Former Vice President Joe Biden told reporters on Wednesday that he was not going to apologize for invoking his ability decades ago to work with two segregationist southern senators to “get things done.”
A Fox News camera was rolling when Biden was asked if he was going to apologize for his remarks. The 2020 Democrat hopeful answered, “Apologize for what?”
Biden faced scorching criticism Wednesday from his primary rivals including two of the three black candidates running for the White House -- Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California – who raised serious concerns after Biden highlighted his ability to work with the segregationist senators.
Booker said in a statement he was “disappointed” Biden had yet to issue an “immediate apology.”
“Cory should apologize,” Biden said in response on Wednesday. “He knows better. Not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period. Period. Period.”
Biden made the comments as he was arriving at a fundraising event in Bethesda, Md., on Wednesday evening.
Appearing on CNN later Wednesday night, Booker said, “I was surprised he didn't apologize.”
He added, “I know that I was raised to speak truth to power and that I will never apologize for doing that. Vice President Biden shouldn't need this lesson and at a time when we have from the highest office in the land divisiveness, racial hatred and bigotry being spewed he should have the sensitivity to know that this is a time I need to be an ally, I need to be a healer, I need not engage in usage of words that will harm folks. And so, this is deeply disappointing.”
When asked how he felt about rival Democrats saying he had issues talking about race, Biden answered, “They know better.”
Booker said Wednesday, “Vice President Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for black people, and for everyone.”
Harris told Fox News while riding an elevator on Capitol Hill that “it concerns me deeply.”
She continued, “If those men had their way, I wouldn't' be in the United States Senate and on this elevator right now.”
Biden, the clear front-runner in the race for the Democrats' nomination, initially 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 said it was not worth trying to find compromise with Republicans on the numerous divisive issues that have brought Washington to a standstill.
When asked for his reaction to the criticism from his fellow Democrats, Biden said, “What I was talking about, 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 [sic] in the Senate at the time.”
He added, “As I led the Judiciary Committee, I was able to pass, what I was talking about was The Voting Rights Act, I was able to pass the voting rights act while, when I was a young senator, when he [Eastland] was still the chairman, he voted against it and we beat him in The Voting Rights Act.”
He continued, “Secondly, when I was chairman I extended The Voting Rights Act for 25 years not five years. In addition to that, I made it very clear by the last time as I was on that committee I was chairman of foreign relations but I was a lead Democrat. We extended it another 25 years and we got 98 out of 98 votes for it.”
The Voting Rights Act of 1965 aimed to overcome legal barriers at the state and local levels that prevented African Americans from exercising their right to vote.
“The point I’m making is, you don’t have to agree. You don’t have to like the people in terms of their views. But you just simply make the case and you beat them,” Biden said.
“You beat them without changing the system,” he added.
Later Wednesday, Biden spoke about the late Sen. Ted Kennedy. “He’s the guy who got me on the Judiciary Committee, we served from years and years. And we had to put up with the likes of Jim Eastland and Hermy Talmadge and all those segregationists and all of that,” Biden said. “And the fact of the matter is that we were able to do it because we were able to win-- we were able to beat them on everything they stood for.”
He continued, “We in fact detested what they stood for in terms of segregation and all the rest.”
Biden then brought up The Voting Rights Act once again.
“And because of Teddy letting me become chairman of the Judiciary Committee in 1982, when he moved on to take on Health and Human Services, we were able to do so much. We restored The Voting Rights Act, we did it, and over time we extended it by 25 years not just five years.”
Booker, in his statement on Wednesday, emphasized that 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.”
“I have to tell Vice President Biden, as someone I respect, that he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together,” Booker added. “And frankly, I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should.”
The political spotlight on Biden’s comments came on Juneteenth, an American holiday that commemorates the June 19, 1865, announcement of the abolition of slavery in Texas. The holiday more broadly also marks the emancipation of those held in slavery throughout the Confederacy.
The pushback also marked Biden's second major dispute in recent weeks with his primary rivals, having recently faced criticism for his support of the Hyde Amendment, which bars the use of federal funds to subsidize abortions in most cases. He later reversed his stance.
Fox News' Paul Steinhauser, Alexandra Pamias, Jason Donner and Sam Dorman contributed to this report.