By any standard, Joe Biden is the Democratic presidential front-runner. The poll averages at RealClearPolitics, for example, show Biden with a commanding 32–15 lead over Bernie Sanders in national polls and leading Sanders by 27 percentage points in South Carolina, 13 in New Hampshire, 13 in Nevada, and six in Iowa. FiveThirtyEight shows Biden leading Kamala Harris in the race for endorsements. The bedrock of Biden’s support is African-American voters, among whom he led Sanders 50–10 in mid June in a national Economist/YouGov poll, and 50–13 in an early-June battleground-state CBS/YouGov poll, and led Elizabeth Warren 52–14 in a mid June Charleston Post and Courier poll of South Carolina. Most national polls show a similar picture.
There are obvious reasons that Democrats in general and black voters in particular are, for now, with the 76-year-old Biden. He carries a lot of good will from being Barack Obama’s devoted vice president; relations between the two were visibly warm. Biden’s name recognition and establishment support go a long way, too. For Democratic partisans focused mainly on beating Donald Trump, much can be forgiven of a guy who was on two winning national tickets and is seen as the “electable” candidate who can reach moderates and blue-collar white Midwesterners.
But in a political culture increasingly focused on past sins against racial and gender equality, Biden has long been sitting on a time bomb: his many enduring friendships and alliances with segregationist Dixiecrats. And by “segregationist,” I don’t mean “not totally on board with the progressive agenda circa 2019”; I mean the real-deal: signers of the pro–Jim Crow Southern Manifesto, “massive-resistance” bitter-enders, raisers of the Confederate flag on public property, you name it. The Senate Democratic caucus Joe Biden joined in 1973 was headed by a former Klansman, with notorious segregationists running virtually all the major committees. These men became Biden’s mentors and friends, and he had nothing but glowing words for them his whole career.
Tuesday night, at a fundraiser in New York, Biden lit the fuse on that bomb. In his report on the event, Jack Crowe writes at NRO that Biden
went on to praise Democratic senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both of whom steadfastly opposed racial integration and federal civil-rights protections for African Americans.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Mr. Biden said, slipping briefly into a Southern accent, according to the pool report. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
“Well guess what?” he continued. “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
This is far from an isolated incident. In 2017, at an Alabama rally for Doug Jones, Biden elaborated:
I’ve been around so long, I worked with James Eastland. . . . Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.
In 2016, Biden talked up his friendship with Eastland:
When Biden faced a reelection in 1978, Eastland even offered to help Biden’s Senate campaign. “I looked at Eastland. He said, ‘What can old Jim Eastland do for you in Delaware?’” Biden recounted at a 2016 Labor Day event in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. “I said, ‘Mr. Chairman, some places you’d help and some places you’d hurt.’ He said, ‘Well, I’ll come to Delaware and campaign for you or against you, whichever will help the most.’”
As Katie Glueck in the New York Times notes, Eastland and Talmadge were totally unreconstructed defenders of Jim Crow and unabashed defenders of white supremacy; Eastland maintained to the end that he had no regrets:
Mr. Eastland, a plantation owner, was known as a vociferous opponent of integration efforts and a staunch critic of the civil rights movement, which he sometimes dismissed as the work of “Communists.” Throughout his career he referred to African Americans as members of an “inferior race” and used the racist term “mongrelization.”
Mr. Talmadge was also a critic of the civil-rights movement and opposed the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional.
Talmadge’s response to the Brown decision: “There aren’t enough troops in the whole United States to make the white people of this state send their children to school with colored children.” (You can watch Talmadge in his own words here.)
Biden in the mid 1970s worked with both Eastland and Jesse Helms to fight busing, even writing to Eastland “to thank you again for your efforts in support of my bill to limit court ordered busing” and to invite the old segregationist to speak in favor of Biden’s proposal. Helms, for his part, was long a bête noire of liberals; Biden bragged of his friendship with Helms and his wife.
In April, Biden gave a glowing eulogy at the funeral of his longtime friend Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, with whom he served in the Senate until 2005; it was Hollings, a vocal supporter of segregation for his first decade and a half in office, who raised the Confederate battle flag over the South Carolina capitol in 1961. In 1955, Hollings described the NAACP as “against our way of life in the South” and snarled, “If the U.S. Supreme Court can declare certain organizations as subversive, I believe South Carolina can declare the NAACP both subversive and illegal.”
Biden had also spoken at the funeral of Strom Thurmond, the 1948 Dixiecrat candidate for president who later joined the Republican party; in 2002, Trent Lott was ousted as Republican Senate majority leader for praising Thurmond. (In the mid ’80s, Biden worked with Thurmond to force the Reagan administration to appoint a “drug czar.”) In 1997, praising his colleague on the occasion of becoming the longest-serving senator, Biden described Thurmond as “the consummate public servant,” waxed eloquent about “ his strength of character, his absolute honesty and integrity, his strong sense of fairness, and his commitment to public service” and added that he was “an absolute gentleman, unfailingly courteous and respectful of each individual’s dignity. Throughout a lifetime spent in the political arena, he has never forgotten that those who disagree with us are nonetheless entitled to being heard out and treated with dignity.”
In 1988, Biden praised Mississippi Senator John Stennis, another signatory of the Southern Manifesto, as “a man of character and courage” and gushed that to receive praise from Stennis was “beyond any expectation that I ever had in my wildest dreams”:
Then there’s Robert Byrd, the former Ku Klux Klan Exalted Cyclops who served in the Democratic Senate caucus until his death in 2010. Byrd, the second-ranking Democrat in the Senate from 1971 to 1976 and the Democratic leader from 1977 to 1988, wrote as a young man in 1945 to segregationist Mississippi senator Theodore Bilbo that Byrd would never fight in the armed forces “with a Negro by my side.” “Rather I should die a thousand times, and see old Glory trampled in the dirt never to rise again, than to see this beloved land of ours become degraded by race mongrels.” Biden eulogized Byrd, too, as “a dear friend . . . a mentor . . . and a guide” whom he “revere[d]” and also as the “most fierce defender of not only the state, but the way of life” of West Virginia.
In 1975, Biden supported a resolution by Harry Byrd — son of the longtime head of the Democratic machine in Jim Crow-era Virginia, and himself an independent senator because of his Dixiecrat leanings — to restore the citizenship of Robert E. Lee.
Nor was this sort of thing limited to his fellow Senators. In 1975, Biden argued that “the Democratic Party could stand a liberal George Wallace — someone who’s not afraid to stand up and offend people, someone who wouldn’t pander but would say what the American people know in their gut is right.” Wallace, who was then gearing up to run for president again in 1976, was known for his breakaway Dixiecrat campaign in 1968 and his mantra of “Segregation now, segregation forever!” Wallace would serve as the Democratic governor of Alabama until 1987. That year, during Biden’s first campaign for president, the Detroit Free Press noted that “campaigning in Alabama last April, Biden talked of his sympathy for the South, bragged of an award he had received from George Wallace in 1973, and said ‘we (Delawareans) were on the South’s side in the Civil War.’” Biden had bragged that Wallace described Biden as “one of the outstanding young politicians of America.”
Biden can, of course, offer excuses: Some of his old Dixiecrat friends repented; some became Republicans; some were run out of office by liberal challengers. A man ought to say nice things in a eulogy for a friend or a tribute to a retiring colleague, especially those who had showed Biden personal kindness after the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident in late 1972. Then again, some of the men he praised retired unrepentant, and some remained members of the Senate Democratic caucus in good standing well into the 21st century. None of Biden’s excuses would be considered acceptable if he was a Republican like Lott. Biden’s rivals, beginning with Cory Booker and Bill de Blasio, have already started to pounce; Booker thundered that “You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’…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.” De Blasio added, “Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal & that whites were entitled to ‘the pursuit of dead n*ggers.’”
With the first Democratic debates beginning next week, we may see soon enough if further criticism is enough to make African-American voters rethink their support for Joe Biden. If it isn’t, this could be a very short primary campaign.