Democratic presidential hopeful and former Vice President Joe Biden addressing the the Poor People's Campaign at Trinity Washington University in Washington, DC. Earlier this week. Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images
Photo: Alex Wong/Getty Images

The Jolt: Parsing Joe Biden’s relationship with Southern history

At a Tuesday night fundraiser in New York, former Vice President Joe Biden defended his own reputation for comity by invoking the names of two Southern Democrats whose political careers spanned the region’s transition from Jim Crow to desegregation.

This morning, both the New York Times and the Washington Post address the Democratic presidential candidate’s characterization of his relationships with – drawing from the Post version -- “the late Sens. James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman E. Talmadge of Georgia, who were both steadfastly opposed to civil rights and racial integration.”

We will let Mississippi answer for Eastland. But there is probably a better word than “steadfastly” to describe Talmadge’s attitude on race -- and we will get to that. But here’s how the Post characterized remarks Biden made last night:

Even with Talmadge — “one of the meanest guys I ever knew” — Biden noted, “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done."

That sort of pragmatism, he suggested, was rooted in personal affability, and he lamented its demise in today’s bitter partisan warfare.

“But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy,” Biden said. “Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”

Critics of Biden have already pointed to the 1977 anti-busing legislation that he introduced as the U.S. senator from Delaware, in an era of school desegregation. This morning, many of those same critics are already citing last night’s remarks as evidence of “collaboration.”

His wistful talk is likely provide fodder to the many Democrats polling behind him. “Next week’s debate just acquired a theme,” tweeted CNBC political reporter John Harwood. 

A couple points here: First, when Biden came to the Senate in 1973, Southern Democrats still ruled the chamber. Eastland was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Talmadge was chairman of the Senate Agriculture Committee. Getting along with those whose racial attitudes were different from yours was a requirement of the climate, the realpolitik of the day.

Secondly, neither human beings nor the political systems they create are binary creatures with on-off, yes-no switches. Desegregation in the South was a process that spanned decades. It is not yet complete – ask Stacey Abrams.

From the 1950s onward, the South’s white political elite adapted to the civil rights movement at varying speeds. A very few took the express train. Far more refused to get on board at all. A majority boarded late and got off early. Talmadge and many others fall into this category.

Former Georgia Governors Herman Talmadge and Ellis Arnall, Commerce Club, Atlanta, Georgia, March 6, 1980. CREDIT: LANNA SWINDLER / THE ATLANTA JOURNAL-CONSTITUTION ARCHIVES

There is no question where Talmadge started. His father was Eugene Talmadge, who used race as a cudgel in the 1930s and ‘40s to become governor of Georgia -- three times.  When “Hummon” Talmadge followed his father’s path into the state Capitol, Ku Klux Klan members in three counties burned crosses in the son’s honor.

In 1955, as he prepared a run for the U.S. Senate, Herman Talmadge famously penned a small book entitled “Segregation and You” – and then spent much of the 1960s buying up and destroying every copy he could find.

During his first years in the Senate, Talmadge’s opposition to federal civil rights measures was front and center. But in the late 1960s, as a biracial Democratic party took hold in Georgia, he began to shift. He dropped his opposition to African-Americans nominated to federal judgeships. He hired black staffers.

Morris Brown College awarded Talmadge an honorary doctorate. Andrew Young, the civil rights leader who joined the Jimmy Carter administration, suggested that Talmadge would be the ideal U.S. ambassador to South Africa -- as proof that white politicians could survive the end of apartheid.

Neither Carter nor Talmadge bit on the idea.

Was Talmadge’s conversion complete? No. Very few travel that road to Damascus. Most of us walk the unfinished road to Marietta, Atlanta, Valdosta or – in Talmadge’s case – Lovejoy. One chapter of a memoir that Talmadge wrote before his death in 2002 carried this self-descriptive title: "Reconstructed But Unregenerate.”

Yet to say that Herman Talmadge changed not a whit during his career is to ignore the political reality of that era, which was all about change. Glimpses of a new South could be detected in even in Herman Talmadge.

Last year, the Trump administration, via Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, proposed replacing nearly half the cash vouchers given to poor families through the SNAP program – commonly called food stamps – with “America’s Harvest Box.” The boxes would include U.S.-produced milk, peanut butter, and other food.

That’s how the federal government used to feed poor people – even if the packages carried a heavy social stigma. But then Congress passed the Food Stamp Act of 1964, which was written by Herman Talmadge.

The South can be such a complicated place.

***

Word from the ACLU is that the Georgia Supreme Court will hear oral arguments today at 10 a.m. in a case, Mobley v. State, challenging the warrantless search and seizure by law enforcement of data collected in a car’s “event data recorder,” also known as a vehicle’s “black box.”

The info can include cellphone contacts, music preferences, detailed location history, and granular data about the operation of the car itself.

***

If Stacey Abrams’ ears were burning last night, it might have been because President Donald Trump was talking about her. From the Washington Post:

One conspicuous line that Trump didn’t dwell upon but seems likely to make a return is when Trump alluded to Democrats “who refuse to concede an election” and suggested they were sore losers.

Trump appeared to be referring to Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams (D), who has not conceded her loss to Gov. Brian Kemp (R) and has argued that minority votes were suppressed. Abrams has also said she still might run for president in 2020.

***

Sometimes the question is important even if there’s not a ready answer. From a GPB piece by Virginia Prescott and Jake Troyer:

Organizers and city leaders are still puzzling out why a job fair at the Anderson Conference Center in Macon recently saw an unexpectedly large turnout.

More than 3,500 job hunters stood in a line a mile long, and some continued to wait hours after the fair technically closed. This all happened amidst reports of low unemployment rates for the county and state.

***

Endorsement alert: Democrat Carolyn Bourdeaux picked up two more state legislators who support her bid for the Seventh District congressional seat being vacated by U.S. Rep. Rob Woodall, R-Lawrenceville.

State Rep. Scott Holcomb and state Sen. Nan Orrock are both backing Bourdeaux, who is running for the Gwinnett-based seat again after narrowly losing to Woodall last November. 

They join a group that also includes state Reps. Park Cannon, Jasmine Clark, Pat Gardner Shelly Hutchinson, Gregg Kennard, Dewey McClain, Donna McLeod, Mary Margaret Oliver and state Sens. Sally Harrell and Elena Parent. 

Bourdeaux is one of a half-dozen Democrats vying for the seat, but there’s one other candidate who this show of force hurts more than the others: State Rep. Brenda Lopez Romero, a colleague of those lawmakers, is expected to formally enter the race later this month. 

***

We’re just now hearing that James A “Bud” Cody, 80, died last week in Ocean Springs, Miss. In November 1966, the Georgia Sheriffs’ Association hired him to serve as their first executive director, as well as director of the Georgia Sheriffs’ Youth Homes located in Hahira, Ga. Cody would serve in those roles for the next 46 years, until his retirement in 2012.

***

Mailbox alert: The Washington-based Voter Participation Center is sending about 200,000 voter registration applications to Georgia, where roughly one-third of eligible voters is not registered.

The non-partisan group says more than 1.5 million residents from historically under-represented groups haven’t signed up to cast their ballots yet. Those groups include minorities, young people and unmarried women.

The center says it has helped more than 4 million people register to vote since 2003 across the nation. It sends pre-addressed envelopes that residents can send straight to election registrars’ offices to sign up. They should arrive in mailboxes starting next week.

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