Speeches & Floor Statements

Floor Remarks of U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-TN) on Sen. Byrd

Posted on June 12, 2006

Mr. ALEXANDER. Mr. President, I first came to the U.S. Senate 40 years ago next year, not as a Senator but as a legislative assistant. Senator Kennedy was here then in his second term. Senator Byrd had been in the Congress since 1953. I was working for Howard Baker, the first Republican Senator to be elected from Tennessee. I noticed over the years how he and Senator Byrd became good friends. The strength of that friendship was demonstrated in 1980 when the Republicans gained control of the Senate -- which surprised virtually everyone, gaining 12 seats. Among the shocks that would occur is that Howard Baker, who was then the Republican leader -- he refused to call himself the minority leader, but the Republican leader -- was to become majority leader and Robert Byrd, who was the Democratic leader, would have to be the minority leader. I remember two stories Senator Baker tells about that incident which had a lot to do with shaping what happened in the Senate shortly after that. Senator Baker went to see Senator Byrd, and as I have been told, he said: Bob, I wonder if you would be willing to keep your office. Well, that got him off to a good start with Bob Byrd. I am sure that incident must have caused the Senate to work much more smoothly over the next few years. Senator Baker kept the minority leader's office and expanded it, and Senator Byrd kept the majority leader's office even though he was the minority leader. But the second thing that happened was this: The new majority leader, Howard Baker, said to the stepping down majority leader, Bob Byrd: Bob, I would like to make an arrangement with you. Senator Byrd said to Senator Baker: What is that, Howard? He said: I would like to make an arrangement about surprises. I will not surprise you if you won't surprise me. According to Senator Baker, Senator Byrd replied: Let me think about it. They got back together the next day, and Bob Byrd gave Howard Baker his word: No surprises. According to Senator Baker, that word was never broken during the entire time Senator Baker was the majority leader and Senator Byrd was the minority leader. I am sure the Senate and this country benefitted greatly because of the trust those two men, who usually had very different opinions on issues, had with one another. The other thing I would like to say about Senator Byrd is this: I came to the U.S. Senate as a Senator many years later, the same year the Presiding Officer came from Texas. It was in 2003 when we were sworn in, and that was exactly a half century after Bob Byrd came to the Congress. Each of us in our class made what I believe we still call maiden speeches -- our first speech on the subject that was most important to us. The subject that was most important to me -- and still is -- is what it means to be an American, concepts that unify our country. I find it absolutely remarkable how our country, among all others, has accumulated this magnificent diversity but has found a way to bind it into a single country based on a few fragile principles that are found in our founding documents and by our common language and by our saga of American history. There is no one in the Senate -- even though many of us try -- no one in the Senate who understands and expresses that better than Senator Robert C. Byrd. He understands what it means to be an American. He votes that way. For example, when the No Child Left Behind Act came up in the Senate before I was elected to this body, the legislation focused on reading and math. Senator Byrd insisted that the Senate bill include a $100 million authorization for the teaching of what he called traditional American history. Our seniors in high school are scoring lower on U.S. history than on any other subject. In other words, our high school seniors don't score lowest on math or science; they score lowest on U.S. history. Those are the worst scores our seniors have. In focusing on the need to do a better job of teaching history to young Americans, Senator Byrd is making an effort to make sure we remember where our country came from. When I made my maiden speech and then introduced a modest bill to try to create summer academies for outstanding teachers and students of American history in 2003, Senator Byrd came to the floor. Senator Byrd cosponsored the bill, and then he showed the great compliment to me of showing up at the hearing before the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee to testify for the bill. As I said, it was my first year in the Senate; it was his 50th year in Congress. So I congratulate him for his service. I congratulate him for his relationship with other Senators, his word being his bond, as it was in the example with Senator Baker, and I admire his work in helping to remind us in this body and all of us in this country of what it means to be an American. That will be one of his lasting legacies. Mr. President, I yield the floor.