When Strom Thurmond died in 2003, Joe Biden remembered his Senate colleague — one of the most notorious segregationists in history — the way he wanted to be remembered.
Thurmond, who lived to 100, was “a product of his time,” Biden said in his eulogy of the South Carolina Republican who built his career on a Dixiecrat campaign for president in 1948 and on his opposition to civil rights. But Thurmond, Biden asserted, had “moved to the good side.”
As examples, the future vice president pointed to Thurmond’s later years and his support for extending the Voting Rights Act and establishing a Martin Luther King Jr. holiday. Biden also noted, in an admiring context, a 1947 editorial that praised Thurmond’s work with reading programs for black students at the “separate, but equal schools” that were a defining and, ultimately, unconstitutional function of racial segregation.
For years the Thurmond eulogy has been framed as a virtue of Biden’s own political career — proof of his bipartisanship and of his relatability in South Carolina, which holds the first presidential primary in the South. It was a selling point, often mentioned by local press, in his unsuccessful White House run in 2008 and later that year in his campaign with Barack Obama, who would become the nation’s first black president. But Biden, 76, faces a much different time and Democratic Party as he considers another run in 2020. His generous, benefit-of-the-doubt tribute to Thurmond stands as one of several instances from his past that may be difficult to reconcile with a new generation of voters.
“His past is open for perusal, and it’s not just Thurmond,” said Jerry Austin, a veteran Democratic strategist who managed Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. “Joe is an anachronism. You’re talking about Strom Thurmond? How many millennials know who the hell Strom Thurmond is?”
A Biden spokesperson declined to comment for this story.
In 2020, how a 76-year-old white man confronts his 2003 praise for a former segregationist could prove a stark challenge — and underlines how intraparty, inter-generational racial tensions can potentially roil the presidential primaries.
The former vice president would be running to lead a party that says it’s committed to the fight against racial inequality, but is still beset with a range of complicated questions about how to do so. Some in the party are fearful about the effect its racial justice pursuit will have on white voters it wants to persuade in 2020.
But Biden’s friendship years ago with Thurmond — a symbol of the kind of ‘90s bipartisan politics, and the civility and forgiveness Biden espouses — is an especially precarious piece of political history in an era in which Democrats are increasingly reliant on a young, impatient bloc of black voters native to the Black Lives Matter movement to whom Biden’s absolving portrayal of Thurmond would likely qualify as a betrayal.
Many young black voters in 2016 largely dismissed Hillary Clinton for much less than the public praise of a once avowed segregationist. Biden is likely to face questions about why he eulogized a man who began his career as a proud racist and be asked whether he’d do it again. But to young black Americans who are demanding people like him concede power, how Biden answers could either bolster or damage his candidacy in a real way.
Like Clinton, Biden in recent years has expressed regret for supporting criminal sentencing laws that disproportionately punished people of color, and also for his treatment of Anita Hill, who accused Clarence Thomas of sexual harassment during Supreme Court confirmation hearings Biden chaired in 1991. Biden’s old Senate votes in favor of the Iraq War, the Defense of Marriage Act, and the North American Free Trade Agreement also could cause problems with a liberal base that has purer progressive and populist options to choose from in a crowded primary.
Christina Greer, a professor of political science at Fordham University who specializes in black ethnic politics, said Biden has to present his career as a rich tableau with varied experiences and intersecting with all types of people. “He has to Forrest Gump himself,” said Greer, referring to the 1994 film in which the title character was in control of his own narrative throughout historical moments in US history. For Biden, she said, that could mean that he talks about his relationship with Thurmond as an example of a compromising and conciliatory brand of politics and accept that young black people, in particular, might be turned off.
“He’s got to be in every moment and in every moment, he’s got to be the hero,” said Greer. “But if he comes out of the gate and gets it wrong, I think he’s done.”
If he runs, Biden would join a field where other Democrats aren’t bashful about calling President Donald Trump, who raised false doubts about Obama’s US citizenship and sympathized with the white supremacists who rioted two years ago in Charlottesville, Virginia, a racist. (Biden has been a bit more indirect at times, saying that Trump has “emboldened racists.”)
And most 2020 hopefuls, Biden included, called on Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam, a fellow Democrat, to resign this month after he admitted he had appeared in an old yearbook photo showing one man in blackface and another in a Ku Klux Klan robe. Northam later retracted the admission, but the incident reopened old racial wounds in the South and has become a test of how quickly and forcefully Democratic contenders will respond to racial tension within their own ranks.
“We’re in an era where the past is never past,” Jim Hodges, a Democrat who served as South Carolina’s governor from 1999 until 2003, told BuzzFeed News when asked how the Thurmond eulogy has aged. “People look at every speech that was made, and they’re examining speeches and comments from a current context and not the context of 2003.”
Then-Senate Republican leader Trent Lott resigned his post in 2002, after speaking nostalgically of Thurmond’s 1948 campaign — and not of the later conversion to racial acceptance that Biden and others have celebrated. Nevertheless, it was Biden who called Lott in the midst of the maelstrom to offer an encouraging word, according to a GQ profile in 2006. And Biden, prone to verbal miscues himself, drew uncomfortable comparisons to Lott in 2007, when in the early days of his presidential bid he described then-rival Obama as “clean” and “articulate.”
Biden and Thurmond shared a deep connection in spite of their political differences. Both had first wives who died young. “I think there was a bonding element there,” Hodges said.
When Biden’s first presidential campaign was collapsing under a plagiarism scandal in 1987, he sensed his chairmanship of the Senate Judiciary Committee might be untenable just as Robert Bork’s Supreme Court confirmation hearings were beginning. Thurmond was the first to defend him. As Thurmond’s 100th birthday approached, Biden honored him on the Senate floor, calling him “a constant force in this nation for the better part of a century.”
In another floor speech the day after Thurmond’s death, Biden addressed the hulking part of the late senator’s legacy and said he did not believe his friend was a racist.
“But even if he had been,” Biden added, “I believe that he changed. And all the news media says now he changed, they think, out of pure opportunism. I believe he changed because times changed. Life changed. He worked with, he saw, he had relationships with people who educated him as well as I have been educated."
Hodges, who remembers Thurmond’s funeral well, said Biden was part of a service designed to accentuate Thurmond’s evolution. “The family very carefully thought out the kind of people they wanted to speak,” said Hodges, noting that Kay Patterson, a black state lawmaker, also was among the eulogists.
Biden’s bipartisan spirit already has come under fire in the run-up to 2020; Democrats in Michigan have grumbled that a paid speech he gave there last fall helped Republican Rep. Fred Upton win reelection. Democrats who spoke to BuzzFeed News aren’t sure how potent Biden’s friendship with Thurmond could be in the primaries.
“He wasn’t the bigoted segregationist himself,” said Nina Turner, president of Our Revolution, a political organization aligned with Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders. “He’ll have other things that he’s going to be judged by. What he actually did when he was in positions of power is what will matter.”
Steve Benjamin, the Democratic mayor of Columbia, South Carolina’s capital, doesn’t believe the Thurmond issue will hurt Biden in the state’s early primary.
“People understand the long and tortured history of race in American politics and the role that men like Strom Thurmond played in it,” Benjamin, who has yet to endorse a candidate but plans to, told BuzzFeed News. “And I think the fact that vice president was willing to speak truth to that power, but at same time say that was a thing of the past” is a positive.
Tyler Jones, the South Carolina director for a group trying to draft former Texas lawmaker Beto O’Rourke into the race, also scores the friendship as a point in Biden’s favor.
“If Democrats start disqualifying candidates for giving eulogies for old friends whom they disagree with politically, we're asking for four more years of Donald Trump,” Jones said. “We should never lose sight of the fact that bipartisanship is an asset, not a liability.”
Bakari Sellers, a Democratic former elected official in the state, and a frequent political commentator, said that South Carolinians are essentially “desensitized” to Thurmond’s legacy. “We weren’t even shocked when we found out he had a black daughter,” said Sellers, who added that there’s virtually nothing new that someone could say or reveal about Thurmond that would hurt Biden going into a potential election. Sellers, like others, said Biden’s treatment of Hill and the 1994 crime bill he co-authored were Biden’s real problems, especially with black Americans.
There’s some dissonance in South Carolina, though. While Democratic operatives there still cite Biden’s support for Thurmond as a strength, they also note that more than half of the Democratic electorate is black. The latter point is particularly relevant in a field with two black candidates: Sens. Kamala Harris of California and Cory Booker of New Jersey. In Columbia recently, Sellers said, a half-dozen black South Carolinians said that while they were interested in candidates such as Booker and Harris, it was Biden’s decision that weighed most heavily before making any decisions about who to support in the primary.
“The bigger question for the vice president, and what may or may not affect him, is that this is going to be a very transformative election cycle, especially in South Carolina,” Trav Robertson, the South Carolina Democratic Party chair, told BuzzFeed News in a recent interview.
Robertson said Biden would be smart to emphasize another friendship — the one he developed over two terms serving with Obama: “There’s something transformative about his vice presidency, in that he was vice president to the first African-American president.”
Turner, who has taught black history courses at an Ohio community college, doesn’t think that will work.
“Proximity is not the way people vote,” she said. “If that’s all he has to draw upon, it’s not enough.”
Or as Austin, Jesse Jackson’s former campaign manager put it: “I haven’t seen any quotes from Barack Obama encouraging him to run.”