President Biden reminisced Friday about the cordial and chummy relationship that existed decades ago between lawmakers of all stripes, including avowed segregationists, during a visit to Ohio.
Mr. Biden, who traveled to Cincinnati to tout his administration’s efforts to create jobs, made the comments when offering praise for retiring GOP Sen. Rob Portman of Ohio.
“Since he’s not running again, I can say all the nice things about him that I want and it won’t get him into any trouble,” said Mr. Biden. “The truth of the matter is [that] while we may not agree on everything … I want to thank him for his leadership in bringing folks together to find common ground.”
The president said that Mr. Portman, who helped author the administration’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure package, was a throwback to a more genteel era on Capitol Hill. While deriding the partisan atmosphere now synonymous with Washington, Mr. Biden invoked his past relationships in the Senate as proof that civility in politics was once possible.
“You know, things have kind of changed since the days when I first got there,” said Mr. Biden, who served in the Senate between 1973 and 2009. “We always used to fight like hell and even back in the old days when we had real segregationists, like [James] Eastland and [Strom] Thurmond and all those guys, but at least we ended up eating lunch together.”
“Things have changed and we got to bring it back,” the president said. “And Rob, I’m sorry you’re leaving, you’re one of the good guys … because of the way you treat other senators.”
The remarks are similar to those that got Mr. Biden in hot water during his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination in 2019. At the time, Mr. Biden stirred controversy by praising the civility of two arch segregationists with whom he’d served in the Senate during the early 1970s.
One of those individuals was James Eastland, a segregationist Mississippi Democrat who chaired the powerful Senate Judiciary Committee during Mr. Biden’s first term in the chamber.
“He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’” Mr. Biden said at the time of Eastland. “At least there was some civility. … We didn’t agree on much of anything. … But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
At the time, the comments were widely condemned from both sides of the political spectrum. Some of the most prominent rebukes, however, came from Mr. Biden’s competitors for the Democratic nomination, including now-Vice President Kamala Harris.
“I do not believe you are a racist and I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” said Ms. Harris, then a California senator, during a Democratic primary debate in June 2019. “But, I also believe and it’s personal and it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
The White House did not respond to requests for comment on this story.