With so much going on in the nation's capital today that looks forward – confirmation hearings, economic stimulus negotiations, inaugural planning – it's all too easy to overlook the history made in the Senate today.
Vice President-elect Joe Biden, who officially stepped down from his Senate seat today after 36 years (the 12th longest-serving Senator in U.S. history, tied with former Sens. Warren Magnuson, D-Wash., and Claiborne Pell, D-R.I., who died earlier this month), took to the floor of the Senate to deliver a "farewell" to his colleagues (Biden will still spend some time in the Senate; one of the Constitutional duties of the VP is to serve as President of the Senate).
Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y., also delivered a farewell address today, though she has yet to officially resign the seat she has held since 2001 as she waits to be confirmed as the next Secretary of State.
Biden, exhibiting his characteristic long-windedness, spent 39 minutes poignantly and, occasionally humorously reflecting on his time in the Senate.
Evoking names from the past and individually acknowledging many of his current colleagues in the room, Biden played the raconteur – telling stories about his first time ever on the Senate floor (as a college student in 1963), talking about the relationships he forged with both Democrats and Republicans (he emphasized that recently convicted former Sen. Ted Stevens, R-Alaska "is my friend") and focusing on the importance the Senate had on his life.
"[T]hose who are willing to look for the good in the other guy, the other woman, I think become better people and become better and more able legislators," Biden said
"This approach allowed me to develop friendships I would never have expected would have occurred. I knew I would be friends with [Sen.] Danny Inouye [D-Hawaii], who came to campaign for me. I knew I could be friends with [Sen.] Ted Kennedy [D-Mass.], and I knew I could be friends with [former Sen. William] Fulbright [D-Ark.] and [former Sen. Hubert] Humphrey [D-Minn.] and [former Sen. Jacob] Javitz [R-N.Y.], men with whom I shared a common view and a common philosophy."
Biden added that he eventually forged friendships with those who, for years, fought against civil rights – the reason Biden said he ran for Senate in 1972.
"But I never thought -- I never thought I'd develop deep personal relationships with men whose position played an extremely large part in my desire to come to the Senate in the first place to change what they believed in – [former Sen. James] Eastland [D-Miss.], [former Sen. John] Stennis [D-Miss.], [former Sen. Strom] Thurmond [R-S.C.]. All these men became my friends."
"Friendship and death are great equalizers," Biden continued. "Death will seek all of us at some point, but we must chose to seek friendship. Our ability to work together with people with whom we have a real and deep and abiding disagreements, especially in these consequential times, I believe is going to determine whether or not we succeed in restoring America. I think it is literally that fundamentally basic."
In perhaps the most moving part of his remarks, Biden reflected on his first few months in the Senate, shortly after his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident.
"Thirty-six years ago, the people of Delaware gave me, as they've given you in your states, a rare and sacred opportunity to serve them," Biden said.
"[A]fter the accident, I was prepared to walk away in 1973 and that opportunity. And men like Ted Kennedy and [former Senate Majority Leader] Mike Mansfield [D-Mont.] and Hubert Humphrey and [former Sen.] Fritz Hollings [D-S.C.] and Daniel Inouye, they convinced me to stay – 'To stay six months, Joe,' remember Danny? 'Just stay six months.'
"And one of the true giants of the Senate, who thank God is still with us, Robert C. Byrd, without any fanfare in late December, in a cold driving rain, drove to Wilmington, Delaware, stood outside at a memorial service at a Catholic church for my deceased wife and daughter -- got soaking wet in that cold rain. Never once came to see me. Just to show his respect. Got back in the automobile and drove back to Washington, D.C."
"This is a remarkable place, gentlemen and ladies. And as I healed, this place became my second family -- more than I suspect it is for most."
He wrapped up by saying, "The arch of the universe is long, but it does indeed bend toward justice. And the United States Senate has been an incredible instrument in ensuring that justice."
"So although you've not seen the last of me," he continued as his fellow Senators laughed, "I say for the last time, and with confidence in all of you, optimism in our future, and a heart with more gratitude than I can express: I yield the floor."