Joe Biden criticized for highlighting ties to segregationist senator

Former Vice President Joe Biden is being criticized for highlighting his relationship with James Eastland, a Mississippi senator and noted segregationist, at a New York City fundraiser Tuesday night. 

The Democratic front-runner referenced Eastland while arguing for more civility in Washington. “I know the new, new left tells me that I’m — this is old-fashioned,” Biden said, according to the pool report. “Well guess what? If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president. That’s what it does. You have to be able to reach consensus under our system — our constitutional system of separation of powers.”

Biden then turned to his own lengthy career in the Senate, where he represented Delaware from 1973 to 2009. 

“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” he told the crowd. “He never called me boy, he always called me son.” 

Eastland, the influential chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was the longest-serving Democrat in the chamber when Biden arrived in Washington. He was also one of the civil rights movement’s most militant opponents in Congress and an avowed white supremacist. Earlier this year, CNN reported that Biden had sought and received Eastland’s support for legislation aimed at stopping the busing of students between schools to increase diversity. 

In his remarks Tuesday, Biden also referenced the segregationist Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge, another Democrat, whom he called “one of the meanest guys I ever knew,” before praising a bygone era of comity. 

“At least there was some civility,” Biden said. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. 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.”

Two of Biden’s primary opponents were quick to attack him Wednesday. New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker released a statement admonishing the former vice president.

“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,'” he said. “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.”

He went on to say that 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. 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.”

He also called upon Biden to apologize for the comments.

Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’s currently polling near the bottom of the two dozen candidates running for president, issued this tweet with a photo of his biracial family:

However, it’s not clear that the quote he attributes to Eastland was in fact uttered by the Mississippi senator. Martin Luther King, Jr. biographer Stephen Oates pointed out that although several people, including noted Lyndon Johnson biographer Robert Caro, mistakenly claimed that Eastland had said these words, the statement was in fact “printed on a handbill circulated” at an Eastland rally. 

Biden’s comments were criticized by some political observers on Wednesday. “There is no punchline here, no emoji or funny meme to soften the harm of your words,” Connie Schultz, a journalist and the wife of Ohio Democratic Sen. Sherrod Brown, tweeted. “That segregationist never called you ‘boy’ because you are white. If you want to boast about your relationship with a racist, you are not who we need to succeed the racist in the White House.”

While Talmadge and Eastland, like Biden, were Democrats, they were more aligned with Dixiecrats, the lawmakers from the Deep South who opposed civil rights. Northeastern and Western Democrats in the late 19th century were more aligned with moderate Northeastern Republicans, and it was this coalition that passed civil rights legislation in the 1960s. 

Zachary Hudak contributed to this report.

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