WASHINGTON — House Speaker Nancy Pelosi defended former vice president Joe Biden’s remarks about working with segregationist senators Thursday, calling the presidential candidate “authentic.”
“Authenticity is the most important characteristic that candidates have to convey,” Pelosi said in response to a question from a reporter about the remarks and the calls from several other 2020 candidates for an apology. “Joe Biden is authentic. … He considers certain things a resource, that he has worked across the aisle. That's what he was saying. That's not what this election is about.”
Biden made the comments in question at a fundraiser Tuesday night, where he invoked Sens. James Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both of whom strongly supported segregation, as examples of working with people he disagrees with.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden said Tuesday night, reportedly putting on a Southern accent. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’” Talmadge, Biden said, was “one of the meanest guys [he] ever knew.”
He continued, “Well, guess what? At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
Pressed about Biden’s remarks and the response from other Democratic candidates Thursday, Pelosi refused to expand further, saying she instead wanted to talk about policy issues House Democrats are trying to tackle, including election security and immigration.
“This election is about how we connect with the American people, addressing their kitchen-table needs. For us to spend time on an issue like this — which is important, but it's not central," she said. “Biden seems to have tremendous support in the African American community, but it’s for them to decide. That’s what elections are about.”
When a reporter then asked Pelosi about Iran, she responded, “Thank you for talking about an issue, God forbid.”
Several members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, have also defended Biden, Politico reported. “I worked with Strom Thurmond all my life,” Clyburn told Politico. “You don’t have to agree with people to work with them.”
Biden’s comments about working with segregationists were widely criticized by his 2020 rivals Wednesday. Sen. Cory Booker of New Jersey called for Biden to apologize, adding, “You don't joke about calling black men ‘boys.’” Sen. Kamala Harris of California said Biden “doesn’t understand the history of our country and the dark history of our country.”
Sens. Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts and Bernie Sanders of Vermont also criticized the remarks, and New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio responded to Biden on Twitter.
Asked about Booker’s criticism Wednesday, Biden defended his comments. “Apologize for what? Cory should apologize," Biden told reporters. “He knows better. There's not a racist bone in my body. I've been involved in civil rights my whole career. Period."