CONCORD, NH – Former Attorney General Eric Holder says he understands where former Vice President Joe Biden “was coming from” when Biden earlier this week defended his ability decades ago to work with two segregationist Southern senators to “get things done.”
But Holder, who worked side by side with Biden during President Barack Obama’s administration, emphasized that the onetime VP, the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination, “should have used some better examples” when touting his bipartisan chops.
And the former attorney general, in an interview Thursday with Fox News and a New Hampshire news outlet, once again ruled out a White House run of his own in 2020 but kept the door open down the road, emphasizing “you never say never.”
Biden is facing arguably the biggest controversy of his presidential campaign since declaring his candidacy two months ago.
The former vice president brought up the names of Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia while speaking at a fundraiser Tuesday in New York City. Eastland and Talmadge, two senior members in the Senate when Biden arrived in the chamber in 1973, were firmly opposed to desegregation efforts.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” the 76-year old Biden said as he briefly imitated the late senator’s southern drawl. “He never called me boy. He always called me son.”
And he called long-deceased Talmadge “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.”
But discussing the “civility” in the Senate during the 1970s, Biden said: “Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. 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.”
The comments were part of Biden’s repeated warnings against Democrats who feel it’s not worth trying to find compromise with Republicans on the numerous divisive issues that have brought Washington to a standstill. Biden’s message of bipartisanship has been derided by some of his rivals for the Democratic nomination.
Biden’s comments came under attack on Wednesday by a number of his 2020 rivals, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California – who are black – and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio, who’s married to an African-American woman and has an interracial family.
Booker emphasized he was “disappointed” Biden had yet to issue an “immediate apology.”
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys.’ Men like James O. Eastland used words like that, and the racist policies that accompanied them, to perpetuate white supremacy and strip black Americans of our very humanity,” Booker said.
Biden appeared publicly to remain defiant.
“Apologize for what?” Biden told reporters Wednesday night when asked about the criticism over his remarks. “Cory should apologize. He knows better. Not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”
And he defended his nearly four decades in the Senate as he spotlighted that he took aim at Eastland’s rabid segregationist views.
“I could not have disagreed with Jim Eastland more, he was a segregationist. I ran for the United States Senate because I disagreed with the views of the segregationists in the Senate at the time. ... As I led the judiciary committee, I was able to pass the Voting Rights Act while I was a young senator when he was the chairman, and he voted against it and we beat him in the Voting Rights Act," he said.
Holder, who was in New Hampshire as part of his fight to end partisan gerrymandering as head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, noted that “I understand where he (Biden) was coming from and the concerns he was expressing, this notion of lack of cooperation between the parties.”
But he spotlighted that “I think he could have used better examples to show he’s capable of doing those kinds of things.”
While he said that Biden “was right to point out the he’s a person who can reach across the aisle,” the nation’s first African-American attorney general highlighted that Biden “upon reflection, should have come with some better examples.”
When asked by Fox News if the former vice president should apologize for his comments – as Booker has urged – Holder answered “I’ll leave that to the vice president to decide. I think people have to look at the totality of his record, balance that against the comments that might have been problematic to people and let people determine on their own whether or not he needs to apologize.”
And he noted that when it comes to Biden, “what you see is what you get. He’s not a person afraid to express himself and not afraid to offend some people at times.”
Holder also suggested there could be a political benefit for Biden.
“I’m not saying what he did there was appropriate,” Holder said. “But from my perspective I think authenticity is always something that is going to be good for someone who seeks office. I disagree vehemently with Donald Trump, but I think for a lot of people he is seen as authentic. Now I would disagree with that but I think he has that affect.”
Holder flirted with a White House run of his own, before announcing earlier this year that he wouldn’t launch a presidential campaign.
Holder’s stop New Hampshire follows similar trips in recent days to Iowa and South Carolina – two of the other first four states to vote in the presidential primary and caucus calendar.
But he quickly emphasized “not on my mind right now,” when asked if there still might be a 2020 run in his future.