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Biden Was Expected to Work With Senate Segregationists

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“I do not believe a word of that,” Eastland replied.

When Proxmire protested, “This is from the Department of Agriculture,” Eastland rejoined, “That does not mean it is true.” (The charge of “fake news” is anything but new.)

Biden is heir—perhaps the last heir—to a once-strict Senate tradition: that the bitterest foes should maintain at least the veneer of civility, and that such a veneer could sometimes lead to actual cross-aisle friendships. After Senator Willis Robertson of Virginia (the father of the televangelist, Pat) made a speech excoriating the 1964 act, he walked over to the bill’s Democratic floor manager, Hubert Humphrey of Minnesota, and pinned a small Confederate battle-flag pin to his lapel. Humphrey praised Robertson for his “wonderful … gentlemanly qualities and his consideration to us at all times,” while Robinson requited by allowing, “If it had not been for the men from Wisconsin and Minnesota, when Grant finally came down to Virginia, we would have won.” The two strolled off the Senate floor arm in arm, to Humphrey’s office for a drink.

Fourteen years later, when Humphrey, by then back in the Senate after serving as Johnson’s vice president, was dying of cancer, Biden witnessed Barry Goldwater, the most prominent GOP foe of the 1964 bill, envelop Humphrey in a bear hug on the Senate floor, as the two old friends dissolved in unabashed tears. Such a display may seem as far removed from contemporary Washington as the horse and buggy—it may, in fact, be all but irrelevant. But it exemplifies the Senate that defines Biden’s view—not just of politics, but of life itself.

In Promises to Keep, Biden writes about how, when he arrived in the Senate, he told Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield that he despised his fellow freshman, the Republican Jesse Helms of North Carolina, who was “against Communists, minorities, homosexuals, Martin Luther King and anybody else who was diminishing what he saw as the God-given prerogatives of white men.” Biden complained: “He’s got no heart.”

But Mansfield cut him off. “Listen, Joe,” he told Biden. “Everybody who is here has something. The people who elected them saw something good about them. … Your job here is to find the good things in your colleagues—the things their state saw, and not focus on the bad.

“And, Joe, never attack another man’s motive,” Mansfield added. “Because you don’t know his motive.”

“To this day,” Biden concluded more than a decade ago, “if I need help on an issue I really care about, it’s not always enough to bring along my political allies.” He described how he sometimes needed backing from senators he sharply disagreed with. “If I’ve shown them respect, honored my word when I gave it to them on another issue, and been careful not to question motives,” Biden wrote, “I can at least expect them to hear me out.”

The question now is whether Biden’s fellow Democrats think it’s worth hearing him out at all, when what he is saying falls so heavily on their contemporary ears—ears that, to Biden, can’t help but seem wet.

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