COLUMBIA, S.C. ― Former Vice President Joe Biden faced a torrent of criticism from his Democratic opponents and elsewhere this week after he evoked his past working relationships with two well-known segregationists as proof of a time when politics had more “civility.”
Sen. Kamala Harris said she was “deeply” concerned by Biden’s comments. New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio said they showed Biden was “out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party.” Warren said while she would not criticize her fellow Democrats, it was “never OK to celebrate segregationists.” Sen. Cory Booker demanded an apology.
Miles White, 61, would like Biden to explain himself a bit more. But he doesn’t think Biden’s comments were malicious, and he certainly isn’t ready to take Biden out of his list of top presidential candidates.
“At this point, I give him the benefit of the doubt,” White said. “I don’t think he meant them the way they came out.”
White, a black man, was one of thousands of South Carolinians who attended House Majority Whip James Clyburn’s “World Famous Fish Fry” in the state capital on Friday evening. The annual event drew more than 20 Democratic presidential candidates, who each hoped to win over not only South Carolina voters, but also Clyburn, the highest ranking African American in Congress.
For now, Biden remains the clear front-runner in South Carolina, where Democratic primary voters are predominantly black. He received the support of 37% those surveyed for a recent state poll, down from May but still far ahead of Warren, who trailed in a distant second at 17%.
Biden played up his South Carolina bona fides on Friday. He referred to Clyburn as the “highest ranking African American in the history of the United States of America, other than the guy I worked with for eight years,” and noted it was his third time at the fish fry and that he has already been all over the state.
“It seems like I’ve lived in South Carolina,” Biden added.
At the fish fry, voters seemed largely excited for and forgiving of Biden. At the start of the event, Biden received one of the largest applauses of the night. Afterward, he took selfies long into the night. In between, he told the crowd that the Democratic Party had to remain united throughout the primary process.
“Whoever the Democratic nominee is, we have to stay together and elect a Democrat,” he told the crowd.
The message was clear. Throughout the campaign, Biden has argued party infighting would only benefit Trump in the long run. But days before, Biden caused widespread anger after he referenced the former segregationist senators Herman Talmadge and James O. Eastland at a New York City fundraiser, saying they “didn’t agree on much of anything” but “got things done” anyway.
“At least there was some civility,” he said. “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.”
The comments dominated the news cycle for the rest of the week. Booker took particular issue with Biden’s comment that Eastland ― who was an openly racist Mississippi senator ― referred to Biden as “son,” not “boy.”
“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,” said Booker. “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.”
Various members of the campaign contended Biden was making a broader point about getting things done in Washington and highlighted Biden’s civil rights record. Symone Sanders, a senior adviser to Joe Biden, called Biden’s critics “disingenuous” on Twitter.
But many black voters who spoke to HuffPost on Friday hoped to move on from the controversy. Some said they respected Biden’s calls for bipartisanship. Others defended him, saying they felt the comments had been blown out of proportion or mattered less than defeating President Donald Trump.
Linda, a 69-year-old undecided black voter, said she didn’t think Biden “intended it the way he said it or the way people took it.” Jeffrey, a 57-year-old retired black veteran who is choosing between Biden, Booker, Harris and Sen. Bernie Sanders, said many people can relate to saying something they regret.
“Everybody probably has something they would like to do over,” he said. “I’m not going to hold that against him.”
“We can’t critique every word that come out of some people’s mouth,” agreed Art Williams, 62, a county council representative from Colleton County. “I don’t want to get him clobbered over something that he said and we may have misinterpreted.”
Matthew Springs, 21, was upset by Biden’s comments, but said he still considered Biden “a good person and a good candidate.”
“His being white and being his age, of course he’s going to be ignorant to those type of comments,” Springs said. “I think it’s something to hold him accountable for. But not something to check him off” for.
Top black Democrats rushed to Biden’s defense in the aftermath of the controversy. Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) said earlier in the week that he didn’t consider the comments “offensive,” noting that during the civil rights movement he “worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan.”
Clyburn defended Biden as well, saying he had worked with former South Carolina Sen. Strom Thurmond, another segregationist, in the past.
“You don’t have to agree with people to work with them,” Clyburn said.
Asked about Clyburn’s and Lewis’ comments on Friday evening, Biden responded with confidence. “They know me,” he said.
Alana Cain, a 21-year-old student at the University of South Carolina, Aiken, and the treasurer of the South Carolina College Democrats, said she’s willing to look past Biden’s comments this time around. But she added she’s not sure what will happen the next time.
“I hope he does speak careful,” she said. “Because if he says one more wrong thing, I’m not sure people would be able to forget that.”