Joe Biden, the 76-year-old former vice president who hopes to secure the Democratic presidential nomination, invoked a time of more “civility” in politics at a Tuesday night fundraiser by naming two unapologetically racist past colleagues.
Speaking at a New York City hotel, Biden recalled his working relationships with the late Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), who served under a much more uneven Democratic party platform. Both men fiercely opposed desegregation.
“I know the new New Left tells me that I’m ― this is old-fashioned,” Biden said, according to a pool report. “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.”
Biden, who was elected to the Senate in 1973, told the crowd how Eastland used to call him “son,” rather than “boy,” and labelled Talmadge “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.”
“Well guess what? At least there was some civility,” Biden continued. “We got things done. 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 has pitched himself as the one presidential candidate capable of uniting Democrats and Republicans at a time of intense political polarization, but many in his own party have found his efforts tone-deaf at best.
He has previously pointed to his successful working relationship with Eastland as proof that people with opposing views can work together in Washington. Yet Eastland and Talmadge held views that would likely shock many present-day Democrats.
First elected in 1942, Eastland voiced open derision for black people, once calling the Supreme Court’s 1954 ruling in Brown v. Board of Education ― which led to public school desegregation ― a “monstrous crime.” His 1986 New York Times obituary stated that he was “best known nationally as a symbol of Southern resistance to racial desegregation” and noted that he frequently complained about “possible ‘mongrelization’ of the races” on the Senate floor.
Yet he wielded considerable power in the Senate Judiciary Committee, serving as its chairman for 22 years. According to an obituary in the Los Angeles Times, Eastland once forced President John F. Kennedy to name an ally of his to the federal bench in exchange for backing Kennedy’s Supreme Court pick, Thurgood Marshall.
From the Los Angeles Times:
By one account, which originated with the late Robert F. Kennedy, Eastland told the then-attorney general: “You tell your brother if he gives me [Harold] Cox, I will give him his n****r.”
The Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Robert Caro reported that Eastland once publicly stated that pro-segregation efforts were being stymied by “black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking n****rs.” According to Caro, Eastland essentially called for black American genocide: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives.”
When he first ran for the Senate in 1956, Talmadge claimed that “God advocates segregation,” per a New York Times obituary citing black leaders in Georgia.
Talmadge opposed Brown v. Board of Education, as well, saying “there aren’t enough troops in the whole United States to make the white people of this state send their children to school with colored children,” per The New York Times.
Biden’s 2020 campaign has pushed his historical support for the civil rights movement, although the former vice president has also faced some criticism for his record against busing and his generous read of other segregationists, like Strom Thurmond.
More broadly, Biden’s critics are skeptical about his rosy view of congressional Republicans and his suggestion that a return to bipartisan politics will be simple after the departure of President Donald Trump.
It was a view he reiterated Tuesday evening.
“Folks, I believe one of the things I’m pretty good at is bringing people together,” Biden said. “Every time we had a trouble in the administration, who got sent to the Hill to settle it? Me. No, not a joke. Because I demonstrate respect for them.”
Earlier Tuesday night, Biden declared that he does not wish to “demonize” wealthy Americans ― a clear jab at a number of more progressive Democrats also vying for their party’s nomination who have voiced support for greater taxes on the rich.
At least two of Biden’s 2020 rivals had slammed his comments on the segregationists as of Wednesday afternoon.
Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) found offense in Biden’s folksy portrayal of Eastland.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ 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,” Booker said in a statement.
“Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone,” he said, suggesting that Biden apologize immediately.
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, another 2020 contender, went further in his attack on Biden. The mayor shared a photo of his biracial family on Twitter, saying Eastland thought such unions should be illegal.
“It’s past time for apologies or evolution from [Joe Biden],” de Blasio wrote. “He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party.”
This has been updated with Booker and de Blasio’s reactions.