Former Vice President Joe Biden addressed his earlier comments on working with unapologetically segregationist colleagues by telling reporters he does not “have a racist bone” in his body.
The 2020 Democratic candidate was asked Wednesday evening whether he would apologize for talking about two Southern segregationist lawmakers, the late Sens. James Eastland (D-Miss.) and Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.), while fondly recalling legislative “civility” back in the 1970s and 1980s. Biden responded with: “Apologize for what?”
“Cory [Booker] should apologize,” Biden said, referring to critical comments the New Jersey senator made about the former vice president earlier in the day. “He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body, I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career: Period. Period. Period.”
Biden, 76, has faced heavy criticism from his fellow candidates over comments he made at a fundraiser on Tuesday about his past history in the Senate. During the event, Biden recalled working with Eastland and Talmadge, both staunch segregationists who vehemently opposed efforts to integrate the U.S.
He made the comments the day before Juneteenth — a day that commemorates the official end of chattel slavery in America.
“I know the new New Left tells me that I’m ― this is old-fashioned,” Biden, who was elected to the Senate in 1973, said at the event, per a pool report. He then went on to note how Eastland used to call him “son” rather than “boy” and referred to Talmadge as “one of the meanest guys I ever knew” to emphasize how he worked with them despite their differences.
“Well guess what? At least there was some civility,” Biden continued. “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.”
Booker, also a 2020 candidate, issued a statement shortly after the event, lambasting Biden’s recollection of segregationists to make a point and calling him “wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together.”
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity,” Booker said. He later called on Biden to make an immediate apology “for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans.”
Booker also addressed Biden’s refusal to apologize during an interview with CNN’s Don Lemon on Wednesday night, calling the former vice president’s comments “so insulting.”
Other Democratic candidates, including New York City Mayor Bill De Blasio (D) and Sens. Kamala Harris (D-Calif.) and Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), issued their own calls for Biden to walk back his statements.
Biden defended himself in his brief comments to reporters on Wednesday, championing his record in the Senate and his stances while serving on the chamber’s Judiciary Committee.
“Here’s the deal. I could not have disagreed with Jim Eastland more,” Biden said. “I ran for United States Senate because I disagreed with the views of the segregationists. … 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, but you just simply make the case and you beat them. You beat them without changing the system.”
Biden appeared to walk back some of his comments during a campaign event later Wednesday evening, telling guests in Maryland that he had to “put up with the likes” of Eastland of Talmadge.
“We in fact detested what they stood for in terms of segregation and all the rest,” Biden said, according to a pool report, recalling his work with the late Sen. Ted Kennedy to advance legislation like the Voting Rights Act.
The former vice president has been seen as an instant front-runner in the race to unseat President Donald Trump during the next election. But his vaunted status has already prompted regular attacks from his fellow candidates, even if Biden himself has tried to mostly ignore the nearly two dozen lawmakers vying to secure the nomination.
The first Democratic debates will be held next week over a two-day period.
This story has been updated with additional comments from Biden and Booker.