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‘We got things done’: Biden recalls ‘civility’ with segregationist senators

Joe Biden spoke at a forum Monday held by the Poor People's Campaign. At a fundraiser Tuesday, he cited his ability to work alongside segregationist senators in recalling a bygone era of civility in American politics. (Gabriella Angotti-Jones/Bloomberg News)

Joe Biden wistfully recalled on Tuesday an era in which he was able to get along with segregationist senators even though they “didn’t agree on much of anything.”

Dismissing criticism from his party’s left-wing flank that he is too conciliatory toward political adversaries, the former vice president told a crowd of about 100 people gathered for a fundraiser at the Carlyle hotel in New York that one of his strengths was “bringing people together.”

He knew this made him “old-fashioned” in the eyes of restive Democrats, he said. But he remained adamant that political fellowship of the sort he maintained with white supremacists in the 1970s was not just possible in today’s climate — but the best answer to the forces elevating President Trump.

“If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens?” Biden said at the fundraiser, according to a pool report. “It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president.”

As evidence of his ability to forge personal bonds, the former vice president pointed to his 36-year career in the Senate, which stretched back to 1973 and overlapped with the service of leading Southern Democrats. Biden cited the late senators James O. Eastland (Miss.) and Herman E. Talmadge (Ga.), who were steadfastly opposed to civil rights and racial integration.

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“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said at the fundraiser, where he was introduced by Eric Mindich, an investment manager and former Goldman Sachs partner.

The Democratic presidential candidate, who has led his competitors in early polls of the crowded nominating contest, briefly imitated the southern drawl of the Mississippi cotton planter, lawyer and lawmaker. “He never called me ‘boy,’ " Biden said. “He always called me ‘son.’ ”

Biden’s campaign didn’t immediately return a request for comment about why it would be notable that the Dixiecrat — who thought black Americans belonged to an “inferior race” and warned that integration would cause “mongrelization” — didn’t call Biden “boy,” a racial epithet deployed against black men.

In another variation of the story, Biden has remarked that the late senator used to call him “son” instead of “senator” — a sign of the familiarity between the two men. He has previously riffed on the relationship, including during an appearance in the fall of 2017 on behalf of Doug Jones, a Democrat vying at the time for an open Senate seat in Alabama.

Eastland was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Biden, who would go on to lead the panel, entered the Senate in 1973.

"I’ve been around so long, I worked with James Eastland,” Biden said when he was stumping for Jones two years ago. “Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.”

The remarks are newly charged, now that Biden is vying for the Democratic nomination. The outcome of the Democratic primary will be shaped by black Americans, who represent 20 percent of the party’s primary voters, and, in the crucial South Carolina contest that will take place in February, nearly 60 percent of voters.

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Biden has made the issue of race a focal point of his campaign, assailing Trump for saying there were “very fine people” among torch-wielding white supremacists who descended on Charlottesville in the summer of 2017. Biden has repeatedly highlighted his relationship with former president Barack Obama, the nation’s first black commander in chief.

But the former senator from Delaware has also confronted scrutiny over his record on racial equity, even though he supported the extension of the 1965 Voting Rights Act and amendments to the 1968 Fair Housing Act, as well as sanctions against apartheid South Africa, among other measures.

During an era in which he was arguing “like the devil” with segregationists, as he put it, Biden also embraced certain positions that aligned with theirs. As a young senator, he opposed busing as an instrument of school desegregation.

“The courts have gone overboard in their interpretation of what is required to remedy unlawful segregation,” Biden told a Delaware newspaper in 1975. Four years earlier, the Supreme Court had decided, in Swann v. Charlotte-Mecklenburg Board of Education, that busing was among the options available to federal courts as they crafted plans for integration, not just in the South but in major cities in the Northeast, such as Boston.

The ruling prompted a flurry of efforts on Capitol Hill to narrow the conditions under which busing could occur.

Siding with conservatives in seeking to limit the intervention, he also positioned himself as a critic of calls for reparations, which, nearly half a century later, have gained currency among Democratic presidential hopefuls.

“I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers. In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race,’” Biden said in the 1975 interview. “I don’t buy that.”

He has not made clear whether his views on the matter have changed, although he has suggested that he prefers other ways to address the legacy of racial discrimination.

On other questions, he has given some ground to critics.

A decade ago, Biden backed efforts to undo sentencing requirements that were believed to compound racial inequalities in criminal justice. He acknowledged that he had helped create the imbalance because of his central role in shepherding the 1994 crime bill, blamed for mass incarceration.

“And so I am part of the problem that I have been trying to solve since then, because I think the disparity is way out of line,” Biden said during a Senate hearing in 2008. He otherwise defends the measure.

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The gap between the former vice president, who is now seeking to become the Democratic standard-bearer, and a more liberal wing of the party remains evident on the campaign trail, most recently at a candidate forum held Monday by the Poor People’s Campaign. He sought to defend his proposal to build on the Affordable Care Act, which involves a less extensive transformation than does the Medicare-for-all plan that some of his rivals support.

Visible, too, is the candidate’s frustration with the perception among some Democrats that his insistence on bipartisanship is misguided.

He pressed his case at the fundraiser Tuesday, using the examples of Eastland and Talmadge to argue that gaping differences can be accommodated. He said he could work with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) without being “best buddies” because he knows how to “demonstrate respect” for Republicans.

Even with Talmadge — “one of the meanest guys I ever knew” — Biden noted, “at least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done.”

That sort of pragmatism, he suggested, was rooted in personal affability, and he lamented its demise in today’s bitter partisan warfare.

“But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy,” Biden said. “Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”

In 1978, Biden didn’t just talk to Eastland, as he recounted before the crowd in Birmingham, Ala., in 2017. He approached the elder on the Judiciary Committee with concerns about his reelection prospects that year.

“What ole Jim Eastland can do for you in Del’uh’wah?” Eastland asked him, as the Jackson Free Press reported. The segregationist knew he would not be embraced in parts of the Mid-Atlantic state.

“Well, some places you can help, Mr. Chairman, and some places you’d hurt,” Biden answered, as he told the audience, in a story also delivered at a Labor Day event in Pittsburgh in 2016.

Eastland assured him, “Well, I’ll come to Del’uh’wah and campaign for you or agin’ you, whichever will help the most.”

Biden went on to win reelection by 17 percentage points.

Chelsea Janes and Matt Viser contributed to this report.