Presidential hopeful Joe Biden got himself into trouble this week defending his relationship with pro-segregationist senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia at New York fundraiser. “At least there was some civility,” the former vice president explained. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done.”
Biden was attempting to liken contemporary Republicans to 1970s-era Southern racist Democrats while also highlighting his history of bipartisan compromise. Although his comments were a political miscalculation, nowhere was the former vice president “waxing nostalgic” nor “fondly” remembering either of those lawmakers in his speech, despite the contentions of progressives, presidential candidates, and some in the media.
Then again, it’s fair to point out that the historic record shows Biden was far more than merely “civil” with segregationists. His early interactions can be more accurately described as obsequious. Biden hadn’t negotiated with political rivals to push bipartisan policy. He had worked with members of his own party—run by men who placed him in positions of power—on issues they agreed on.
Judging from the Senate transcripts and interviews of the time, it’s clear that Biden was an all-star opportunist. After watching the former Delaware senator shed 50 years of positions in the past few years, this should come as no surprise.
In 1973, Democratic Party leadership was teeming with unsavory Southern senators. If a freshman like Biden—who in a 1974 Time magazine profile admitted “to being compulsively ambitious”—wanted a plum committee position, he would be compelled to approach someone like J. William Fulbright, chairman of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, a segregationist and anti-Semite who would later become a mentor to the Clintons. (Bill awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1993 and Hillary still had her name on a shared fellowship in 2016—although no one seemed to mind very much).
And if Biden wanted to be on the judiciary committee, he would have to get along with Eastland, the “Voice of the White South,” who was chair and president pro tempore of the Senate. The stories about their chummy relationship aren’t new; Biden has been repeating them for decades.
“Eastland was particularly anxious to mentor young members,” J. Lee Annis notes in his book, “Big Jim Eastland: The Godfather of Mississippi.” “One favorite over the last term was Joseph Biden, who then was best known for having lost his wife and young daughter in an automobile accident.”
Eastland took an interest in Biden because the young senator shared his position on busing, one of the most contentious racial policy fights of the early 1970s. It was during this time that busing had turned working-class, union-heavy white areas like South Boston—the kind of district that launched Biden’s political career—into “war zones.” At the time there was “intense public disapproval of busing,” according to The New York Times. A 1974 Gallup poll, for example, only 15 percent of whites favored the policy, and 75 percent were against.
Biden, according Annis, showed Eastland “considerable deference” towards the Mississippi senator not because he was the key to freshman’s political ambitions but also an ally in the busing fight. Biden admits as much years later in his own 2008 book, “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics.” Eastland wasn’t just a powerful senator, Biden points out, but ran the committee “that handled all crime legislation, a committee on which I badly wanted to serve.” Until very recently, of course, Biden took great pride in being a tough-on-crime Democrat.
“I started by asking him questions. He was proud of his standing as the longest-serving senator and of his reputation as a keeper of the institutional flame,” Biden goes on to write, “I think he was flattered by the deference I showed him, and his answers to my questions often surprised me.” (Italics mine.)
All that deference would pay off. Eastland and Fulbright assigned Biden seats on both the judicial committee and, although he had absolutely no related experience, on the foreign relations committee. This afforded Biden a head start in his Senate career; a position that many other senators, perhaps less inclined to suck up to segregationists, were not given.
Eastland and Biden had hit it off so well, in fact, the elder senator offered to come to Delaware to help the freshman senator get reelected. “I’ll campaign for ya or against ya, Joe. Whichever way you think helps you the most.”
Now, it’s also true that the debate over busing was more complicated than revisionists suggest. Biden argued that the policy was often ham-fisted and ineffective. He framed his opposition as an effort to stop a failed program, rather than one meant to stop the integration of schools.
But, by any standard, Biden was not on the liberal side of the issue. In fact the senator was still fighting against busing four years after Eastman had already left the Senate. And he was still pretending to be a civil rights hero.
Gee, Democrats viewed racism as a political weapon back then, too.
Biden, regarding Biden, is as delusional as a person can get. He has a long and storied reputation for making up his own great accomplishments.