On the Trail: During Concord stop, former AG Holder criticizes Biden on segregationist comments

  • Eric Holder in Concord on Thursday, June 20, 2019. Paul Steinhauser—For the Monitor

For the Monitor
Published: 6/20/2019 6:17:48 PM

Former attorney general Eric Holder says he understands where Joe Biden was coming from when the former vice president defended his ability to work with two segregationist Southern senators decades ago to “get things done.”

But Holder, who worked closely with Biden during former president Barack Obama’s administration, says the front-runner in the race for the Democratic presidential nomination “should have used some better examples.”

In an interview Thursday in Concord with the Monitor and NHTalkRadio.com, Holder 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.”

Earlier this week, Biden 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.”

It is arguably the biggest controversy Biden has faced since he declared his candidacy for the White House two months ago.

His comments came while discussing the civility in the Senate during the 1970s compared to now.

“Well guess what? At least there was some civility,” Biden said. “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 a compromise with Republicans on the numerous divisive issues that have brought Washington to a standstill. Biden’s message of bipartisanship has been derailed by some of his rivals for the Democratic nomination.

Biden’s comments came under attack by a number of his 2020 rivals, including Sens. Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California 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.”

“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,” Booker said. “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.”

Biden publicly remained defiant.

“Apologize for what?” Biden said to 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.”

He defended his nearly four decades in the U.S. Senate as he said 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,” Biden said. “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.”

Holder: Biden ‘could have used better examples’

Holder, who was in New Hampshire on Thursday as part of his fight to end partisan gerrymandering as head of the National Democratic Redistricting Committee, said Biden’s point could have been made better.

“I understand where he (Biden) was coming from and the concerns he was expressing – this notion of lack of cooperation between the parties. I think he could have used better examples to show he’s capable of doing those kinds of things,” Holder said.

Biden was right to point out that he’s a person who can reach across the aisle, but upon reflection could have made his point differently, said Holder, who was the nation’s first African-American attorney general.

Whether Biden apologizes – as Booker has urged – should be up to Biden to decide, Holder said.

“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,” Holder said.

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.”

Say what you will about Biden, he’s authentic, Holder said.

“I’m not saying what he did there was appropriate ... but from my perspective I think authenticity is always something that is going to be good for someone who seeks office,” Holder said. “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 effect.”

No 2020 ambitions for Holder

Last year, Holder flirted with a White House run of his own and sparked plenty of speculation when he traveled to the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state to headline “Politics and Eggs,” a must-stop in New Hampshire for White House hopefuls. But earlier this year, he announced he wouldn’t launch a presidential campaign.

Interestingly, Holder’s stop this week in 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.

“Not on my mind right now,” he quickly answered when asked if there still might be a 2020 run in his future.

“I’m here in these primary states to get people in those states to demand of the candidates who will be coming through those states to focus on these issues of gerrymandering, a fair redistricting process in 2021, because you here in New Hampshire have a great deal of influence on what these candidates are going to be talking about,” he explained.

But he wouldn’t rule out a potential presidential bid in the future.

“I just made a determination I’m not likely to do it in 2020,” he said. “But who knows what happens after that.”

As for the current historically enormous field of nearly two-dozen Democratic presidential candidates, Holder’s not taking sides during the nomination race.

“I expect that I’m going to be neutral,” he emphasized.

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