A defiant Joe Biden on Wednesday refused to apologize for citing two Southern segregationist senators as people he “got things done” with in the U.S. Senate, emphasizing his record on civil rights at a pair of fundraising stops and striking a confrontational tone when asked about the controversy swirling around his comments.
Several of Biden’s 2020 Democratic opponents, including Sens. Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, who are both African American, criticized Biden for speaking fondly of working with segregationists. Asked by reporters on Wednesday night outside a fundraiser in suburban Washington whether he should apologize, Biden replied: “Apologize for what?”
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The former vice president added, “There’s not a racist bone in my body.”
“I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career,” he said. “Period, period, period.”
Biden’s response capped a frenetic 24 hours of the Democratic primary — the moment when the sprawling Democratic field dispensed with any sense of restraint about attacking the frontrunner. His comments about working with segregationists galvanized his rivals and the party base, providing them with virtual license to make a full-throated case against him as the Democratic standard-bearer.
Biden made his initial remarks during a New York City fundraiser on Tuesday night. He boasted about cooperating with two Southern segregationists during his time as a senator while talking about the need to bring people together and “reach consensus” in today’s gridlocked politics.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said, briefly imitating the Mississippi senator’s accent. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
Biden also invoked Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia, saying he was “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.”
“You go down the list of all these guys. Well, guess what. At least there was some civility,” Biden continued. “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.”
Biden’s opponents for the 2020 Democratic nomination harshly criticized him on Wednesday. “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,’” Booker said in a statement.
“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 senator continued. “Frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans.”
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted in response to Biden’s comments, saying, “It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of ‘civility’ typified by James Eastland. Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal.”
Rep. John Delaney of Maryland said: “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.”
Biden did not overhaul his message. When he attended the two fundraisers in wealthy suburbs of Washington on Wednesday, he spoke about issues including inequality and race, and even tweaked his comments on Eastland and Talmadge — but he offered no apology.
While speaking about serving on the Senate Judiciary Committee at a fundraiser hosted by Tim Shriver in Chevy Chase, Md., Biden said: “We had to put up with the likes of, like, Jim Eastland and Hermy Talmadge and all those segregationists and all of that. And the fact of the matter is that we were able to do it because we were able to win — we were able to beat them on everything they stood for.”
“We in fact detested what they stood for in terms of segregation and all the rest,” Biden said. Because Sen. Ted Kennedy let him take the helm of the Judiciary Committee, “we were able to do so much. We restored the Voting Rights Act, we did it, and over time we extended it by 25 years not just five years.”
But asked by a camera crew before the event whether he would apologize for his comments, Biden insisted he would not.
“Cory should apologize. He knows better,” Biden said.
Booker later went on CNN to respond to Biden, saying his insensitivity was not well suited for a Democratic presidential nominee.
“I know that somebody running for president of the United States, somebody running to be the leader of our party, should know that using the word ‘boy’ in the way he did can cause hurt and pain,” Booker said. “At a time when we have from the highest offices in the land, a divisiveness, a racial hatred and bigotry being spewed, he should have the sensitivity to know that, ‘This is a time I need to be an ally and I need to be a healer, I need to not engage in the usage of words that will be harmful.’”
Both Eastland and Talmadge were high-profile segregationists in the Senate. Eastland, a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was a plantation owner who spoke of black people as “an inferior race.” Talmadge opposed the Brown v. Board of Education Supreme Court decision, saying that “there aren’t enough troops in the whole United States to make the white people of this state send their children to school with colored children.”
Biden’s comments about Eastland and Talmadge were widely reported on Tuesday night and Wednesday because the former vice president has allowed limited press access to his fundraising events rather than keeping them closed, as most candidates do.
As he seeks to raise big money to outdo his opponents, Biden spent recent days attending a series of high-profile fundraisers with wealthy donors.
At the same event on Tuesday while speaking about income inequality, Biden said he didn’t want to “demonize” the wealthy and seemed to assure rich donors that their quality of life would not change under his presidency.
“I got in trouble with some of the people on my team, on the Democratic side, because I said, ‘You know, what I’ve found is, rich people are just as patriotic as poor people,’” Biden said. “Not a joke. I mean, we may not want to demonize anybody who has made money.”
“We can disagree in the margins,” he said. “But the truth of the matter is, it’s all within our wheelhouse and nobody has to be punished. No one’s standard of living would change. Nothing would fundamentally change.”
Biden reiterated those comments on Wednesday during his first fundraising stop, at a colonial-style mansion in Rockville, Md. Talking about fixing income inequality to a room of guests, the former vice president told the crowd it was possible to bring back the middle class without harming the rich.
“It’s all within our wheelhouse, we can do all this,” he said. “We can handle this. It’s not about going out and punishing anybody. We always do best when everyone’s in on the deal.”
“Thanks for letting me play in this contest. It’s going to be pretty ugly,” Biden said as he was concluding his remarks in Rockville.
An audience member encouraged him to go negative on his competitors: “Take them on!” he said.
“Here’s the deal,” Biden said. “I’m not going to participate.”