After more than four decades of public service, U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.) delivered his farewell remarks on the Senate floor today.
“Grace and I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support,” Nelson said. “I stand before you today and I don’t think anyone could have been more blessed.”
“It’s not easy when you take your leave from the people that you love, and the work that you love,” Nelson told his colleagues who had assembled in the chamber to hear his final speech, “and it causes a time of intense reflection.”
Nelson took a moment to reflect on the weeks leading up to his eventual launch onboard the Space Shuttle Columbia in 1986. He and his crew were scrubbed four times before they successfully launched from the Kennedy Space Center on Jan. 12, 1986. As Nelson explained, when NASA engineers examined the shuttle after each of those four unsuccessful attempts, they determined that all of them would have likely ended in a catastrophic loss for the shuttle and its crew had the flights not been aborted.
“Why was I spared?” Nelson asked. “Now, upon intense reflection, I think I’m beginning to see. Because it has been the great honor of my life to serve our country and the people of Florida.”
“We still have much work to do,” Nelson told his colleagues. “We need now, more than ever, to focus on building the kind of relationships here in Washington that can solve the great problems that our nation faces. And I caution our colleagues, and I caution those who will join this body, to resist the pulls of partisan acrimony and the forces that seek to divide us.”
“So, my parting words are that there’s no greater challenge for this Senate than to have the moral courage to choose country, over party, or over power.” Nelson said. “There are a great many challenges that our country faces, and I call upon all of those of you who serve in this senate to act with moral courage when these obligations come calling in the future. As I depart, I’m putting my trust in you.”
Nelson then concluded his final speech on the floor of the Senate by saying:
“I leave this Senate today filled with hope for the future and the fondest memories of my fellowship with great friends here. But I admit, it is hard to leave the friends and the work that I love.
“I intend to keep fighting for all that I’ve talked about in this short final speech, and I intend to keep fighting for Florida. When it comes down to it, I’m just a country boy who loved serving my state and our country for all of my life.
“It’s been an incredible honor.”
Following is a rush transcript of his remarks and here’s a link to watch video of his speech.
U.S. Sen. Bill Nelson
Remarks on the Senate Floor
December 12, 2018
Sen. Nelson: Madam president, this is my farewell speech, and I thought it would do well to think back to the very first speech that I gave on the floor, my maiden speech. My maiden speech was about a couple of months after first time being sworn in. I had waited back then — this is 18 years ago.
It was appropriate for freshman senators to wait a while. Don’t speak up right away. So I waited two or three months until it felt like it was the appropriate time. And I remember there was nobody out here. It was an empty chamber, and in the course of this speech — and I picked the topic of the day. I think we were trying to balance the budget at the time, something that 18 years later we’re still trying to do. And then in the course of the speech, I mentioned that it was my maiden speech. Nobody out here except the presiding officer. All of a sudden those doors swing open right there. And then in strides senator Robert Byrd. I was standing at a desk over there on the other side, and senator Byrd’s seat was either here or here. And so I finished my speech. And he says, will the senator from Florida yield. Of course I will yield. And Senator Byrd for 30 minutes gives an oration on the history of maiden speeches in the united States senate. So you can imagine that nothing I said was memorable, but it was certainly memorable to this senator that all of a sudden I would be treated to the corporate knowledge of on the lie — one of the lions of the senate in looking back at the history of this body.
I want you to know that I’m a Florida boy. My family came to Florida from Denmark in 1829. For those of you from the northeast, so many people come to Florida from the northeast. Well, my great-grandfather was a sailor, a teenager on a sailing ship, and he ended up in New York in a barroom brawl. He was frightened that he was going to be arrested. So he ran to hide. He ran down to the wharf. He hid in a ship. And the ship cast off for port St. Joe, Florida, in 1829. So, you see, my family came to Florida from New York also. Five generations. Another side — on the other side of the family, I have a deed signed by Woodrow Wilson in 1917 to my grandparents after they had worked the land for the required four years, under the homestead act, the government would deed you 160 acres of land. It’s the act that pushed the frontier so much further into the hinterlands and we especially think of it westward. That was also southward. That 160 acres of land is today at the north end of the space shuttle runway at the Kennedy space center. And I cannot imagine in that four-year period my grandparents swatting mosquitoes and fending off alligators and rattlesnakes, scratching out of the hard Earth a land a living that they could survive. And yet that’s the hearty stock from which this senator comes.
Grace and I have been overwhelmed by the outpouring of support. I stand before you today and I don’t think anyone could have been more blessed. It’s not easy when you take your leave from the people that you love and the work that you love, and it causes a time of intense reflection.
And so I reflected back to the time in late 1985 in a series of events over the course of the next few weeks, a tense time on the first launch attempt of the 24th flight of the space shuttle. We went down to T minus 8 seconds. I had braced my body for the ignition of the main engines at T minus 6.6. And all of a sudden I heard them calling over the intercom, we’ve stopped the count. We’re recycling. That launch was scrubbed that there was an indication by a sensor T gimling motor on the thrusters of the solid rocket boosters was malfunctioning. And had that been the case, 9 seconds later we would not be going straight up. We would have been cartwheeling.
So we were led off for Christmas. Came back into quarantine in the latter part of December and tried the next launch attempt only to go down to 31 seconds. And the count stopped and an alert supervisor on the consoles of the launch center had noticed that the lock slide was getting too cold. And they checked. A mistaken override of the computer had occurred, and 18,000 pounds of liquid oxygen had been drained. And had we launched 31 seconds later, we would not have had enough fuel to get to orbit, and it would have caused the greatest of the ability of our commander, a Navy now captain retired Robert Gibson to land a fully loaded spacecraft on a short runway at the car Senegal or Morone, Spain. So we tried the third time. This time the count was called off for some external reason. Each of these times we’re in — strapped in, ready to go. And at this point I think it was the weather was not cooperating over in Africa. So it’s called off. What they found out that night when they drained the tanks, they found that a temperature probe on the ground support equipment had flowed through the oxygen line and flowed into the vehicle and was stuck in a prevalve right next to one of the three main engines.
Had we launched that morning, the fourth try, in this case the third try, we would have gotten to orbit, time for main engine cutoff and one of the three engines would not have cutoff. It would have blown the rear end of the orbiter apart. So now, a few days later, it’s a Friday. We try for the fourth time. And this time we’re in the middle of a driving Florida rainstorm. We run from the crew van to the launch tower to get into the elevator out of the pouring rain. We’re strapped in ready to go waiting for a hole to punch through and now the rainstorm has turned into a driving Florida lightning storm. And we’re sitting on top of all that liquid hydrogen. And so they finally call off the launch the fourth try. And the fifth try Sunday morning, it’s a beautiful day, we launch into an almost flawless six-day mission only to return to Earth and ten days later challenger launches and blows up high in the Florida sky. Under circumstances of cold weather that almost exactly duplicated the first launch attempt back on December 19. Intense reflection.
Why was I spared?
Now upon intense reflection, I think I’m beginning to see. Because it has been the great honor of my life to serve our country and the people of Florida. First in the army. Then in the state legislature. Then in the congress, as state treasury and now 18 years in the Senate.
I’ve tried to serve our country admirably and with integrity. Because I believe that a public office is a public trust.
And through this journey I have been so fortunate to have experienced so many unique corners of this country that all of us here love. I’ve seen the sunshine through the pine trees, the oaks, and the Orange groves of Florida. I’ve hunted alligators and pythons in the everglades. I’ve jogged the sands of just about every Florida beach from Pensacola to the keys. And, of course, I strapped in to a million pounds to launch to the heavens and to see our planet from a way that very few others have.
You’ve heard me talk about that as I describe our environment and how beautiful this planet is from the window of a spacecraft.
And of course these experiences in this country, it’s the American people. It’s every one of us.
It’s our fellow citizens, the teachers, the soldiers, the factory workers, the moms, the dads, the students, the farmers, those are the ones that have inspired me to dedicate a life to public service. And those folks have been my strength. As they or of ten your strength.
As they are often your it’s the person people who have kept me going for the past 46 years of public service. And while I have experienced the highs and lows of serving in the senate, it is often the small, unnoticed steps toward progress that have made this journey worthwhile. I am most happy with some of the work that’s been done to help individuals. I want to mention just a few.
To Christine Levinson and her family, we’ve worked tirelessly to bring Bob Levinson home. I have come to this floor for 11 years and said that if Iran does not have Bob, they know where to find him. It’s our responsibility to see that Bob, a man who served this country and the F.B.I. For 30 years, is finally reunited with his wife and seven children and his grandchildren.
Another example, it’s been a pleasure to work with Rochelle Hamm of Jacksonville and the family of crew members who perished at sea when their cargo ship sank while sailing into the path of a hurricane in 2015.
And as a result of that terrible tragedy, we’re able to enact into law key maritime safety reforms, including requiring ocean-going vessels to be outfitted with distress beacons and equipment to locate lost seafarers. There are many ways to get things done around here. Sometimes it requires the bully pulpit and confronting people to correct an injustice. And you notice, these, as I said, are often little things that people don’t notice a lot.
Take the case of Bob “Peach Head” Mitchell of Tampa who was a part of the Negro League of baseball, and he fought for years to get major league baseball to provide compensation to former Negro league ballplayers who were excluded from the majors balls of their race. And yet they were some of the best players. And when Jackie Robinson integrated the majors in 1947, the rest of the majors were not integrated until 1959. And all those Negro league players were still playing, and they never got the compensation. It took three years of cajoling and haranguing to get the major league baseball commissioner to do the right thing and give the elderly former ballplayers their due.
Then Sam Snow comes to mind, who for most of his life had paid a terrible price for the injustice done when the army wrongfully convicted him and 27 other black soldiers participating in a 1944 riot in Seattle that resulted in the lynching of an Italian prisoner of war. And when the army finally admitted its mistake some decades later, they refused to give those soldiers compensation for their lost pay and the time they spent in prison. And once I heard about it, I kept on the army until they paid the veterans their back pay, plus interest.
So we all deal in legislation. So as for the business of legislation, think about some of the things that we wrote. We in Florida wrote legislation protecting Florida’s beaches. Our tourism-driven economy, and our wildlife from the dangers of offshore oil drilling. We passed — we, the democratic caucus, passed groundbreaking legislation that medically insured folks in this country, and that was 22 million Americans in this country and in my state over 1.7 million people. We ensured that they had health care and health insurance. And, interestingly, because of the protection on preexisting conditions, just in the state of Florida alone, 8 million people have preexisting conditions, and they are now protected because of the law, and it also eliminated the lifetime caps on coverage. And know the fights — and you know the fights we’ve had.
Ever since we started that day in the finance committee, after the dog days of August when you couldn’t have a town hall meeting in 2009 because of the disruptions, and we came in September in the finance committee and wrote that bill and it took every member of the democratic caucus, 60-strong then, to be able to pass it. And now millions and millions of people have health insurance that never had it before. And untold millions more that have a preexisting condition are protected.
We wrote the blueprint that has reinvigorated our space program and brought new space companies and high-paying jobs to our country and to Florida. In our lifetime, we are going to see humankind set foot on other celestial bodies beside the moon, and that legislation could not have been passed without a bipartisan effort.
We fought to help folks get the resources they need to recover in the aftermath of major hurricanes that savaged people’s lives and property, and we worked to make higher education more affordable by capping interest rates for student loans, and we’ve secured billions of dollars of funding for projects all over America to preserve the environment and will help restore and is restoring Florida’s environmental treasure, the everglades. And the list goes on and on.
But the setbacks temper the successes. We’ve seen constant attempts to disenfranchise voters and to make it more difficult for every American to have their voice heard at the ballot box. And then, of course, the court’s 2010 decision opened the floodgates and allowed the wealthiest Americans to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence our elections and corrupt our democracy.
And what has happened? What in the world has happened to civility and to humility in our nation’s public discourse? Where are our servant leaders who seek to serve instead of being served?
So we still have much work to do.
We need now, more than ever, to focus on building the kind of relationships here in Washington that can solve the great problems that our nation faces. And I caution our colleagues and I caution those who will join this body to resist the pulls of partisan acrimony and the forces that seek to divide us. Tribalism is our problem. And if not corrected, it’s going to take our country down. And I know I’m just another senator saying what a lot of senators that are departing are saying.
As we all here remember right over at that desk there, John McCain in one of his last Senate addresses that he could stand said the same thing.
Now, some of my fondest memories in the senate have been with those who sit on the other side of that center aisle, and because of this, I know that while Republicans and Democrats may disagree on policy, we have a lot to unify us in our values and principles that we share.
And so my parting words are that there’s no greater challenge for this senate than to have the moral courage to choose country over party or over power, to choose justice instead of the few, justice for all, and to give others respect instead of condemnation.
Those of us who are fortunate enough to serve in this senate are also confronted daily by a set of obligations that we have when we take on this title of U.S. Senator. We have an obligation to the people of this nation to do everything within our power to uphold the country’s democratic institutions and to insist that the truth guide our public discussions. Even if doing so comes at the cost of short-term political loss.
We as senators have been uniquely given the responsibility to provide advice and consent to the executive branch, and we must take this charge seriously and with Independence from another branch. We must uphold the rule of law, and in doing so we must affirm that no one person is above the law.
There are a great many challenges that our country faces, and I call upon all of those of you who serve in this senate to act with moral courage when these obligations come calling in the future.
As I depart, I’m putting my trust in you.
I trust you to work on behalf of the countless numbers who do not have a voice in this chamber. I count on you to give a voice for our brothers and sisters in Puerto Rico who are long overdue for representation. I trust you’ll fight to make health care more accessible and more cost-effective, to keep rigs off of our coast, and to make higher education more affordable for everyone. And I trust you’ll work to protect our environment from pollution and to continue the restoration of our everglades. And, above all, I trust you act with integrity to unite Americans for the common wheel.
To the people of America you in this Senate must be a beacon of light in a time when it seems that darkness is increasingly gathering in our politics. You must remember that your voices and your actions will face and help shape the future. You have the power to make our discourse more civil and to create change.
Now, to our staff both in the office and the commerce committee, you all are like family. You’re like family to grace and to me, and I’m grateful for the work that you do day in and day out for the people of Florida. You are all hard working, you’re dedicated, you’re loyal public servants. None of what we do around here would be possible were it not for each of you. Madam president, I request a list of all staffers who have been a part of our senate family over these 18 years be entered into the record.
The presiding officer: Without objection.
Sen. Nelson: To my wife Grace and our children Bill and Nan Ellen, I’m so grateful for the support you’ve provided throughout the years. The journey has been a joy.
I leave this Senate today filled with hope for the future and the fondest memories of my fellowship with great friends here. But I admit, it is hard to leave the friends and the work that I love.
I intend to keep fighting for all that I’ve talked about in this short final speech, and I intend to keep fighting for Florida. When it comes down to it, I’m just a country boy who loved serving my state and our country for all of my life.
It’s been an incredible honor.
Madam President, I yield the floor.