Former Vice President Joe Biden said Saturday that he regrets the comments he made last month about his ability to be civil and work with segregationist senators.
“Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again? Yes, I was. I regret it,” Biden said Saturday at a campaign event in South Carolina. “I’m sorry for any of the pain or misconception I may have caused anybody.”
Biden, 76, also said he will accept responsibility for what went right and what went wrong with the 1994 crime bill, which he helped write as a senator from Delaware and that Democratic critics have argued contributed to US mass incarceration rates.
The Democratic presidential candidate said he’s “changed” since his days serving as a senator in the 1970s, leaning into his relationship with former President Barack Obama to help defend his record in public service after facing criticism on his past political positions, including issues of race. He used his speech at the event in South Carolina — where black voters made up about 61% of the Democratic primary electorate in 2016 — to point to his record on civil rights and accomplishments in the administration of the nation’s first black president.
“I was vetted by him and selected by him,” Biden said of Obama. “I will take his judgment of my record, my character, and my ability to handle the job over anyone else’s.”
At a fundraiser in June, Biden recalled being a member of the Senate in the 1970s with Southern Democrats who opposed civil rights and desegregation, specifically naming Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, who Biden called “one of the meanest guys I ever knew.”
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland. He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son,’ ” Biden told donors at the time.
“Well guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done,” Biden said. “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,” he said.
His Saturday speech comes after California Sen. Kamala Harris confronted him at the first Democratic debate about those comments, as well as his past opposition to desegregation busing.
Biden told CNN that his stance on busing was taken out of context and that he wasn’t expecting Harris to attack him the way she did.
“I was prepared for them to come after me, but I wasn’t prepared for the person coming at me the way she came at me,” he said in an exclusive interview with CNN’s Chris Cuomo that aired Friday.
New Jersey Sen. Cory Booker, another 2020 Democratic contender, has also taken issue with Biden’s comments on working with the segregationist senators, calling on the former vice president to apologize and saying Biden was “wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together.”
In response, Biden suggested at the time that Booker “knows better,” saying, “There’s not a racist bone in my body.” The pair, though, also spoke by phone last month, which Booker characterized as a “good, constructive conversation.”
Booker, after hearing of the former vice president’s comments on Saturday, told reporters that he feels grateful Biden is “now speaking to his past in a way with more candor and a sense of regret for some of the things that he supported.”
On Saturday, Biden, the leading Democrat contender in polls, again pointed to his service as vice president — experience he has used to differentiate himself from the 2020 field.
“If you look at the issues I’ve been attacked on, nearly every one of them is for something well before 2008. It’s as if my opponents want you to believe I served from 1972 until 2008 — and then took the next eight years off. They don’t want to talk much about my time as Vice President,” Biden said.
Harris campaign spokesman Ian Sams tweeted Saturday that “every candidate’s record will (and should) be scrutinized in this race,” adding, “It’s a competition to become President of the United States. There are no free passes.”
Biden also argued Saturday that his career as a US senator was spent at the forefront of change in America.
“America in 2019 is a very different place than the America of the 1970s. And that’s a good thing,” Biden said. “I’ve witnessed an incredible amount of change in this nation and I’ve worked to make that change happen. And yes — I’ve changed also.”