The problem with a lifetime in public service is a lifetime in public service.
Enter Joe Biden, whose list of former offices and distinctions exceeds my word limit, and the recent scandal of his nurturing of working relationships with segregationists Sens. James O. Eastland and Herman Talmadge back in the 1970s.
Unsolicited, Biden proffered this history at a fundraiser last Tuesday to illustrate his record of forging consensus even with those with whom he disagrees, as he presumably would as president of the United States.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
Hoo boy, son.
If one wishes to expand comity, one probably shouldn’t attach oneself to a long-dead, die-hard racist who called African Americans “an inferior race.” Surely Biden has worked with others since the ’70s who were less despicable?
And, what’s with bringing up “boy”?
The former vice president is notorious for saying strange things that range from inappropriate to daft to comedic to offensive. In 2007, Biden notoriously referred to Barack Obama as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean.” He’s still in politics because?
A year earlier, Biden had made another cringey remark during a speech in Columbia, South Carolina. In a strained attempt to establish commonality, he remarked that Delaware had also been a “slave state.”
I can’t speak for Delaware, but as a South Carolinian, I can confidently assert that slavery was not our proudest moment. Nor was Jim Crow and its horrific terrorist manifestations. Everyone, including Biden, knows that when a racist white person referred to an adult, black male by calling him “boy,” it was intended to diminish and intimidate. So what made Biden think it was a good idea to invoke that?
Sometimes, there’s just no accounting for what Biden says, or why. The boy-son comment came out of nowhere. We can only chalk it up to Joe-ness — Joe being Joe. Biden watchers could fill a book with malapropisms that have slipped the lips of the widely beloved, nicest guy in Washington.
But no one thinks Biden is a racist or that he ever intends to hurt others’ feelings, in contrast to the current occupant of the White House. Surely even Sen. Cory Booker, D-N.J., shares this view, and yet he latched onto Biden’s remarks like a barnacle on a whale, demanding that the former vice president apologize for touting relationships with proud segregationists.
As one of 20 Democratic presidential candidates who aren’t breaking double digits in the polls, Booker surely also saw Biden’s self-inflicted debacle as a way to distinguish himself. It certainly gave Booker ample airtime on cable news shows last week, and it prompted Biden to demand that Booker apologize to him. (The two did chat by phone Wednesday night, but apparently no apologies were exchanged.)
On Thursday, the heat turned up further on Biden after archived correspondence between him and Eastland was reported by The Washington Post. The letters showed that Biden was eager to work with the avowed racist to advance Biden’s 1977 legislative push to block the busing of students to integrate schools.
This sounds terrible in the context of our times. But 40 years ago, busing was a divisive, painful issue. It’s more than possible that the much-younger Biden was responding to contemporaneous concerns, even if it meant drafting the help of the worst kind.
Neither Biden nor Booker emerged from this fracas as the better man. Biden so easily could have said, “Look, I picked a lousy example, but I was trying to say that I’ll work with anybody to get results. That I was then working to stop busing wasn’t about segregation for me but about protecting children from upheaval and unknown collateral damage. I’m sorry for that now, but I acted in good faith, as I always do.”
Booker, though he may have been personally offended by Biden’s recollection, clearly magnified the long-ago offense and the current comments for political gain. Such transparently opportunistic trolling lacks proportionality, especially when no one thinks that Biden’s intent was to convey approval of segregation or its proponents.
A better tack for Booker would have been to solemnly shake his head in recognition of Biden’s limitations and his out-of-touch foolishness, which, he might mournfully note, is not uncommon among those of a certain age.
Kathleen Parker is a columnist for The Washington Post. Her email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.