Democratic US presidential hopeful and former vice president Joe Biden has drawn rebukes from nomination rivals for invoking two segregationist senators as he recalled the "civility" of earlier political eras
Washington (AFP) - Joe Biden drew strong condemnation Wednesday from fellow Democratic presidential contenders and demands for an apology after he defended his old-fashioned political style by recalling the "civility" with which he treated two segregationist US senators.
Speaking at a New York fundraiser Tuesday, the ex-vice president and frontrunner for the Democratic nomination told donors that fixing America's "broken" politics would require forging consensus with lawmakers with opposing positions.
Biden, who spent more than three decades in the US Senate, named late senators James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both southern Democrats who fiercely opposed desegregation, as opponents who were in his own party when he entered the chamber in 1973.
Eastland "never called me 'boy,' he always called me 'son,'" Biden said of the former Senate Judiciary Committee chairman, according to a press pool report.
Eastland, who left the Senate in 1978, was known to speak of blacks as "an inferior race."
Talmadge was "one of the meanest guys I ever knew," Biden said of the lawmaker who opposed the 1954 Supreme Court decision on school desegregation.
"Well guess what? At least there was some civility," he added. "We didn't agree on much of anything. We got things done."
Biden, 76, has been criticized by some Democrats as a centrist political relic who has only reluctantly changed with the times.
His remarks were awkwardly timed, coming one day before Juneteenth, the annual commemoration of the emancipation from slavery in 1865.
- Civil rights 'ally' -
The two prominent African Americans in the presidential race, senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, were among several candidates who condemned Biden's comments.
"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 in a statement that called on Biden to apologize.
"You don't joke about calling black men 'boys,'" Booker added.
For her part, Harris said Biden was "wrong" to invoke segregationists.
"It concerns me deeply. If those men had their way, I would not be in the United States Senate," she told reporters.
New York mayor and 2020 hopeful Bill de Blasio said Biden "repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party."
But a senior Biden advisor pushed back, stressing that it was the sitting president "who has ACTUALLY praised white supremacists."
"Joe Biden has been an ally in the fight for civil rights for years," advisor Symone Sanders said in a Twitter thread.
She highlighted how Biden served eight years as deputy to America's first black president, Barack Obama, and launched his own White House campaign by calling out Nazis protesters in Charlottesville and Trump's assertion that some in the white supremacist crowd were fine people.
Suggesting Biden, who remains a popular figure for African Americans, is actively praising a segregationist is "a willfully disingenuous act," Sanders said.
Republican Senator Lindsey Graham, a Trump loyalist, stood up for his former colleague, telling Fox News that Biden "did nothing wrong" by working with senators "from a past that we now try to move on from."
"What he was trying to say is, 'I worked with people I didn't agree with for the good of the country,'" Graham added.