Joe Biden got it right, it’s just that he said it in the wrong country. In Joe’s country, getting it right is wrong, and the unwary pay for it. In Joe’s country, a sucker never gets an even break, and everybody’s a sucker.
Joe’s country is the modern Democratic Party, where the grown-ups looked at the field of dwarfs, concluded that not even Snow White could find a credible candidate for president among that motley crew of 25, and figured that Joe, who might not scare the horses, was the man they needed. He would be the wise, avuncular graybeard needed to steady the mayhem in the nursery.
Joe looks credible. He has been around the track a few times. He knows how Washington works (when it works). He would know how things get done. He told a group of early donors that one of “my greatest strengths is bringing people together,” and observed that when he got to Washington in 1972, to serve his first term in the Senate, he would work with men whose political views he opposed if he had to do that to accomplish good things, as he and his constituents defined “good” things.
Affecting an unconvincing Southern drawl, he told his donors how he was in a Senate caucus with James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, and worked with them to accomplish some of those good things. Sen. Eastland “never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’ “
The dwarfs leaped. Democrats too young to remember the bad old days and too busy with their own prejudices to learn much now, let fly with accusations that Joe had been in a conspiracy with the Southern Democrats of that day to plot with them to perpetuate racism, bigotry, white supremacy and maybe even genocide, in the words of Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey, to “strip black Americans of our very humanity.”
No one among the wicked Southerners had ever accused Joe of being their blood brother, figuring Delaware was full of Yankees and Yankees were probably beyond hope. When Joe arrived in Washington he found a Congress that was tightly controlled by Southern Democrats. All but one or two senators from the Confederate states were Democrats who had been in Washington forever, since in those days election to Congress as a Democrat from the South was a lifetime sinecure.
Six of the first 10 senators at the top of the seniority list were Southerners, all Democrats, including both senators from Arkansas and Mississippi. They ran the Senate as a private preserve, controlling the committees and committee assignments. At the end of Reconstruction, when white men could vote again, the South figured that taking control of Congress was the key to survival, and men (and an occasional woman) elected to Congress could count on staying there until taken out in a pine box. So who was Joe, ranking 100 in seniority, supposed to work with if he insisted on not speaking to or acknowledging those with whom he disagreed? Insult and shunning may the strategy of Cory Booker or Kamala Harris in the year 2019, but a half-century ago nobody in Washington could imagine how such a strategy would work.
Three years after he arrived in Congress, Joe broke with the liberals over court-ordered busing, which would eventually destroy local public schools in many towns and cities. Busing, he said, was “a bankrupt idea [that violates] the cardinal rule of common sense.” Busing became so unpopular, first with white and then with black parents, that George Wallace of Alabama won the Democratic presidential primaries even in several northern states. Kamala Harris remembers how she, as a little girl in pigtails, thought busing was wonderful, but it’s not clear why she had to ride a court-ordered bus to a distant school since California had never segregated the races anywhere. She has since “clarified” her views on busing, having learned that she might not have known what she was talking about.
When one of the dwarfs demanded that Joe apologize for keeping a civil tongue in the company of Jim Eastland, Herman Talmadge and other Southerners in the Senate, his first reaction was to demand an apology for himself, for the imputation of racism because he practiced basic good manners in the workplace. But in Joe’s country courage is held cheap, and quickly fades.
He had to be housebroken. He finally apologized for working with Messrs. Eastland and Talmadge, both now dead, and then apologized a day later for his apology not being apologetic enough. Such is grim life in Joe’s country, where the Democratic powers that be are determined to set up a slam dunk for Donald Trump.
• Wesley Pruden is editor in chief emeritus of The Times.