COLUMBUS — Joe Biden keeps getting himself in trouble with verbal gaffes that could cost him the Democratic presidential nomination that he’s sought for more than 30 years.
One recent Biden gaffe could do more. It could give “civility” a bad name.
That’s too bad.
One example with a connection to former Ohio Sen. Howard Metzenbaum, a liberal and longtime civil rights supporter, shows that being civil, even with a fellow lawmaker tarnished by a segregationist past, can have a positive result.
Biden’s boast at a June fundraiser this year didn’t have that result, at least for his presidential campaign. He recalled that after entering the Senate in 1973 he got along with the late Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, fellow Democrats who were also strong segregationists.
“Well guess what?” said the former vice president, according to a pool report quoted by the New York Times. “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.”
His remarks sparked rebukes from, among others, Sens. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., and Corey Booker, D-N.J., two of his opponents for the Democratic nomination who are black.
Biden seemed to exalt “civility” while minimizing the evil of the segregationist politics practiced by Eastland and Talmadge.
What didn’t get mentioned were examples of the positive “things” civility can achieve.
That brings us to Metzenbaum, who served three full Senate terms from 1977 to 1995, and gun control, an issue dear to most Democrats’ hearts.
Metzenbaum, who died at age 90 in 2008, was much better known for sharp elbows than civility in a political career spanning more than half a century.
Yet when it counted in 1988 Metzenbaum forged an alliance with Republican senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, whose segregationist past matched the histories of Eastland and Talmadge.
The Metzenbaum-Thurmond cooperation produced a modest victory on gun control, a subject about which even modest victories are now rare.
“Unlikely Duo Teams Up on ‘Plastic Gun’ Bill,” read the 1988 headline in Congressional Quarterly, the highly regarded journal of what Congress does — and does not — accomplish.
Metzenbaum and Thurmond formed the duo.
They were prime movers behind the bill, signed into law by Republican President Ronald Reagan, with whom Metzenbaum seldom agreed. It banned guns that, because of their plastic content, cannot be detected by security equipment in airports and government buildings.
The law was most recently renewed for 10 years in 2013.
Congressional Quarterly’s headline didn’t exaggerate the meaning of “unlikely.”
There were few stronger supporters of civil rights in Ohio during the 20th century than Metzenbaum.
As a state legislator in the 1940s, he introduced a proposal to ban racial and religious discrimination in hiring. He marched in the South to protest the policies espoused by Talmadge, Eastland and Thurmond.
I first met Metzenbaum in the 1970s when he came to Akron to honor City Council President Eddie Davis who was leaving his council seat to become clerk of council.
In 1957 Davis had become Akron’s first black city councilman. He and Metzenbaum were longtime allies.
“He’s the one politician I can get excited about,” Davis told me later.
Thurmond, however, was not a politician who excited Davis. Thurmond had been elected South Carolina governor as a Democrat. In 1948, however, he joined other southern Democrats in bolting the party after Democrats adopted a pro-civil rights plank at their national convention.
These “Dixiecrats” formed the States’ Rights Democratic Party and made Thurmond their candidate for president. As the pro-segregation candidate he won 39 electoral votes. Thurmond in 1964 defected from the Democrats for good to become a Republican and support Barry Goldwater for president. He was 100 when he died in 2003.
By 1988 it wasn’t as hard for Metzenbaum and Thurmond to get along as it might have been earlier. When blacks in South Carolina got the vote, Thurmond began hiring black staffers and even voted for the Martin Luther King national holiday.
He never full renounced his segregationist past, however.
Still, he and Metzenbaum learned to agree one day, disagree the next and still speak to each other on the third day.
That is the way to get things done, but only if they’re worth doing.
Hershey is a former Washington correspondent and Columbus bureau chief for the Beacon Journal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.