Joe Biden loves to rattle off the names of dead racist politicians he befriended in the same spirit of nostalgic reverie that a hero of a 19th-century French novel might reminisce about the mistresses he enjoyed as a young man. At a fundraiser on Tuesday, the current front-runner in the Democratic presidential primary cited his warm relationship with the late James O. Eastland and the late Herman Talmadge, both ardent segregationists. “I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden told the audience. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’” (Was Biden even aware of the racist code that reserved “boy” for black men and “son” for white ones?). Biden added, “At least there was some civility. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy.”
Biden’s rivals and the media jumped on this supposed blunder. Senator Cory Booker, among others, called on Biden to apologize. The Washington Post described Biden’s remarks as belonging to the “pantheon of campaign-defining gaffes.”
But did Biden really make a faux pas? Or was it a frank statement about what the veteran politician actually thinks? Biden’s advisers reportedly warned him against using Eastland as an example. Biden discounted their warnings, which suggests the remarks were made with forethought. Far from speaking off-the-cuff, Biden was expressing one of his deepest convictions: that the vocation of politics is all about friendship.
Biden’s famous affability isn’t just an aspect of his personality. It’s a core belief. Like the talking horses in the animated kids show My Little Pony, Biden believes that “friendship is magic.”
Biden’s vision is similar, in some respects, to Obama’s promise in 2008 to unite a divided America. But Obama’s post-partisan politics was an attempt to get debates on key issues like health care settled by reasoned public debate. Biden’s post-partisanship is more narrowly personal.
For Biden, one-to-one relationships are the essence of life and politics. In his 2003 eulogy for the famously racist Senator Strom Thurmond, Biden said that “friendship and death are great equalizers, where our differences become irrelevant and the only thing that is left is what’s in our heart.”
Biden knows all about death, having lost his first wife and a 1-year-old daughter in a car accident in 1972, as well as an adult son to brain cancer in 2015. Being a man of grief and resiliency defines Biden. “The Bidenite glad-hander,” as George Blaustein observed in The New Republic, “offers emotional connection in a society of strangers, and having known sorrow makes Biden the best glad-hander in the business.” The experience of unspeakable grief is what gives Biden’s thirst for friendship its authenticity, freeing it from the tawdriness of mere networking.
Biden is quick to play up his friendships, whether with Barack Obama or Strom Thurmond. On June 8, he tweeted, “Happy #BestFriendsDay to my friend, @BarackObama.” This mawkish tweet was accompanied by a photo of a braided friendship bracelet that read “Joe” and “Barack” along with little emblems of joy (including a star and a happy face).
In a heartfelt eulogy, Biden recalled how Thurmond had defended him from an accusation of plagiarism in law school. “When partisanship was a winning option, he chose friendship,” Biden said.
Biden claims Thurmond underwent a change of heart on racism, a redemption narrative at odds with the evidence. (Biden made the same claim about another racist pal, John C. Stennis.) Thurmond died at the age of 100 without acknowledging that he was the father to an African-American daughter, the product of a relationship he had as a young man with a 16-year-old maid. Whatever private remorse Thurmond or Stennis might have felt does nothing to address the impact of their decades-long advocacy of racism from the commanding heights of American politics.
Politics is defined by a choice of friends and enemies. Bernie Sanders’s foes are the 1 percent. Elizabeth Warren’s nemesis is monopolistic corporations—or the Republican Party. Joe Biden’s target is just one man: Donald Trump. Biden’s theory of political change is a simple one: Get rid of Trump and we can all be friends again. “The thing that will fundamentally change things is with Donald Trump out of the White House,” Biden told donors in early July. “Not a joke. You will see an epiphany occur among many of my Republican friends.”
Biden’s cult of friendship is so heartfelt that it seems churlish to point out that it is also absurd. Even New York magazine’s Jonathan Chait, who shares much of Biden’s centrist politics, notes that the Obama years provide ample evidence that bipartisan conviviality is not enough. Biden’s bonhomie helped secure a handful of Republican senatorial votes in one key issue (stimulus funding), but was otherwise effective only on minor matters. Biden’s back-slapping geniality was no match for the ferocious partisanship of Mitch McConnell. Partisan polarization and Republican extremism go far beyond Donald Trump, and won’t be solved by gregariousness.
From the outside, what Biden sees as friendship looks more like cliquishness. Strom Thurmond helped his buddy Joe—a smart move in a clubby world. Thurmond was a notorious sexual harasser, who benefited from the old-boys’-club protectiveness of the Senate. But aside from such personal back-scratching, Thurmond prioritized not just partisanship but an ideological commitment to white supremacy. It was that overriding goal of white power that made Thurmond break with the Democrats in 1948 to run as a Dixiecrat and eventually become a Republican in 1964.
Thurmond knew politics wasn’t really about personal loyalty (after all, he betrayed his own party) but about pushing an agenda. This is an insight Joe Biden lacks. The Jim Crow system that Thurmond upheld wasn’t defeated by his change of heart or his friendship with other politicians, but through a mass protest movement that broke the logjam of cozy Washington.
Nor did Biden’s friendship with Thurmond achieve much good. Biden cites their work on the 1991 Thurmond-Biden Crime Bill, one of the building blocks of American mass incarceration. As for James O. Eastland, Biden bonded with him over a shared opposition to school integration. “I want you to know that I very much appreciate your help during this week’s Committee meeting in attempting to bring my antibusing legislation to a vote,” Biden wrote to Eastland in 1977.
Democrats might ask themselves: With friends like Biden and his pals, who needs enemies?