Few ardent supporters of former Vice President Joe Biden would argue with the suggestion that he chose his words poorly when discussing his ability to work with Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia in the context of the civility that once existed in the Senate.
Yes, Eastland and Talmadge and plenty other conservative Democrats from the South in those days had backed segregation, Jim Crow laws, and other heinous policies that people would find shocking today. But how many of those most critical of Biden and most vocal on this issue were on Capitol Hill in the 1970s, or involved in politics, or, for that matter, even born, already walking or talking, or, more importantly, listening to and understanding what they were witnessing? Do they appreciate the fundamental difference in values today, versus 1973, when Biden first arrived in the Senate?
If they watched the Senate in operation then, they might understand what Biden was trying to say, however clumsily.
I was there. In fact, my first part-time job as a freshman in college was on Capitol Hill in the Senate, beginning in January 1973, the same month the then-30-year-old Biden was sworn into office.
It is easy to comb through the records of the Senate Dixiecrats and see words and deeds that seem from another planet today. It is understandable that some might see any senator who worked closely with such men, on any issue, even ones with little if any connection to civil rights, as collaborators, ex post facto accessories to the practice of segregation.
But the Senate, with 100 members, is a small place, especially when compared to the House. Senators dealt with each other daily—they might fight like cats and dogs on one issue, but were allies on another. Sen. Edward Kennedy was known for having a good working relationship with Eastland, who was his Judiciary Committee chairman, until the latter retired in 1978 and the former took the committee gavel.
The Mississippian was known for having senators over for a little bourbon and branch water, or other adult beverages, late in the afternoon. In the 1970s, Eastland had a palatial formal office in the northwest corner of the Dirksen Senate Office Building. Adjacent to his big office was a small room furnished with a recliner (for him), a couch and a chair or two for his guests, and a bar. (I once delivered a document to Eastland in that little office, which was clearly designed to be used by a senator’s personal secretary or administrative assistant, as they called chiefs of staff in those days.)
In 2015, The Clarion-Ledger in Jackson, Mississippi ran a funny news story based on just-released tapes from the oral history collection at the Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate in Boston. In the recordings, Kennedy tells a story about himself as a 30-year-old freshman given a slot on the Eastland-chaired Judiciary Committee.
Kennedy needed subcommittee assignments, and, as he recounted, “Eastland said, ‘I want you to come over, boy. We’ll talk about your subcommittees.’” Kennedy walked in at 10 a.m., and Eastland said, “You sit down here, boy. What do you drink, bourbon or Scotch?” Eastland offered up the very three slots Kennedy wanted, as long as Kennedy drank all the Scotch that Eastland poured him.
“So of course I go back to my office, and the sitting room is filled with people—the 9 o'clock meeting, the 9:30 meeting, the 10 o’clock meeting—and I walk in there smelling like a brewery,” Kennedy said.
Kennedy and Eastland had a great relationship from that point on.
Today, Sen. Sam Ervin of North Carolina is remembered as chairman of the Senate Watergate committee, formally known as the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities and nicknamed “the Ervin Committee.” Many liberals and Democrats look back kindly toward the courtly North Carolinian for having been instrumental in bringing down their enemy, President Nixon. But the self-described “country lawyer” Ervin was also a defender of segregation and Jim Crow laws. So, was he evil or good?
Things were different in those days. The city and the institution of Congress was very different. Too many people today don’t get that. They seek to impose a 2019 value system on relationships and actions during that time, demonstrating a fundamental lack of understanding that context is important. Everything wasn’t just black and white.
While Biden didn’t express it well and certainly took umbrage at the suggestion that he was a racist, his point was right. The place did work. A lot better than it does today.