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Biden faces backlash for citing his work with two segregationists as a sign of ‘civility’

Joe Biden drew criticism from both sides of the aisle after citing his work with two segregationist senators to get things done. | Scott Olson/Getty Images

2020 Elections

Cory Booker scolded the former vice president: “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.'”


Former Vice President Joe Biden faced a growing backlash on Wednesday for naming two Southern segregationist senators as examples of people with whom he had major disagreements but still “got things done” with in the Senate.

Biden cited the late Sens. James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia at a fundraiser in New York Tuesday night to back up his claim that one of his greatest strengths was to “bring people together.”

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“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said, briefly imitating the senator’s Southern drawl, according to pool reports. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”

He called Talmadge “one of the meanest guys” he ever knew but said, “At least there was some civility. We got things done.”

“We didn’t agree on much of anything,” Biden continued. “But today, you look at the other side, and you’re the enemy … we don’t talk to each other anymore.”

He said he knew many people in his party thought that attitude made him too “old-fashioned” to be the Democratic nominee to take on President Donald Trump in 2020.

“Well guess what? If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens?” he said. “It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president.”

Biden’s remarks drew criticism that gained steam Wednesday. Sen. Cory Booker, who has made love and unity a key message throughout his presidential campaign, was one of the highest-profile figures to come out against Biden.

“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,” the New Jersey Democrat 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,” Booker wrote. He added Biden is someone he “respects,” but said Biden shouldn’t use the southern senators as examples of people who brought unity to the country.

Booker also called for the former vice president to issue “an immediate apology.”

Presidential contender Rep. John Delaney took a jab at Biden Wednesday afternoon, writing, “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.”

New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio also bashed Biden’s comments in a tweet, saying, “Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to “the pursuit of dead n*ggers.” He shared an old photo of his family; de Blasio’s wife is black and his children are biracial.

“It’s past time for apologies or evolution from @JoeBiden. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party,” he added.

Barack Obama and Joe Biden

As the backlash heated up, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s chief of staff Saikat Chakrabarti took a swing at Biden, writing on Twitter,”.@JoeBiden, what DID you get done with segregationists? I know about how you worked with them to block school bussing to integrate schools. What other horrible stuff did you manage to build consensus on?”

Jason Miller, who worked on Trump’s 2016 campaign, wrote that, “Biden was a terrible candidate in 1988. He was a terrible candidate in 2008. He’s a terrible candidate now in the 2020 race.”

“This is why I continue to believe Biden is the dream general election opponent for @realDonaldTrump,” Miller said.

Biden’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment about the growing criticism.

Despite progressives who pounced on Biden’s comments, more than a half-dozen members of the Congressional Black Caucus were quick to defend the former vice president on Wednesday, telling POLITICO that the remarks were taken out of context.

The highest-ranking African American in Congress, House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.), said, “You don’t have to agree with people to work with them.” Clyburn, Biden’s longtime friend, is gearing up to host his annual fish fry event this weekend. Biden and nearly all of the Democratic hopefuls are set to attend.

Only one of the CBC members interviewed by POLITICO pushed back on Biden’s comments.

“Segregationists at their core are those who believe in white superiority and black inferiority,” Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) said. “There can be no compromise with someone in this day and time as someone who would define themselves as a segregationist.”

Biden has touted his commitment to civil rights and his strong relationships in the African American community, where he has enjoyed strong support so far in the 2020 race. His close ties to the CBC run deep, stemming from his 36-year tenure in the Senate, as well as his time as vice president under Barack Obama.

He has previously pointed to his time working with segregationists in the Senate, with whom he emphasizes that he had stark disagreements, to show that he could find common ground with Republicans in Congress if he is elected president.

That emphasis on working together has irritated many in his party, who say it was Republicans who refused to work with former President Barack Obama, not the other way around.

Biden has also appeared out of step with progressives, some of whom are embracing Sen. Bernie Sanders’ vision of democratic socialism, in the way he approaches economic issues. The former vice president told the crowd at his Tuesday fundraiser, which included financial industry executives and attorneys, that he would not “demonize” the wealthy as president, saying “rich people are just as patriotic as poor people.”

But he also said workers are in a tough spot in the U.S., forced to sign non-compete agreements with employers that he said were “suppressing wages” by preventing workers from changing jobs and criticizing mandatory arbitration rules that keep employees from suing when their rights are violated at work.

“You all are extremely successful people,” Biden said. “But with all due respect, Wall Street didn’t build America. The wealthy didn’t build America.”

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