Joe Biden hasn’t heard the last of his comments at a fundraiser last week. The former vice president reminded the gathering the nation’s capital once was a place where politicians found ways to get past their differences and notch achievements. Unfortunately, he cited as an example of such work two arch segregationists, James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Tallmadge of Georgia. No surprise that rivals for the Democratic presidential nomination jabbed Biden for his reference.
U.S. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey called for Biden to apologize. Writing in the Washington Post, Wil Haygood, a former Post reporter and a visiting professor at Miami University, recalled how ugly and offensive Eastland, in particular, was, criticizing the performance of black servicemen in World War II and scheming to prevent the confirmation of Thurgood Marshall, the first African-American justice on the Supreme Court.
In 1988 and two decades later, Biden proved a dismal candidate for president. His problem, in part, was what came out of his mouth, inviting questions about his judgment. Will the 76-year-old version raise his game? The safe bet is those joining him in pursuit of the nomination will return to this fundraiser when 20 of the candidates appear for two evenings of debate in Miami this week.
Biden initially responded to Booker with a question: “Apologize for what?” He then defended his strong record on civil rights. Yet hard not to cringe when Biden said about Eastland, “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’“ an awkward echo of the demeaning treatment of black men.
Still, as clumsily as Biden expressed himself, he had a point deserving attention, especially with many Democrats appearing to look down on the concept of compromise or give and take in governing. They do so in the wake of a Republican Party that increasingly has spurned such deal-making. Biden wasn’t so much praising Eastland and Tallmadge as recalling an era when “at least there was some civility,” and “we got things done.”
Biden added: “We didn’t agree on much of anything. … But today, you look at the other side, and you’re the enemy. … We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
The cry often goes that Washington is broken. It is worth weighing what really needs repair. It isn’t the structure of the government, the three branches working as checks and balances. Rather, the decision-makers haven’t been up to what the structure requires, the bridging of differences through compromise, that half-loaf better than no loaf at all.
This is what Biden meant when he noted many in his party may find him “old fashioned” and then told his audience: “Well, guess what? If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president.”
Take immigration. A win-win compromise has been evident for years. Yet congressional inaction has translated to the past two presidents taking steps that have triggered fierce opposition from the other side. Donald Trump ran as the real dealmaker. Three years later, he stands at the front of the pack seeking to profit, politically, from division.
Consider the words of U.S. Rep. John Lewis, a revered figure from the civil rights movement. He defended the Biden remarks by recalling that in those difficult and inspired days: “ … we worked with people and got to know people that were members of the Klan — people who opposed us, even people who beat us, and arrested and jailed us. We never gave up on our fellow human beings, and I will not give up on any human being.”
That is the spirit required to govern.