A group of Democratic politicians have decided they have the right to judge 20th-century senators by the ethics of the 21st century.  Nice idea, but Joe Biden and a lot of others would have served very short careers if they had followed that lunatic course. After all, in those days the southern states were known for electing politicians to the Senate and then leaving them for decades on end. By the time Biden—and other senators of his generation—arrived in the Senate, it was the segregationists who had the power.

Donald Trump is pretty ignorant about the issue—immigration—that he keeps popping off about. The same was not true of Ted Kennedy. He learned the issue in part because one of his first three subcommittees was Immigration.  He got it shortly after being sworn in as a senator in 1963 by quickly responding to a summons to the office of the vicious racist James Eastland, chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, who plied him with scotch in the morning and gave him his three chosen committees. Should Kennedy have disdainfully kept his distance from the distasteful old bigot and thus screwed his constituents and migrants of all types?

I have little admiration for Joe Biden. He was the worst of the Democratic drug warriors. As Judiciary Committee chair, he discouraged some of Anita Hill’s supporting witnesses from testifying.  But he’s getting a bum rap from Cory Booker and others who are trying to apply post-20th-century morality to the society that existed decades ago.  Consider, for example, who the segregationists were.  Should the Vietnam doves have kept their distance from segregationist J. William Fulbright, chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and one of the most effective critics of the Vietnam war?  Should the members of the Senate Watergate Committee, and other political reformers, have refused to cooperate with the chair of the committee, Sam Ervin?

By attacking Biden for working with segregationists, Booker and company are attacking other senators who did exactly the same thing: Mike Mansfield, all three Kennedys, Estes Kefauver, William Proxmire, Albert Gore, George McGovern, Thomas Kuchel, Phil Hart, Hubert Humphrey, Joe Tydings were all cooperative with segregationists.

Today’s group of amateur political journalists are just as bad.  CNN’s Stephen Collinson wrote that Biden “can’t seem to get out of his way” because the “backlash Biden faces from his rivals is less about his record on race—he has long fought for racial equality—and far more about whether he truly appreciates the changes that have taken place in his party during a career that began in the early 1970s.” Collinson fails to realize that the biggest change is not involved with race but with the polarization and dysfunction in Congress that Newt Gingrich and other Republicans intentionally engineered into the system. Biden is speaking right to the most important new issue on the scene and in the Democratic Party, which has never found a way to end the polarization.

NPR’s Scott Detrow dug up the most vile quote he could find from Eastland (“In every stage of the bus boycott we have been oppressed and degraded because of black, slimy, juicy, unbearably stinking niggers”) to show the kind of person Biden was cozying up to.  How can Biden or anyone defend against that?  Could Detrow not know that because politicians of competing views—Kennedy and Hatch, McGovern and Dole—are pals, it does not mean they embrace each other’s opinions? The technique Detrow employs is sleazy and designed to inflame. Is he suggesting that Ted Kennedy—whose biographer wrote of Kennedy and Eastland, “They hardly ever voted alike on an important issue, but they genuinely liked each other”—sympathizes with that quote?

Those kinds of political and journalism tactics may be why the Congressional Black Caucus is backing up not Booker, Kamala Harris, and others, but Biden. “I worked with Strom Thurmond all my life,” U.S. Rep. Jim Clyburn of South Carolina said, referring to the governor and senator from Clyburn’s home state who ran as a white supremacist candidate for president in 1948.

Democrats can’t have it both ways.  Either people work with their adversaries and Congress works—or they don’t, and it doesn’t.  They can’t complain about congressional Republicans not wanting to work with Democrats and then turn around and complain that Biden worked with segregationists in an era when that got things done, something Democratic senators are not doing today in the dysfunctional Senate.

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