The Slatest

Meet James Eastland, the Senator Joe Biden Keeps Waxing Nostalgic About

The official portrait of Senator Eastland.
Sen. James O. Eastland.
Herbert Adams

Joe Biden, speaking at a fundraiser in New York on Tuesday night, fondly remembered the days he served in the Senate with James O. Eastland, a white supremacist Democrat from Mississippi. The New York Times has this extraordinary description of his remarks:

“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Mr. Biden said, slipping briefly into a Southern accent, according to a pool report from the fund-raiser. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’ ”

It’s not the first time Biden’s ties to Eastland, a man who called the ruling in Brown v. Board of Education a “monstrous crime,” have drawn scrutiny. As CNN has reported, as a young senator, Biden tried to enlist Eastland’s help in his fight to prevent busing in school desegregation. He also had this to say at a Doug Jones rally in 2017:

I’ve been around so long, I worked with James Eastland. Even in the days when I got there, the Democratic Party still had seven or eight old-fashioned Democratic segregationists. You’d get up and you’d argue like the devil with them. Then you’d go down and have lunch or dinner together. The political system worked. We were divided on issues, but the political system worked.

Well, as long as we’re talking about the way things used to get done in the Senate, there’s no reason to settle for Joe Biden’s imitation of Eastland’s Southern drawl: The man can speak for himself just fine. Here’s the senator explaining his thoughts and political positions in great detail on The Mike Wallace Interview on July 28, 1957. It’s great television, but it probably won’t make you feel very nostalgic about James Eastland:

Positively Trumpian! As anyone who’s read the Confederate declarations of secession knows, it is always instructive to compare the way people are remembered after their deaths with the way they chose to behave and present themselves while they were living. Here’s Biden on Tuesday, lamenting what he thinks has been lost since Eastland’s day:

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.

Eastland may not have been Joe Biden’s enemy, but that’s sort of the problem, because he was definitely an enemy to his black constituents. But it’s not Biden’s fault he sees politics the way he does: As Mike Wallace’s wrap-up shows, by midcentury the media was already carefully packaging everything as a noble but ultimately consequence-free debate between Giants of the Senate.

Sen. James Eastland of Mississippi speaks for a vast part of the white South on the race issue. In the North, senators with equal conviction speak their lines. Somewhere between these two poles, a comp—

I can’t tell if the video cuts off when Wallace suggests a centrist compromise is obviously the answer to questions like “Should black people be allowed to vote?” or if I keep having a minor stroke whenever I watch it. Anyway, that’s James Eastland. Joe Biden misses having dinner with him.