Joe Biden’s concern about our current shortage of civility could not have been better confirmed than through the response it triggered.
Biden was sharply hammered by several fellow Democratic presidential candidates — not for endorsing civility, but because he used the wrong examples to make his point.
To recap briefly, Biden was contrasting today’s U.S. Congress unfavorably with the Congress he entered as a 29-year-old senator in 1975.
Back then, he said, you maintained an ongoing conversation — i.e. civility — with fellow senators even when you disagreed, perhaps intensely, on major issues.
This is less common today, he lamented, because those with different views are more often seen as enemies to be challenged and resisted all along the watchtower.
This decreases, he said, the chance legislators will address real and acute problems.
I’m not sure there was a golden age when all elected officials showed Downton Abbey levels of politeness and courtesy to their peers. I do know that compromise and cooperation lie behind virtually every major achievement in American governmental history — starting with the Constitution and Declaration of Independence, which reconciled a litany of divergent views and not always perfectly.
That tradition of consensus was Biden’s point, which his critics, notably including current Senators Cory Booker and Kamala Harris, barely mentioned.
Rather, they focused on the fact that to illustrate his argument about senatorial civility in the 1970s, Biden cited Herman Talmadge and James O. Eastland, Southern Democrats who had had been in the Senate forever, wielded enormous power and remained, to the end, white supremacists.
Booker and Harris are correct — and Biden agreed — that there’s no defending white supremacy. It’s the great shame of American history that it was defended by so many for so long.
One suspects that’s exactly why Biden used Talmadge and Eastland as his examples.
Had Biden cited a civil working relationship with Republicans in the 1970s, his comment would have drawn a few approving nods and been immediately forgotten.
My guess, and I don’t claim to speak for Mr. Biden, is that he wanted to make his point more forcefully by citing the colleagues who stood at the furthest ideological extreme and saying look, you needed to talk with even these guys.
Booker, Harris and others argued, though they didn’t phrase it exactly this way, that referencing a James Eastland in this context was like saying Hitler loved puppies. True or not, it missed the more important point.
Except it didn’t. Biden was saying that like it or not, these guys were there and under the legislative system, you get more and better results when you work with other legislators.
That didn’t mean you offered to cosponsor a poll tax bill with James Eastland. When Eastland and Biden were colleagues, however, Eastland provided valuable support for, among other measures, the Clean Water Act, the Ethics in Government Act and the Nuclear Non-Proliferation Act.
None of these bills went as far as some activists wanted. They all incorporated compromises. They were still positive steps, the product of cooperation.
Biden didn’t mention another Southern Democrat from those years, J. William Fulbright of Arkansas. Fulbright made his early reputation as a forceful critic of Sen. Joseph McCarthy and his anti-communist crusade. Fulbright was also one of the first senators to oppose the Vietnam War, and he shepherded the sweeping college aid legislation that included Fulbright Scholarships.
Fulbright was also a segregationist. Does that mean no one should have joined his denunciation of McCarthy, or students should turn down a Fulbright?
Representative government, or at least our imperfect version of it, requires accommodations all the time. It can make you nuts. It would be so much more efficient to run things, as some societies do, by decree.
Raise your hand if you’d like to switch.
Didn’t think so. Meaning we will continue the maddening dance where we play with others in areas where we agree and oppose them in areas where we don’t.
We also maybe don’t bite someone’s head off for saying so.