Former Vice President Joe Biden said he didn’t intend to offend anyone when he spoke about working with a pair of Southern segregationist senators decades ago, comments that sparked a backlash among some Democrats, including some of his rivals for the party’s presidential nomination.
“I do understand the consequence of the word ‘boy,’” Biden told MSNBC’s Al Sharpton on Saturday evening after speaking at the South Carolina Democratic Party’s convention. “But it wasn’t said in any of that context at all.”
At a fundraiser in New York on Tuesday, Biden recalled his relationships when he was a young lawmaker with Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia ― two “Dixiecrats” well known for their staunch support for their region’s Jim Crow laws. Biden, a senator from Delaware at the time, told the crowd how Eastland used to call him “son” rather than “boy,” and labeled Talmage “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.”
“Well guess what? At least there was some civility,” Biden continued. “We got things done.”
Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, two of Biden’s rivals in the 2020 Democratic presidential race, called on Biden to apologize. Booker spoke out most forcefully about the matter, recalling in a CNN interview last week the “indignity” of “watch(ing) another man call my father ‘boy’” or being called that himself.
“I heard from many, many African-Americans who found the comments hurtful,” Booker added Sunday during an interview on ABC’s “This Week.”
Other Democrats rushed to Biden’s defense, including House Speaker Nancy Pelosi of California and prominent black lawmakers such as House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn of South Carolina and Rep. John Lewis of Georgia, a longtime civil rights leader.
“I don’t think the remarks are offensive,” Lewis said last week. “During the height of the civil rights movement, we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan — people who opposed us, even people who beat us and arrested us and jailed us.”
In his interview with Sharpton, Biden said Eastland used the word “boy” to derogatorily dismiss younger members of the chamber like himself and then-Sen. Ted Kennedy of Massachusetts.
“To the extent that anybody thought that I meant something different, that is not what I intended it,” Biden said.
The controversy over Biden’s comments didn’t seem to linger at the party gathering in Columbia, South Carolina, where 21 White House candidates collegially addressed activists in brief remarks.
Even Booker made nice when asked about Biden by reporters on Saturday, while standing by the criticism he directed at him.
“I have a lot of respect and gratitude for the vice president, and I want folks to know I have nothing to apologize for when it comes to speaking truth to power, ” Booker said. “I hope that our candor with each other will always help to make each other better servants to the people.”
This story has been updated with a comment from Booker.