Joe Biden says he wasn’t excusing the vile racism of James Eastland, the former senator from Mississippi and ardent segregationist, when he talked about how he and Eastland worked together in the Senate. He was just, he says, contrasting their warm relationship to the “civility” now missing from the body, and all of American politics. He was, he insists, expressing sentiments similar to those of Ted Kennedy. More important, he was reflecting one of the core arguments for his candidacy: I know how to reach across seemingly insurmountable divisions, not merely of party and ideology but also of morality and values, to make government work. While his rivals for the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination are excoriating Biden’s remarks, prominent black Democrats like South Carolina’s Jim Clyburn are defending him.
Still, the incident revealed something more fundamental about Biden than his instinct for bipartisanship and compromise: He’s a time traveler.
Story Continued Below
That’s only a quasi-metaphor. Biden is, to use one of his favorite words, literally a figure out of the past, a visitor from history who is burdened with political instincts shaped half a century ago. When Kennedy praised Eastland upon the Mississippi senator’s retirement, the year was 1978. Biden has arrived at the most crucial moment of his career as if he had been transported from a distant time and place, to an arena that in many ways he seems not to comprehend. This core trait of Biden is visible in everything from his jokes to his campaign themes. And it has the potential to fatally undermine his candidacy.
Like most of us, politicians carry with them powerful influences from their past. Lyndon Johnson never forgot the humiliations of his youth, the poverty and loss of status that crushed his father. Richard Nixon never forgot the scorn of the elites as he pursued the espionage case against Alger Hiss. For Biden, his enduring memories and his understanding of politics were shaped by his entry into the U.S. Senate in 1973 just as he turned 30 years old.
It was a Senate dominated by Southern Democrats, who held the whip hand over just about every aspect of American politics. Herman Talmadge of Georgia chaired the Agriculture Committee; Arkansas’ John McClellan chaired Appropriations; Mississippi’s John Stennis oversaw Armed Services; Alabama’s John Sparkman chaired Banking; Russell Long of Louisiana headed Finance, and Eastland chaired the Judiciary Committee, as he would do from 1955 until his retirement 20 years later.
These Southern potentates, and their forebears, made common cause with FDR, JFK and LBJ on matters of domestic policy, but they drew the line on matters of race. And Democratic presidents, and liberal senators, had to find ways to live and work with this fundamental fact. Social Security? Yes, but not for maids and farmworkers. A role for federal financing of mortgages for the middle class? Yes, but federal agencies red-lined black neighborhoods and ensured that the suburbs would be segregated. Tribute was paid to racism on a regular basis, and make no mistake, racism was why these men held power, and at the core of how they wielded it.
Georgia’s Richard Russell, hailed as a parliamentary genius for his mastery of Senate rules—one of the three Senate office buildings is named for him—used that mastery to kill decades of civil rights legislation. And while Russell wrapped himself in the mantle of constitutional principles, his biographer Gilbert C. Fite wrote, “White supremacy and racial segregation were to him cardinal principles for good and workable human relationships.” An academic study concluded that “Russell believed that blacks were inferior to whites, both biologically and socially, and therefore blacks needed white guidance and control in order to survive and prosper.”
As for Eastland, here is what he told a meeting of the White Citizens Council in the mid 1950s, as told in Robert Caro’s Master of the Senate: “When in the course of human events it becomes necessary to abolish the Negro race, proper methods should be used. Among these are guns, bows and arrows, slingshots and knives.”
The idea of cloaking a man with such views in the mantle of “civility” is, to state the obvious, repugnant. Celebrating common ground over issues like budgets or taxes or foreign aid with those who argue for white supremacy, however necessary it may have seemed 50 years ago, is close to unfathomable today. But in the political realities of half a century ago, you learned to deal with the Eastlands and the Talmadges and the Russells of the Senate with deference; it was the price of accomplishing anything at all. And if you are now competing for the presidency with those formative experiences still animating your view of politics, you are offering that view before audiences who have no memory of, and no patience with, bigots who used their power for racial oppression.
At times, Biden seems to think that he’s not the only time traveler walking among us. He speaks of Republicans as if they will awaken from a fugue state, with the fog clearing from their vision, if Trump is defeated. But the Republicans in the Senate when Biden arrived in the early 1970s bear no resemblance to today’s breed. Biden’s colleagues of a half-century ago included a platoon of moderates and liberals: Lowell Weicker of Connecticut, Charles Percy of Illinois, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, Clifford Case of New Jersey, Jacob Javits of New York, Howard Baker of Tennessee, George Aiken of Vermont.
Over the decades he served in with Senate, Biden witnessed the disappearance of such Republicans, as well as the steady erosion of comity. Biden may remember Bob Dole’s assertion at the 1996 GOP convention that Bill Clinton “is my opponent, not my enemy.” But today, Biden is running against a president who literally calls Democrats treasonous enemies who want to destroy the country. To win his party’s presidential nomination, Biden needs to acknowledge that he sees the rogue elephant in the room, that he is aware of our present moment, that he is not under the delusion that the very real comity of his youth is anything close to reality today.
The perils of a time-traveling candidate are also visible in Biden’s jokes about young women, as when he tells the parents or brothers of a pre-adolescent girl: “You’ve got one job here: keep the guys away from your sister.” He said to Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan, after meeting his teenage daughters, “I want to know, do you have a big, big fence around your house?” It’s a line Biden has used on a more or less regular basis, as is this “advice” he has given to more than one young girl: “Just remember, no serious guys until you’re 30.”
These jokes may have resonated 40 or 50 years ago. No doubt they went down well at Rotary Clubs and union halls in the 1970s, along with quips about the spending habits of wives. In 2019, they are as anachronistic as his habit of offering unsolicited hugs and back rubs. In today’s #MeToo environment, jokes about helpless women who need the aid of their family members to ward off predatory males sound creepy and clueless. It takes nothing away from Biden’s lifelong support for women’s rights to note that there’s something off about all this, as though he were campaigning in another time and place.
Of course, should Biden win the nomination, he will be competing against another time traveler, a figure who seems to have stepped out of the New York City of four decades ago, fixated on staggeringly high crime rates, racial divisiveness and Archie Bunker’s grievances. (The president is apparently helpless in dealing with the mysteries of the computer, preferring hard copy as any citizen of 1975 would.) The difference, though, is that the heart and soul of Donald Trump’s political party shares the backward-looking frame through which he sees the world, while Biden’s party is light years away from where it was two generations ago.
It is by now a commonplace to note the advantages Biden brings to the race come with liabilities. His experience makes him a comforting familiar figure to most Democrats, but it also means he must explain parts of his career that took place when the political climate was very different from now. The greater liability, however, may not lie in his decades of voting records or his past opposition to busing or support for the Hyde Amendment, but in the sense that he is restoring a Democratic Party that younger liberals want to bury. Biden’s future depends on his capacity to free himself from the past that made him.