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CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Presidents and leaders of Congress on Friday paid tribute to Sen. Robert C. Byrd, whom they said revered the U.S. Constitution, cherished the U.S. Senate, but most of all, loved his home state of West Virginia.
During a ceremony that lasted nearly 2 hours, 20 minutes on the north steps of the state Capitol, some of the most powerful figures in American politics remembered Byrd, who died Monday at age 92, not only as a Senate legend, but as a mentor and friend.
Former President Bill Clinton told the large audience that extended around the north circle of the Capitol that, in discussing Byrd's many accomplishments, speakers Friday had failed to reflect on his sly sense of humor.
As president, Clinton recalled joking with Byrd about his prodigious ability to deliver federally funded projects to West Virginia, and said voters back in Arkansas were complaining, "You're in the White House, and we don't get squat compared to him."
Byrd's response, Clinton said: "The Constitution does not prohibit humble servants from delivering whatever they can for their constituents."
Byrd never apologized for his impoverished childhood, but speakers including President Obama noted that Byrd did regret youthful decisions, including membership in the Ku Klux Klan.
In their first meeting, Obama said, Byrd told him, "There are things I regret in my youth."
However, the president added that, like the Constitution, Byrd had the capacity to change for the better.
"It seems to me that his life bent toward justice," the president said.
Obama described Byrd as a mountain eagle, declaring, "His lowest swoop was still higher than all the other birds on the planet."
Vice President Joe Biden recalled Byrd's compassionate side, noting that the late senator traveled ice-slicked roads to Delaware to attend the funeral of his wife and daughter, but remained outside the church during the service to avoid attracting attention.
"Robert C. Byrd was the most fierce defender of not only this state, but of this way of life," said Biden, who served with Byrd during 36 of Byrd's 51 years in the Senate. "He took such pride in this place. He took such pride in all of you."