Joe Biden refused calls to apologize Wednesday for saying that the Senate "got things done" with "civility" even when the body included segregationists.
The former vice president was particularly defiant in rejecting criticism from Sen. Cory Booker, one of two major black candidates seeking the Democratic nomination. The New Jersey Democrat had called on Biden to apologize for his comments. By Wednesday night, Biden said it was Booker who should apologize because the senator "should know better" than to question his commitment to civil rights.
The firestorm is quickly becoming one of the most intense disputes of the Democratic presidential primary, underscoring the hazards for Biden as he tries to turn his decades of Washington experience into an advantage. Instead, he's infuriating Democrats who say he's out of step with the diverse party of the 21st century and potentially undermining his argument that he's the most electable candidate in the race.
The controversy began at a New York fundraiser Tuesday when Biden pointed to long-dead segregationist senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia to argue that Washington functioned more smoothly a generation ago than under today's "broken" hyperpartisanship.
"We didn't agree on much of anything," Biden said of the two men, who were prominent senators when Biden was elected in 1972. Biden described Talmadge as "one of the meanest guys I ever knew" and said Eastland called him "son," though not "boy," a reference to the racist way many whites addressed black men at the time.
Yet even in that Senate, Biden said, "At least there was some civility. We got things done."
Booker said he was disappointed by Biden's remarks.
"I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together," the New Jersey Democrat said in a statement that was especially notable coming from a candidate who entered the 2020 contest vowing to highlight "the best of who we are and not the worst."
Asked Wednesday by reporters whether he would be apologizing, as Booker had suggested, Biden said, "Apologize for what?" He then said: "Cory should apologize. He should know better. There's not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career."
Biden said his Tuesday remarks were about renewing the Voting Rights Act that first passed in 1965.
"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," he said Wednesday. "But you just simply make the case and you beat them without changing the system."
Booker wasn't the only 2020 candidate who criticized Biden.
New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, a fellow Democratic presidential candidate and a white man who is married to a black woman, tweeted that "Eastland thought my multiracial family should be illegal."
California Sen. Kamala Harris, a black presidential candidate, said Biden was "coddling" segregationists in a way that "suggests to me that he doesn't understand ... the dark history of our country" — a characterization Biden's campaign rejects.
Cedric Richmond, Biden's campaign co-chairman and former Congressional Black Caucus chairman, said Biden's opponents deliberately ignored the full context of his argument for a more functional government.
"Maybe there's a better way to say it, but we have to work with people, and that's a fact," Richmond said, noting he dealt recently with President Donald Trump to pass a long-sought criminal justice overhaul. "I question his racial sensitivity, a whole bunch of things about his character ... but we worked together."
Likewise, Richmond said, Biden mentioned Jim Crow-era senators to emphasize the depths of disagreements elected officials sometimes navigate. "If he gets elected president, we don't have 60 votes in the Senate" to overcome filibusters, Richmond noted. "He could be less genuine and say, 'We're just going to do all these things.' But we already have a president like that. (Biden) knows we have to build consensus."
Biden also drew a qualified defense from Republican Sen. Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only black senator from his party. Scott said that Biden "should have used a different group of senators" to make his point but that his remarks "have nothing to do with his position on race" issues. Scott said the reaction reflects an intense environment for Democrats in which the desire to defeat Trump means "anything the front-runner says that is off by a little bit" will be magnified.
The flare-up came on Juneteenth, the commemoration of the end of slavery in the United States, and on the same day that a congressional panel held an initial hearing on the idea of reparations to compensate Americans who suffer from the legacy of slavery and racism.
For his part, Biden has displayed some self-awareness about the political peril of talking about dealing with unsavory colleagues. He sometimes notes he will "get in trouble" before making his standard pitch that the "other side" is "the opposition" but not "the enemy."
In March, before he announced his bid, Biden clarified remarks in which he called Vice President Mike Pence a "decent guy" after activists noted the Republican's opposition to LGBTQ civil rights protections. Biden said his statement came in a "foreign policy context" and added, "There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ civil rights."
Some liberals have hammered Biden for predicting that Republicans will have an "epiphany" and start working with Democrats once Trump has left office; Biden's critics note the GOP blockade of President Barack Obama, whom Biden served for eight years as vice president.
Biden has written and spoken for years of his relationships across a spectrum of politicians.
Earlier this year, he eulogized former Sen. Fritz Hollings of South Carolina, who was once a segregationist state legislator and governor. In 2003, Biden gave the same honor to Republican Strom Thurmond, another South Carolina politician who was among the first "Southern Democrats" to leave the party over its civil rights stances.
At a May fundraiser in New Hampshire, Biden recalled as a young senator wanting to denounce then-North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms, a racially divisive figure, for opposing a proposed forerunner to what eventually became the American with Disabilities Act. Biden said he thought Helms "had no redeeming social value," but remembered being talked down by another senator who told him that Helms and his wife had adopted a son with cerebral palsy.
Biden's takeaway was to question his colleagues' "judgment" but "not motives."