The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden defends his Bull Connor analogy after Republicans charge him with crossing a line

President Biden on Jan. 19 responded to Republicans who have taken issue with Biden’s rhetoric on voting rights. (Video: The Washington Post)
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The questions seemed simple enough.

Speaking last week in Atlanta to push voting rights legislation, President Biden asked elected officials how they hoped to be remembered.

“Do you want to be on the side of Dr. King or George Wallace?” Biden said. “Do you want to be on the side of John Lewis or Bull Connor? Do you want to be on the side of Abraham Lincoln or Jefferson Davis?”

The response was outrage.

Biden was referring to Wallace, the segregationist and former governor of Alabama who fought to stop the integration of his state’s flagship university; to Connor, the Southern sheriff and white supremacist who turned fire hoses and police dogs on civil rights activists; and to Davis, the president of the Confederacy. And he was exhorting many of his former colleagues to stop filibustering the Democrats’ attempts to take up the two voting rights bills that have been languishing in the Senate.

Sen. Mitt Romney (R-Utah) took to the Senate floor just hours after Biden’s remarks, fretting that the president had “accused a number of my good and principled colleagues in the Senate of having sinister, even racist inclinations.”

“He charged that voting against his bill allies us with Bull Connor, George Wallace and Jefferson Davis,” Romney said. “So much for unifying the country and working across the aisle.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), too, excoriated Biden the next day on the Senate floor for what he called “a deliberately divisive speech” and a “rant” that he described as “incorrect, incoherent and beneath the office.”

“He invoked the bloody disunion of the Civil War to demonize Americans who disagree with him,” McConnell said. “He compared a bipartisan majority of senators to literal traitors.”

After his initial comments, Biden called McConnell “a friend,” and the next day he tried to stop by the minority leader’s office during a visit to Capitol Hill, but McConnell was not there.

If the Republican response to some critics seemed outsize, it was not necessarily surprising, said Eddie Glaude, chair of African American studies at Princeton University, who called the reaction “disingenuous.”

“So you’re going to clutch your pearls when someone implies you’re on the side of Bull Connor, when you are making decisions that are based out of the era from which Bull Connor came?” Glaude said. “People are more concerned with being called a racist than they are with the racist implications of their practices.”

The pushback was not limited solely to Republicans, however. Senate Majority Whip Richard J. Durbin (D-Ill.) last week called Biden’s analogy “stark.”

“Perhaps the president went a little too far in his rhetoric — some of us do — but the fundamental principles and values at stake are very similar,” Durbin continued, when pushed by CNN’s Jake Tapper.

Biden’s historical comparisons seemed inspired by remarks that Jon Meacham, a historian who has advised Biden on messaging, gave during a panel in Congress’s Cannon Caucus Room on the first anniversary of the Jan. 6 attacks earlier this month. Speaking alongside a fellow historian and the librarian of Congress, Meacham spoke of the need to “incentivize” democratic behaviors.

“How do you do that? I would argue that one idea is history itself,” Meacham said at the time. “What do you want the world to say of you? Do you want to be Bull Connor, or do you want to be John Robert Lewis? Do you want to be Jefferson Davis, or do you want to be Abraham Lincoln?”

When Politico’s West Wing Playbook noticed that the lines in Biden’s voting rights speech seemed to echo those of Meacham — who helped Biden with his Jan. 6 anniversary speech — Meacham told the publication, “I was involved in the drafting of the speech and was happy to offer that language for the president to use if he wished.”

In some ways, Biden was simply making a broad rhetorical point about racial progress — and one that, at least compared with the invective and mockery of political rivals regularly inflicted by his predecessor, might hardly seem controversial.

“I think he’s trying to remind us of both how far we’ve come from those days and how close we are to basically reliving them,” said Peniel Joseph, a professor of public affairs and history at the University of Texas at Austin.

Joseph added that, as a historian, he views the period from 1965 to 2013 — from when the Voting Rights Act, which outlaws racial discrimination in voting, was first passed to when the Supreme Court gutted struck down key elements of it — as a “specific era in American history.”

“You have Martin Luther King Jr. and Bull Connor,” he said.

But Biden’s attack — which came as the president has begun to take a more forceful and aggressive tone with Republicans generally — was incongruous with his heretofore self-styled brand as a bipartisan dealmaker, the sort of leader who could unify the country.

Biden, after all, was always urging his peers never to question a man’s motivations — as he did when he spoke to Yale’s graduating class as vice president, recounting that as a young senator, he had once criticized senator Jesse Helms (R-N.C.) for opposing the precursor to the Americans With Disabilities Act, only to later learn that Helms and his wife had adopted a boy with disabilities.

“It’s always appropriate to question another man’s judgment, but never appropriate to question his motives because you simply don’t know his motives,” Biden said at the time.

In responding to the backlash, the White House argued that Biden was not actually comparing any members of Congress to notorious segregationists and white supremacists, but simply saying that if they don’t support modern-day voting rights, they will be judged by history similarly to those men.

“He was not comparing them as humans,” White House press secretary Jen Psaki said last week, when asked if Biden had abandoned his previous pledges of bipartisanship and unity. “He was comparing the choice to those figures in history and where they’re going to position themselves as they determine whether they’re going to support the fundamental right to vote or not.”

Speaking at his nearly two-hour news conference Wednesday, Biden pushed back against the charge that his remarks were offensive.

“I did not say that they were going to be a George Wallace or a Bull Connor,” Biden said. “I said we’re going to have a decision in history that is going to be marked just like it was then. You either voted on the side — that didn’t make you a George Wallace or didn’t make you a Bull Connor.”

Later, asked again about his comments, Biden turned angry, telling the reporter, “Go back and read what I said and tell me if you think I called anyone who voted on the side of the position taken by Bull Connor that they were Bull Connor.”

Still, the president noted, no one forgets who was on the side of Martin Luther King Jr. vs. who was on the side of Connor.

“You don’t get to vote this way, and then somehow it goes away,” Biden said. “This will be — stick with you the rest of your career and long after you’re gone.”

Last week, too, Biden made a similar case during a private lunch of Senate Democrats at the Capitol, explaining why he had tried to visit with McConnell the previous day, said a person familiar with the exchange, speaking on the condition of anonymity to share details of a private discussion. Biden told the group that he knew McConnell was upset, and he’d wanted to explain to the Republican that his point was that there are inflection points in history where politicians need to choose a side, and this is one of them, this person added.

Still, many think the stakes of voting rights — and even democracy — right now are so high that Biden’s rhetoric is justified.

“The reality is that they’re using states’ rights arguments to engage in or to support a practice that is going to make it very difficult for Black and Brown and young and low-wealth people to vote,” Glaude said. “So the stark choice [is] if they’re going to be genuinely committed to a multiracial democracy or not.”

At least one person who was critical agreed with the content of Biden’s remarks but simply wished he would have updated his historical figures for the modern era.

“Nobody knows who Bull Connor is,” House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) told reporters last week. “You know, if we’re making the case to say, ‘We’re going to be with Martin Luther King or Bull Connor’ — who’s that?”