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A final Senate appearance by Robert Byrd

Byrd, who died Monday at 92, is laid in repose in the Senate chamber, a rare ceremony that had not been performed in more than half a century.

July 02, 2010|By Kathleen Hennessey, Tribune Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — Sen. Robert C. Byrd was brought for a final time on Thursday to the place he made his passion and his platform for more than a half a century.

The body of the West Virginia Democrat was laid in repose in the Senate chamber in a ritual not performed since 1959. The ceremony — part private wake, part public pomp — was befitting a man who spent 51 years in the Senate and dedicated much of that time to mastering its arcane rules and history.

Byrd died Monday at the age of 92, after years of failing health. His casket, draped in the U.S. flag and guarded by Capitol police, was displayed in the chamber for six hours, held by the same wooden catafalque built to hold Abraham Lincoln's coffin.

The Senate funeral, requested by Byrd, is different from the more familiar honor of displaying the casket under the Capitol Rotunda, a ritual usually reserved for former presidents, vice presidents and other dignitaries. Civil rights leader Rosa Parks, President Reagan, President Ford and two Capitol police officers killed in the line of duty were honored there.

The last senator laid in repose in the chamber was William Langer, a Republican from North Dakota better known for reviving his career after a felony fraud conviction. Republican Sen. Joseph McCarthy of Wisconsin laid in repose in 1957, according to records from the Senate Historical Office.

Byrd's career was in most ways less controversial, though colorful in its own right. His colleagues in the Senate remembered him this week for his encyclopedic and self-taught knowledge of classical history, British monarchs, great poets and Senate history.

His constituents are as likely to note his use of federal dollars to pull West Virginia up from poverty. He spent the early part of his career trying to shed the burden of his past membership in a local chapter of the Ku Klux Klan, an association he often said he regretted. He spent the latter part speaking out against the war in Iraq.

The arrival of a lone hearse carrying Byrd's casket to the base of the Senate steps marked the beginning of two days of funeral services that will continue in his home state. President Obama and Vice President Joe Biden were slated to speak at services Friday at the state capital in Charleston.

A group of the senator's longtime staff members met the casket as a flag ordered to fly at half-staff waved in the cloudless sky over the Capitol. The coffin was carried slowly up the steps by a military honor guard and received by the senator's family, which then followed it to the Senate chamber for a private prayer led by the Senate chaplain.

"Lord, we appreciate his wit and wisdom, his stories and music, as well as his indefatigable commitment to the principles of freedom that make America great," Chaplain Barry Black said, according to a statement released by the senator's office. Media and television cameras were not allowed in the chamber for the prayer.

A throng of senators, past and present, lined the chamber to pay their respects to Byrd, his two daughters and other family members. Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, and former Sens. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and Alan Simpson (R-Wyo.) were among them.

Tourists were able to look down on the lone casket from the Senate gallery.

Visiting from Savannah, Ga., Cheryl Jay, 55, said she was moved by the sight.

"It's a fitting memorial for him to be laying where he worked for so long," she said.

Julia Love in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.

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