Biden and Democratic Rivals Exchange Attacks Over His Remarks on Segregationists

[18 Questions. 21 Democrats. Here’s What They Said.]

“I just really don’t understand for the life of me what the vice president could have been thinking, to bring the names of Talmadge and the others who are well-known conservative segregationists into any conversation referencing civility,” said Leah Daughtry, a veteran Democratic strategist who ran the 2008 and 2016 Democratic National Conventions and is African-American. She added, “He needs to issue an apology immediately.”

Mr. Biden, who is running for president in part on a message of national unity and reaching out to those with different viewpoints, particularly courted Eastland, in spite of his racist views and remarks.

The two men developed an “unlikely relationship,” as Mr. Biden put it in his 2007 book, as Eastland helped Mr. Biden achieve his first seat of power on the Senate Judiciary Committee. Mr. Biden and Eastland sharply disagreed on several civil rights-related matters, but they were also convenient allies, as both were vocal opponents of school integration through busing, a controversial topic at the time.

According to archives of The News Journal, the main newspaper serving Mr. Biden’s hometown, Wilmington, Del., he would also go on to present himself as a go-between on the Judiciary Committee for conservatives like Eastland and liberals like Edward M. Kennedy of Massachusetts, and to say that his criminal justice positions are “equidistant’ between the two factions.”

For Mr. Biden, the early Democratic front-runner, his remarks about Eastland and Talmadge — and the pointed criticism he drew on Wednesday — are a sharp example of how much Mr. Biden’s long record can be as much baggage as résumé.

Far from running away from his past, he has, in his seven-week-old campaign, proactively brought up his ties to multiple politicians who had records of opposing the civil rights movement, from Eastland and Talmadge to Senator Jesse Helms, the North Carolina arch-conservative. Mr. Biden routinely characterizes that era and those relationships as more civil and functional, with less demonization of the other side, even amid vigorous clashes over explosive issues like race.

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