thirties, being the only sitting Member of Congress ever to earn a law degree while in the Congress, at a time when he already knew more about the law than 99 percent of the lawyers in the country. He is an example of lifetime learning. The rest of us will have to do as well.

Senator Byrd once said, "The achievement of difficult goals under adverse circumstances is still very much a part of the American dream." Well, I believe that, and I think all the rest of us do. And I want to thank Robert Byrd for helping us to achieve some difficult goals under adverse circumstances.

After years of talking about the danger of the Government's deficit to our children and grandchildren and years of recognizing we still needed to invest more in the education and training of our people, Senator Robert Byrd has helped us to provide 3 years of deficit reduction in a row for the first time since Harry Truman was President and still increase our investment in the education and training of the American work force. And it's a great tribute to his leadership that that has been possible.

I don't think anybody could acknowledge the importance of Senator Byrd to our Nation's life without seriously treating, not just in a humoring way but seriously treating his voracious love of history and his devotion to its lessons. Cicero once spoke of "history: the evidence of time, the light of truth, the life of memory, the directness of life, the herald of antiquity, committed to immortality." In the 20th century in the United States, no American leader has shown more reverence for history, no greater commitment to integrating its lessons, no greater reverence for the historical truth embodied in representative government than Senator Robert Byrd of West Virginia.

His career was born in a time when mothers still dreamed that their children could grow up to be a Governor or a Senator or a President, when people were taught that citizenship was serious, that this was a wonderful country because, in part, we had a good system of Government capable of bringing out the best in people and solving our problems and seizing our opportunities. Senator Byrd's whole life is a testament to the idea that public discourse and public life can be things of very high honor.

Sometimes I think one of the greatest troubles of modern life is not the problems we have, for every age and time has its problems; not the fact that we have no absolutely perfect leaders—the Scriptures said that we'll never have any of them. But instead, the fact is that we seem so often to have lost faith in the institutions of our country and our capacity to solve our own problems. Sometimes we seem almost compulsive in our collective efforts to find the worst, even in the silver lining. And I say to you tonight, Robert Byrd's life is a rebuke to that.

It still ought to be that we would raise our sons and daughters to believe that not only citizenship but public life is an honorable and good thing and that if this weren't a pretty fine country, we wouldn't be around here after 214 years—218 years—otherwise I'd get corrected here. [Laughter] And I want you to think about that tonight, because too often today, I think, when the glass is half-full, we say it's half-empty. When somebody is giving 95 percent, we focus on the 5. And when other people look at us with envy, we talk about ourselves with great cynicism, as if all is lost when much is being won every day. If this were not a truly astonishing country, faithful to its roots, its principles, the dreams, and the institutions of its Founders, Robert Byrd could not have become what he has.

There could be no better tribute in this time, on the dawn of the next century, to honor Robert Byrd than this endowment to help educate more Americans on the workings of democracy. I tell you tonight, my fellow citizens, this is not a luxury. Understanding our system, believing in it, and being willing to sacrifice to work within it to make things better for the people of this country, that is a matter of our survival. We have not been around all this time because our people sat on the sidelines and complained. We have endured and triumphed because our people threw themselves into the breach in every age and time until the work was done.

No citizen of America in our time has done this with greater zeal, greater energy, greater constancy, and greater conviction than Robert Byrd. For his long and distinguished service to our country, it is my honor to say a simple thank you, sir, we are in your debt.

NOTE: The President spoke at 8:10 p.m. in the Independence Ballroom at the Grand Hyatt Hotel. In his remarks, he referred to Gov. Gaston Caperton of West Virginia.

William J. Clinton, Remarks at a Dinner Honoring Senator Robert Byrd Online by Gerhard Peters and John T. Woolley, The American Presidency Project

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