President Biden on Tuesday reminisced about lunching with the late segregationist Sen. James Eastland while urging members of Congress to build personal relationships with one another to improve political civility.
Biden made the remark about the Mississippi Democrat during an annual picnic with members of Congress on the White House lawn as Vice President Kamala Harris stood to his left.
Harris, the first black vice president, rebuked Biden during a 2019 Democratic primary debate for telling an earlier version of the story. She did not visibly react to the latest mention, though she did turn her head to look at Biden as he relayed the account.
“We used to have debates with me and, for example, Jim Eastland, with whom I agreed on virtually nothing except we were both senators. But we would debate like hell on the floor of the Senate and go and have lunch together,” Biden said.
“And [the late Arizona Republican Sen.] John McCain became one of my closest friends, even though John McCain and I were like brothers who would go at each other with hammer and tong.”
Biden added, “My point is, I hope that we do more of these kinds of events so you get to know your families, you get to know each other’s families…. That’s what made it so much easier 5, 10, 15, 20 years ago.”
In 2019, Harris tore into Biden after he talked to supporters about how he worked with Eastland and fellow segregationist Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.) in the 1970s.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said at the time, before saying in a Southern accent that the senator “never called me ‘boy,’” using a racist reference to black men.
“I do not believe you are racist,” Harris told Biden at June 2019 debate. “But I also believe, and it is personal — it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and careers on the segregation of race in this country.”
Eastland infamously proclaimed in 1954 that “segregation is not discrimination… It is the law of God.”
Biden mentioned Eastland after saying that knowing political opponents socially removes personal vitriol from policy debates.
“It’s hard to look at someone who you strongly disagree with and make it personal when you know they have a son or a daughter that has a problem. It’s hard when you get to know people because you see through the humanity and it changes things,” he said.
Biden referred to Eastland previously as president. In May, he reminisced in Ohio about bringing back “the old days” in the Senate when he was able to sit down for lunch with “real segregationists” such as Eastland and Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.).
“At least we’d end up eating lunch together. Things have changed. We gotta bring it back,” Biden said in that speech.
Biden’s Tuesday utterance came ahead of his evening departure for a high-stakes diplomatic mission to Israel and Saudi Arabia.
On Monday, first lady Jill Biden committed her own series of gaffes while telling a gathering of Hispanics that they were as diverse as “breakfast tacos.” In the same speech Monday, she mispronounced “bodega.” The first lady apologized through a spokesperson on Tuesday.
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