WASHINGTON — Bill Nelson got something Wednesday that doesn't happen very often these days in the U.S. Senate.
Most Senate speeches are delivered to a largely empty chamber, but a few dozen colleagues turned up to hear and applaud Nelson's final address, in which the outgoing senior senator from Florida reflected on many different aspects of his life and career in elected office that began in 1972.
"When it comes down to it I'm just a country boy who loves serving my state and my country for all of my life," Nelson said at the end of his speech. "It's been an incredible honor."
With that, the chamber erupted in applause.
Nelson began his remarks by sharing a story about his first floor speech in 2001. He waited a few months after being sworn in to formally speak, out of deference to his more senior colleagues, and spoke in front of an empty chamber. By the time he finished, West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, the longest-serving senator in history, heard Nelson was in the midst of making his maiden speech and made his way to the chamber. He followed Nelson with a 30-minute oration about the history of first speeches in Congress' upper chamber.
"You can imagine, nothing I said was memorable, but it was certainly memorable to this senator that all the sudden I would be treated to the corporate knowledge of one of the lions of the Senate in looking back at the history of this body," Nelson said.
Nelson then went into a detailed description about how he became an original "Florida boy," with Florida roots that date back to 1829, 16 years before Florida became a U.S. state.
"My great-great-grandfather was a teenager on a sailing ship and he ended up in New York in a barroom brawl," Nelson said. "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."
The Florida senator touched on myriad topics, including the successful effort by Democrats to pass Obamacare in 2010, the ongoing effort to secure the return of Bob Levinson, a South Florida resident and retired FBI agent who has been missing in Iran for 11 years. and securing payments for retired Negro League baseball players who were unable to play in Major League Baseball due to segregation and racism.
Nelson, who positioned himself as a moderate and centrist during his time in Washington, also spoke at length about the state of discourse and politics, a typical topic during Senate farewell speeches that also played out hours earlier as long-serving Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, also delivered his farewell speech.
"Tribalism is our problem, and if not corrected, it's going to take our country down," Nelson said. "I know I'm just another senator saying what a lot of senators who are departing are saying."
Nelson also received well-wishes in speeches from Florida Republican Marco Rubio, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar, South Dakota Republican John Thune and Texas Republican Ted Cruz.
Cruz noted that Nelson once asked him out to dinner in the middle of Cruz's effort to shut down the government over repealing Obamacare in 2013, a move that earned Cruz widespread scorn from colleagues. They worked closely together on space issues during their time in Congress. Florida and Texas are home to the nation's largest space facilities, and Nelson went to space in 1986 on the space shuttle Columbia 10 days before the Challenger exploded seconds after launch.
"Bill, you're right that I believe within our lifetime that a human being will set foot on Mars," Cruz said. "There is still a will in our nation to tame the stars."
Nelson will leave office in January after serving for three terms and 18 years, the culmination of a political career that began in the Florida House, with later stints in the U.S. House of Representatives and as Florida Treasurer before the U.S. Senate. The only election Nelson had lost, before losing to Gov. Rick Scott this year, was a 1990 Democratic primary for governor. For years, Nelson was Florida's only statewide elected Democrat, though incoming state Agriculture Commissioner Nikki Fried's election ensures that Democrats won't be shut out of statewide office in 2019.
Rubio talked at length about his close relationship with Nelson, noting that Nelson was able to point out every town and street corner from the sky when they once flew over the state together.
"I would say that the worst thing he ever did to me was he once, in front of an audience, accused me of being a moderate," Rubio joked. "He could probably always beat me in a pull-up contest or a push-up contest. This is true and is why I never challenged him to one."
Nelson never mentioned Scott by name in his address, weeks after Nelson's political fate was sealed after a mandated recount did not change the election result. The contest was the most expensive Senate election in U.S. history, after Scott poured more than $60 million of his own money into the race and outside groups spent millions.
Nelson, who said he's "jogged the sands of just about every Florida beach," also said the Challenger's destruction just days after his own space flight caused him to think often about why he was spared.
"Upon intense reflection I think I'm beginning to see why, because it has been the great honor of my life to serve my country and the people of Florida."