Biden Faces Criticism For How He Talked About Segregationist Senators NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with unaffiliated Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons about former Vice President Biden's verbal blunders this week, and how concerned the party should be about them.
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Biden Faces Criticism For How He Talked About Segregationist Senators

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Biden Faces Criticism For How He Talked About Segregationist Senators

Biden Faces Criticism For How He Talked About Segregationist Senators

Biden Faces Criticism For How He Talked About Segregationist Senators

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NPR's Ari Shapiro talks with unaffiliated Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons about former Vice President Biden's verbal blunders this week, and how concerned the party should be about them.

ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Former Vice President Joe Biden is on the defensive with his fellow Democrats. At a fundraiser this week, Biden talked about working with people he disagreed with, and he mentioned two segregationist senators as examples. Now some of Biden's fellow presidential candidates and others in the party are criticizing him for racial insensitivity. Jamal Simmons is a Democratic strategist and host of Hill.TV. He's not affiliated with any of the campaigns. Welcome to ALL THINGS CONSIDERED.

JAMAL SIMMONS: Thanks for having me, Ari.

SHAPIRO: So at this New York fundraiser on Tuesday night, Biden talked about working with two now-deceased segregationist senators. One of them was James Eastland of Mississippi. And Biden said, he never called me boy; he always called me son. Biden sees working with these men as a good thing. He says he doesn't have a racist bone in his body. What do you think?

SIMMONS: I don't think Joe Biden is racist in any sense that we normally think of. I think that he comes from an era, though, that - where I guess race just wasn't a disqualifying factor, perhaps, for some relationships.

SHAPIRO: Well, two of Biden's rivals for the nomination have been vocal about this. Kamala Harris and Cory Booker are both senators. They're both African-American. Here's what they had to say, starting with Senator Harris.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: 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 - it's misinformed, and it's wrong.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER: Should Joe Biden...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

CORY BOOKER: 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. And we need a presidential nominee and the leader of our party to be sensitive to that.

SHAPIRO: Jamal Simmons, whether or not Biden is racist, do you think he owes someone an apology, as Cory Booker says he does.

SIMMONS: I'll tell you this. Cory Booker certainly doesn't owe Joe Biden an apology. That is probably - Biden asking for that was maybe even as offensive as the earlier statement.

SHAPIRO: So just a play-by-play here - Booker said Biden ought to apologize; Biden said, no, it's Booker who ought to apologize. That's where this coming from.

SIMMONS: (Laughter) Yeah. The Biden campaign can decide whether or not it should apologize. It certainly should commit to not using those examples going forward. There's a bigger issue for Vice President Biden. He gets a lot of credit from African-Americans. He gets a lot of credit from Democrats up and down the line for his personal story, his commitment to Barack Obama. The question is, does Vice President Biden have the agility to make his way through the modern Democratic Party's crosscurrents? And it just means that on issues of race, on issues of LGBTQ rights, on issues of gender equity - and he hasn't yet shown he's really able to surf those crosscurrents.

SHAPIRO: We have seen some senior Democrats in the party - African-Americans - defending Biden. I mean, like, James Clyburn, the House majority whip of South Carolina, he is coming to Biden's defense. Explain why that might be.

SIMMONS: Well, listen. Like I said, a lot of people really like Vice President Biden, admire Vice President Biden. I am one of them. Traditional Democrats will be for whoever the Democratic nominee is. Those atypical Democrats who don't always vote, they show up when they're inspired. So I just think Vice President Biden is going to have to speak to that part of the party while he's also making his case to the establishment.

SHAPIRO: Biden is 76 years old, and there is a long history of people kind of making excuses for generational differences, especially when it comes to race. How much of this is simply a generational divide?

SIMMONS: Oh, I think a lot of it is generational. I think of, you know, sometimes when you're out and about and you maybe go visit a friend. I'm African-American. I have been at events with white friends where they had family members who, you know, just would randomly start talking about Denzel Washington or Michael Jordan as people they admired. (Laughter) And you wonder - you know, it's apropos of nothing. You wonder, why is that?

SHAPIRO: Right. Or they're using outdated language or any number of things. Right.

SIMMONS: Sure. And they're trying to find a way to relate, but it's kind of ham-handed. And you know, because they mean well, you kind of give them permission and keep moving. I think that that's probably true of somebody who comes from Vice President Biden's generation. The question is, is that the best Democratic nominee that the Democratic Party can field against Donald Trump?

SHAPIRO: That's Democratic strategist Jamal Simmons. Thanks for joining us.

SIMMONS: Thank you for having me. It's good to talk to you.

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