Joe Biden apologized Saturday for his remarks about working with segregationists during his time in the Senate but again stopped short of saying that it was wrong to work with them amid a defense of his broader civil rights record.
"Now 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. I’m sorry for any of the pain or misconception that I caused anybody," the former vice president and Democratic presidential candidate said to cheers during a speech to a mostly black audience in Sumter, S.C.
"But did that misstep define 50 years of my record for fighting for civil rights, racial justice in this country? I hope not. I don’t think so. That just isn’t an honest assessment of my record," Biden continued. "I’m going to let my record and character stand for itself and not be distorted or smeared."
Biden prefaced his apology by saying the Senate "was full of segregationists" at that time and he did not believe he was wrong to work with "those who we find repugnant to make our system of government work for all of us."
Biden has repeatedly defended his record on civil rights in a primary that has become dominated by race-related issues including segregation, busing, education and housing.
He faced a backlash last month for naming two late Southern segregationist senators — James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia — as examples of people he worked with that showed his ability to bring people together.
"At least there was some civility," Biden said then. "We got things done.”
Biden also pushed back at critics in the Democratic presidential field who have been picking at his long tenure in the Senate, saying they are ignoring his record as vice president and invoking former President Barack Obama’s vetting of him as testament to his civil rights record.
“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," Biden said in his prepared remarks.
"They don’t want to talk much about my time as vice president," he said. "It was the honor of a lifetime to serve with a man who was a great president, an historic figure, and most important to me, a friend. I was vetted by him and selected by him. I will take his judgment of my record, my character and my ability to handle the job over anyone else’s.”
Sen. Cory Booker — one of the most ardent critics of Biden’s segregationist comments and a 2020 White House hopeful— thanked Biden for his apology.
“I first want to say thank you. We are at a point in our country when we need our leaders to be able to speak towards race issues without falling into a defensive posture or shifting blame,” Booker told a Bloomberg reporter at an event in New Orleans.
Sen. Amy Klobuchar, a fellow presidential candidate, said Biden’s apology "was the right thing to do."
"You clearly have to call out segregationists, and you have to call out racist policies,” Klobuchar told an NBC News reporter.
Biden’s apology is a reversal from his previous stance. He had dismissed the public outrage of other Democratic candidates and rebuffed their repeated demands for an apology after his remarks on segregationists. At one point, Biden asked Booker to apologize for his outspoken pushback.
“Apologize for what?” Biden said at the time. “Cory should apologize. He knows better. There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved with civil rights my whole career. Period, period, period.”
Sen. Kamala Harris, another 2020 Democrat and critic of Biden’s civil rights record, on Saturday proposed a $100 billion federal program to help black people buy homes, calling on the nation to “deal with the racial wealth gap."
Harris leaped in Democratic polls after she forcefully pressed home during the Democratic debate that then-Sen. Biden was against federally mandated busing in what has became one the defining moments of the race so far. Biden admitted on Friday that he "wasn’t prepared" for Harris’ attack.
In response to a news release that contained snippets of Biden’s prepared remarks, Harris’ press secretary, Ian Sams, said: "Every candidate’s record will (and should) be scrutinized in this race. It’s a competition to become President of the United States. There are no free passes.”
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