Democratic presidential candidate Joe Biden is right about how his opponents are trying to portray his five-decade record in Washington. He says they are talking about his eight years as vice president under the nation's first African American president, Barack Obama, as if they are ancient history but digging up positions and votes from his Senate service in the '70s, '80s and '90s as if they are current.
While it is a given that anyone having served in Washington for more than four decades is going to have changed some positions amid so many societal, legal and governmental transformations, that does not make recorded votes and public statements out of bounds in the political battles of 2019. Biden surely knows that and must deal with the reality -- without apologizing every time someone dredges up a vote from decades ago about which he has long since shown a different stance.
Amid the attacks on Biden for his statements about working in the 1970s and after with segregationist senators to achieve compromises on legislation (bipartisan efforts were common then), we're surprised that with South Carolina such a key player in the early going of the Democratic presidential process no one has referenced Biden's relationship with the late Sen. Strom Thurmond.
A young Biden (he began service in the Senate in 1973 at age 29 championing civil rights) in the '70s became close to Thurmond, the one-time Dixiecrat candidate for president who was then a national voice against desegregation. But you can't leave the story at that.
Thurmond, as was said at his 2003 funeral, was a "redeemed"politician. The man who served in the Senate longer than anyone (48 years) was very different at the beginning than the end.
No one explained that better than Biden in delivering the Thurmond eulogy. Some highlights:
- “Thurmond was the only man whom I knew who in a literal sense lived in three distinct and separate periods of American history, and what would have been considered a full life in each of those periods, particularly in his beloved South.”
- “No one ever doubted Strom Thurmond’s physical courage. … Strom Thurmond was also a brave man who in the end made his choice and moved to the good side. I disagreed deeply with Strom on the issue of civil rights and on many other issues, but I watched him change, and we became friends. … I watched him change oh so subtly. Like all of us, Strom was a product of his time.”
- “Strom knew America was changing and that there was a lot he didn’t understand about that change. Much of that change challenged many of his long-held views, but he also saw his beloved South Carolina and the people of South Carolina changing as well, and he knew the time had come to change himself.
“But I believe that change came to him easily. I believe he welcomed it, because I watched others of his era fight that change and never ultimately change. It would be humbling to think that I was among those who had some influence on his decision, but I know better. The place in which I work is a majestic place. If you’re there long enough, it has an impact on you.”
Biden was widely praised -- including by African Americans -- for his words about Thurmond. No one then or now should mistake them as praise for the segregationist Thurmond. They reflected admiration for a man who changed markedly when change was necessary.
Biden is due similar admiration for leadership and change over a half-century in Washington. His record is solid. He has no reason to continue apologizing.