WASHINGTON - Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden on Wednesday refused to apologize for comments about his dealings with two segregationist senators in the 1970s, and said that Sen. Cory Booker and other critics among his Democratic rivals were being disingenuous.
“Apologize for what? Cory should apologize. He knows better,” Biden said at a Maryland fundraiser. “There’s not a racist bone in my body, I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”
Biden was responding to criticism from Booker, who had demanded that he ask forgiveness for saying that he was able to work with segregationists in an atmosphere of “civility” in the U.S. Senate more than four decades ago.
Speaking on CNN on Wednesday night, Booker said he wouldn’t apologize to Biden.
“What matters to me is that a guy running to be the head of our party, which is a significantly diverse and wondrous party, doesn’t understand or can’t even acknowledge that he made a mistake,” Booker said. “I know Joe Biden. He is better than this. And this is a moment he should have spoken to the issue, allowed everybody to learn from it and move on.”
The back and forth shattered what largely had been a nonaggression pact between the Democratic presidential hopefuls and could signal the beginning of a more confrontational phase of the campaign. The dispute is likely to gather steam this weekend, when 22 Democratic candidates converge on South Carolina to court the African-American vote and will be looking for a way to break out of the pack.
Biden, who benefits from his standing as former vice president to President Barack Obama, leads both nationally and in the few polls that have been conducted in South Carolina, which is seen as particularly important for Sen. Kamala Harris and Booker, the major African-American candidates for the Democratic nomination. Harris also sharply criticized Biden for his remarks at the fundraiser.
And any conflicts in South Carolina could carry over to the first Democratic debates just days later in Miami. Harris and Biden will appear on the same stage on the second night of the forums, which will take place June 26 and 27.
The controversy erupted Tuesday after Biden recalled his interactions during his early years as senator from Delaware with the two prominent advocates of segregation. Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi, Biden said with a heavy Southern drawl, “never called me boy, he always called me son.” Sen. Herman Talmadge of Georgia, he added, was “one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys” but “at least there was some civility.”
Both senators were Democrats.
Biden said Wednesday that the anecdote was meant as a way of saying that sometimes politicians need to work with those they disagree with.
“We had to put up with the likes of Jim Eastland and Herman Talmadge and all of those segregationists and the fact of the matter is that we were able to do it because we were able to win,” he said at a fundraiser. “We beat them on everything. Everything they stood for, we in fact detested what they stood for in terms of segregation and all the rest.”
Booker, who has languished in the low-to-mid single digits in Democratic primary polls, said earlier Wednesday that it was “wrong” for Biden to use the two late senators as “examples of how to bring the country together.” Biden’s comments about being called “son” and not “boy” by Eastland were also inappropriate, Booker said.
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 said.
“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,” he said.
Harris, a California senator, also took a swipe at Biden. “Let’s be very clear that the senators that he is speaking of with such adoration are individuals that made and built their reputations on segregation,” she said outside the Capitol on Wednesday. “The Ku Klux Klan celebrated the election of one of them.”
Talmadge and Eastland were harsh critics of the landmark 1954 Supreme Court decision that outlawed public school segregation and also opposed civil rights legislation. Talmadge served for 24 years in the Senate until his defeat in 1980, and Eastland served for about 36 years until he resigned in 1978.
Democrats have in the recent past criticized Biden for praising the late Sen. Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, another segregationist, as well as a string of Republicans who he’s described as decent people despite not sharing his political views.
In February, Biden called Vice President Mike Pence a “decent guy,” but after complaints from gay rights groups, Biden tweeted that there “is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the vice president.”
New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, another candidate for the Democratic nomination, tweeted his own condemnation of Biden’s latest remarks, accompanied by a photo of himself with his African-American wife and children.
“It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of ‘civility’ typified by James Eastland,” de Blasio wrote. “He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party.”