Biden, in Interview With Sharpton, Tries to Defuse Criticism of Remarks on Segregationists

COLUMBIA, S.C. — Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Saturday sought to tamp down anger over his praise for the bygone civility of a Senate that included notorious segregationists, stopping just short of an apology while asserting that his reference to never being called “boy” by one of the senators was not racial in nature.

Appearing on the Rev. Al Sharpton’s MSNBC program after addressing the South Carolina Democratic convention, Mr. Biden said he grasped why some may have taken offense to his reference but “to the extent that anybody thought that I meant something different, that is not what I intended.” He added: “I do understand the consequence of the word ‘boy.’ But it wasn’t said in any of that context at all.”

Appearing at a fund-raiser in New York City this past week, Mr. Biden touched off a dayslong controversy by recalling that the Senate was a more civil and productive body even when such racists as former Senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia were serving. Mr. Biden recalled of Mr. Eastland, “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”

[We tracked down the 2020 Democrats and asked them the same set of questions. Watch them answer.]

But in his interview with Mr. Sharpton, with whom he has a warm relationship, Mr. Biden explained that the term was meant as a pejorative against him because he was only in his 30s when he served with Mr. Eastland, the longtime chair of the Judiciary Committee.

“He said I’m not even qualified to be in the Senate,” Mr. Biden said. “I’m not old enough, I’m a kid, I’m a kid.”

The former vice president, who would eventually forge a more friendly relationship with Mr. Eastland, also used the interview to amplify his rhetoric against the old Southern Democrats, calling them “a bunch of racists.”

And as his staff looked on intensely from the set on the convention floor, Mr. Biden expounded at length about his civil rights record and even his youthful employment as a lifeguard in an African-American part of Wilmington, Del., his hometown.

Shortly before Mr. Biden relitigated the comments that had created the recent controversy for his campaign, he caught something of a break when Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey sought to cool tensions between them.

“There’s no hatchet,” said Mr. Booker, who had sharply criticized Mr. Biden’s remarks, when he was asked by reporters whether he and Mr. Biden had buried the hatchet. “I have a lot of respect and gratitude for the vice president.”

In addition to his appearance with Mr. Sharpton, Mr. Biden also used his trip to South Carolina, an early nominating state, to appeal to another crucial constituency who he has unnerved in recent weeks: abortion rights supporters.

Speaking at a Planned Parenthood candidate forum, Mr. Biden sought to reassure a heavily female audience about his commitment to protecting access to abortion. He vowed that, if elected president, he would reverse the Trump administration’s policies limiting abortion rights and would seek to codify Roe v. Wade in federal law.

Making his first appearance before an abortion rights group since rescinding his support for the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds for most abortions, Mr. Biden told members of Planned Parenthood that state-level efforts by Republicans to curb access to reproductive services had prompted him to change his mind.

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This month Mr. Biden had reversed himself on the issue in the space of a day after coming under immense pressure from groups such as Planned Parenthood and a broader array of liberal activists who believe that Democrats must not accept what they see as old compromises at a moment an emboldened Republican Party is seeking to outlaw abortion.

Sitting onstage between two Planned Parenthood officials and gripping a handful of filled-out notecards, Mr. Biden, a Roman Catholic who has long wrestled with how to balance his faith with his support for abortion rights, bristled for a moment when he was asked about what one of the moderators called his “mixed record” on abortion rights.

“I’m not sure about the mixed-record part,” he said, before turning to more favorable ground with the group.

Mr. Biden won applause as he recalled the gains for women in the Affordable Care Act, noting that “pregnancy can’t be a pre-existing condition” any longer, but he stumbled over the statistics as he sought to highlight South Carolina’s high rate of maternal mortality.

The lingering question for Mr. Biden in the wake of his change of heart on public funding for abortion and his longing for the 1970s Senate is whether he is losing favor from current or would-be supporters.

The former vice president’s allies pointed to the enthusiastic reception he received Friday at South Carolina’s Democratic convention and Representative James E. Clyburn’s late-night fish fry, where Mr. Biden stayed until nearly midnight shaking hands and posing for pictures with a heavily African-American audience.

“I’ve not heard anybody say, ‘I was for Biden until I heard this,’” said James Smith, a former state lawmaker who ran for governor of South Carolina last year at Mr. Biden’s urging. “They know who Joe Biden is, and they’re not disturbed at all by any of this.”

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