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Biden under fire for talking of 'civility' with segregationist senators

The Hill logo The Hill 6/19/2019 Max Greenwood

Former Vice President Joe Biden came under fire on Wednesday after invoking his working relationships with two segregationist senators in the 1970s as an example of bygone "civility" in the Senate.

Three of Biden's rivals in the Democratic presidential field, New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio (D), Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.), Sen. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and former Rep. John Delaney (D-Md.), laid into him for mentioning Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) during a speech at a fundraiser on Tuesday night.

In his remarks, Biden sought to rebuff criticism of his centrist-minded politics from some in his party's liberal wing.

He pointed back to his early days as a U.S. senator from Delaware when he worked with Eastland and Talmadge, two Southern Democrats who opposed desegregation.

"I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland," Biden said, briefly emulating a Southern accent. "He never called me 'boy.' He always called me 'son.' "

Of Talmadge, Biden said that he was "one of the meanest guys I ever knew." 

a man wearing a suit and tie: Biden under fire for talking of 'civility' with segregationist senators © Aaron Schwartz Biden under fire for talking of 'civility' with segregationist senators

"Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done," Biden said. "We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you're the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don't talk to each other anymore."

Biden's remarks won rebukes from Booker, de Blasio, Delaney and Sanders, who all said the former vice president's comments were out of tune with the party.

Booker said Biden was "wrong" to invoke his working relationships Eastland and Talmadge as an example of political compromise.

"You don't joke about calling black men 'boys,'" said Booker, who is black. "Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity.

"I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together," he added. "And frankly, I'm disappointed that he hasn't issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should."

Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) echoed Booker's call for an apology, saying that Biden's remarks were particularly harmful "at a time when the Trump administration is trying to divide us up with its racist appeals."

De Blasio posted a picture of his family on Twitter and pointing out that Eastland believed that his "multiracial family should be illegal."

"It's 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of 'civility' typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to 'the pursuit of dead n*ggers,'" de Blasio wrote.

"It's past time for apologies or evolution from @JoeBiden," de Blasio continued. "He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party."

Speaking to reporters at the Capitol on Wednesday, Harris, who is black, said she was "deeply" concerned by Biden's comments.

"It concerns me deeply," she said, according to ABC News's Mariam Khan. "If those men had their way, I wouldn't be in the United States Senate and on this elevator right now."

Another presidential contender, Delaney, called Biden's remarks "insensitive," suggesting that the former vice president chose a poor example to showcase his compromise-minded approach to politics.

"Evoking an avowed segregationist is not the best way to make the point that we need to work together and is insensitive; we need to learn from history but we also need to be aggressive in dismantling structural racism that exists today," Delaney said.

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) did not directly criticize Biden, but said it would be wrong to "celebrate segregationists."

"I'm not here to criticize other Democrats, but it's never okay to celebrate segregationists," Warren told The Washington Post's Sean Sullivan. "Never."

A spokesperson for Biden did not respond to The Hill's request for comment on the criticism or his remarks about Eastland and Talmadge.

Biden has long cast himself as an ally of civil rights, and has enjoyed close relationships with many African American political leaders over the decades. Polls consistently show him leading the rest of the Democratic field with black voters, many of whom view him positively from his time serving as vice president under Barack Obama.

Biden, however, has at times found himself at odds with civil rights advocates in the past. As a freshman senator in the 1970s, for instance, he spoke out against the idea of "busing" to desegregate schools.

Biden has spoken in the past about his work decades ago with prominent segregationists as a means to showcase his ability to work with lawmakers whom he disagrees with. He has argued that without compromise, a Democratic president won't be able to advance an agenda.

But some in his party's left flank have criticized that approach, asserting that compromise is a futile effort in the race of modern political divisions and that any Democratic president would have to be ready to take swift action to implement his or her policies. Biden, however, has rejected that argument.

"I know the new New Left tells me that I'm - this is old-fashioned," Biden said Tuesday. "Well guess what? If we can't reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president. That's what it does.

"You have to be able to reach consensus under our system," he continued. "Our Constitutional system of separation of powers."

Antjuan Seawright, a South Carolina-based Democratic strategist, noted that Biden didn't offer praise for either Eastland or Talmadge, and that the former vice president was trying to showcase his ability to work with those he disagrees with.

"In no way shape or form am I defending the work of these two men or their positions or their past," Seawright said. "But we need to work together to get things done. And sometimes life requires us working with people that we might not agree with on everything."

Seawright pointed to how Democratic lawmakers worked with Trump to pass sweeping criminal justice reform legislation last year, despite previously accusing the president of racist behavior.

"We see now that Democrats have worked with a person that some people view as a racist and a bigot in the White House, Donald Trump, to pass the First Step Act," he said. "Not to compare the two or minimize the feelings people have about what the vice president said, but working with Donald Trump could be seen in the same light."

Updated 5:00 p.m.


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