Joe Biden under fire for 'civility' with racist senators

Biden speaking at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress at Trinity Washington University. in June 17, 2019.
Biden speaking at the Poor People's Moral Action Congress at Trinity Washington University. in June 17, 2019.PHOTO: ZUMA WIRE/DPA

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Joe Biden drew condemnation on Wednesday (June 19) from fellow Democratic presidential contenders and demands for an apology after he defended his old-fashioned political style by recalling the "civility" with which he treated two segregationist United States senators.

Speaking at a New York fund raiser on Tuesday, the former vice-president and front runner for the Democratic nomination told donors that fixing America's "broken" political system would require working across the political aisle to reach consensus with lawmakers with opposing positions, even unrepentant bigots.

Mr Biden, who spent more than three decades in the US Senate, named late senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both Democrats who fiercely opposed desegregation, as opponents who were in his own party when he entered the chamber in 1973.

Mr Eastland "never called me 'boy,' he always called me 'son'", Mr Biden said, of the former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, according to a pool report released after the fund raiser.

Mr Eastland, who left the Senate in 1978, was known to speak of blacks as "an inferior race".

Mr Talmadge was "one of the meanest guys I ever knew", Mr Biden said of the lawmaker who opposed the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation.

"Well guess what? At least there was some civility," he added. "We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done."

 
 
 
 

The 76-year-old has been criticised as a political relic by some Democrats, an elder statesman who has held controversial positions and who has only reluctantly changed with the times.

The senior Democrat's remarks were awkwardly timed, coming one day before Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the emancipation from slavery in 1865.

Senator Cory Booker, one of two prominent African Americans in the presidential race, called on Mr Biden to apologise.

"Vice-president 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," he said.

Fellow 2020 candidate and New York Mayor Bill de Blasio, whose wife is black, tweeted that Mr Biden "repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party".

Mr Biden, who served eight years as Mr Barack Obama's deputy, remains a popular figure for African Americans, despite his treatment of witness Anita Hill during contentious Supreme Court hearings in 1991, and criticism that he supported 1990s crime legislation that fuelled mass incarceration of blacks.

His campaign did not immediately respond to requests for comment.