When journalists, including me, point out that Joe Biden is running as a candidate of nostalgia, it’s usually a reference to his argument that he can return things to a pre-2016 idyll of American unity and happiness. But the former vice president’s backward look has taken a weird turn this week as Biden delivered a confusing story involving a long-dead Democratic segregationist senator from Mississippi.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said at a fundraiser. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
The anecdote made no sense, either as storytelling or as politics. “Boy” is a well-known situational racial epithet in the South, but why would Eastland have called Biden by it? What substantive difference between the two terms was Biden trying to underscore? As it turns out, Biden has used the story in the past, in a much less garbled version, saying the much older Eastland called him “son” rather than “senator.”
Yet in a broader sense, Biden’s invocation of Eastland still makes no sense. Biden is obviously not endorsing Eastland’s segregationism. The point was to recall a time when “civility” in the Senate could overcome political differences, which complements Biden’s message that the country needs a more tempered, friendly political discourse. As Jonathan Chait notes, the post–World War II consensus was built in part on a mutual agreement by leaders to move slowly on civil rights. However clubby things were in the Senate, Eastland’s black constituents did not experience the racial discrimination he repeatedly voted to uphold as “civility.”