Biden Defends Comments About Working With Segregationist Lawmakers "You don't have to like the people, in terms of their views," Joe Biden said Wednesday night, as other Democratic candidates piled on criticism.
NPR logo Biden Defends Comments About Working With Segregationist Lawmakers

Biden Defends Comments About Working With Segregationist Lawmakers

Former Vice President Joe Biden said fellow Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker should apologize for suggesting he's insensitive to racial issues after recalling how he could put aside differences to work with segregationist lawmakers. Alex Wong/Getty Images hide caption

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Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden said fellow Democratic presidential candidate Sen. Cory Booker should apologize for suggesting he's insensitive to racial issues after recalling how he could put aside differences to work with segregationist lawmakers.

Alex Wong/Getty Images

Former Vice President Joe Biden isn't backing down from his comments recalling the "civility" of his working relationships with two segregationist lawmakers. In fact, he's saying New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, who criticized his remarks, is the one who needs to offer an apology.

At a New York City fundraiser Tuesday, Biden said he was able to work with Mississippi Sen. James Eastland and Georgia Sen. Herman Talmadge, two Democrats who opposed civil rights legislation and integration efforts. "We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done," Biden said, joking that Eastland "never called me 'boy'; he always called me 'son.' "

Booker criticized the remarks in a statement, saying collaborating with "proud segregationists" is not the best example of bringing the country together, and that "you don't joke about calling black men 'boys.' "

"Apologize for what? Cory should apologize," Biden told reporters outside a fundraiser near Washington, D.C., on Wednesday. "He knows better. There's not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period."

"Here's the deal: I could not have disagreed with Jim Eastland more. He was a segregationist. I ran for the United States Senate because I disagreed with the views of the segregationists," Biden said. "The point I'm making is, you don't have to agree. You don't have to like the people, in terms of their views. But you just simply make the case, and you beat them."

Booker, one of just three African Americans in the U.S. Senate, has made civil rights era moments like the Selma voting rights march a centerpiece of his campaign stump speech. He responded on CNN, saying: "The vice president said I should know better, and this is what I know: As a black man in America I know the deeply harmful and hurtful usage of the word 'boy' and how it was used to dehumanize and degrade. I know that segregationists like the two people he was talking about, through their laws and their language, deeply wounded this nation."

Booker has struggled to break out of the crowded primary field, and he used the moment to post a tweet calling for contributions to his campaign.

He wasn't the only Democratic candidate to criticize Biden's remarks. California Sen. Kamala Harris, the other black senator alongside Booker and South Carolina Republican Tim Scott, said, "To coddle the reputations of segregationists, of people who if they had their way I would literally not be standing here as a member of the United States Senate, is, I think, it's just misinformed and wrong."

Biden leads every national and statewide poll by wide margins. Surveys show he has far more support from voters of color than any other Democrat, and many African American voters credit Biden's time as Barack Obama's vice president for their early support.

On Friday, Biden and most of the rest of the 23-candidate field will descend on Columbia, S.C., for Rep. James Clyburn's "world famous fish fry." Clyburn, the highest-ranking African American lawmaker in the U.S. House, has not endorsed a presidential candidate. But he has offered strong praise for Biden, and he defended the former vice president's remarks. "I worked with Strom Thurmond all my life," the majority whip told Politico, referring to another segregationist lawmaker from his home state. "You don't have to agree with people to work with them."

Still, the back-and-forth over Biden's remarks has broken the dam of candidate-on-candidate criticism in the Democratic field, and it has done so a week before the first televised debate. Until now, candidates have mostly disengaged from drawing direct contrasts with each other, aside from a few isolated moments.

In recent weeks Sens. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg, as well as several lower-polling candidates, have begun criticizing Biden's track record and campaign messaging. But for the most part, those critiques have been broad and theoretical, without mentioning Biden by name.

Sanders, Harris, and Buttigieg will all share a debate stage with Biden next week. Sanders, in particular, is expected to directly confront Biden's record during the two-hour forum.