I just listened to Joe Biden's seventeen-and-a-half minute 2003 eulogy for his political friend Strom Thurmond, the former Dixiecrat segregationist from South Carolina who became a Republican in 1964. It's clear Biden liked the man, who he worked closely with to pass crime bills in the early 1980s. As Thurmond's replacement as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden went on to push the now-controversial bill he proudly touts as "the 1994 Biden Crime Bill." This is the bill about which, in 2015, former President Bill Clinton told an NAACP convention concerned about the mass incarceration of African Americans: "I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it." According to a 2015 NY Times story, "Today, about 2.2 million Americans are locked up in federal and state prisons and local jails, twice as many as when Mr. Clinton took office."
Biden's long eulogy is full of warmth and wit and, for a liberal like Biden, driven by a spirit of forgiveness and, more important, a pragmatic sense of political synthesis between the dead man's racist past and what Biden claims as his political mission, the pursuit of civil rights. He had been asked by Thurmond himself to give it. The problem is, when we forgive past shortcomings or evils in order to get over hurdles to make change possible so we can move on to better things, there needs to be true atonement, or it can't work. And even if one argues that Strom Thurmond in old age was ready to atone in some way and to really move on, it's crystal clear from the current state of Thurmond's chosen Republican Party still notorious for its cynical Nixonian "southern strategy" that honest atonement is far from the order of the day; that, in fact, a dishonest, dog-whistle reanimation of that racist past is still alive in the heart of Thurmond's Republican Party.
I don't hate Joe Biden; he seems a very personable man, someone this nobody would have no problem sitting down with to have that proverbial beer as long as I was able to speak my mind and candidly tell him why I feel he'd be a terrible choice for president of the United States right now.
I had a very memorable one-on-one exchange in the 1990s with Senator Biden when I worked as a staff photographer in the PR department of a university. One day, Biden came to speak about the Drug War. I took a half-dozen shots of him to fulfill my duties, then sat down to listen, since the topic was one I was interested in. I'd traveled in Central America as a documentary photographer during the Reagan wars; I'd worked for years feeding the homeless at night in the alleys of Philadelphia; I'd photographed a controversial needle exchange program in North Philly, and I'd read a lot about drug issues like harm reduction programs and other well-researched and documented alternatives to the Drug War. Like many others, I saw the issue in terms of supply and demand and questioned the focus of using our military, police, courts and prisons in places like Latin America to attack the supply while failing miserably to address the demand at home. By the late 1980s, the Drug War seemed to be an abject failure. As I listened to Biden, all this rumbled around in my head. Given my role as PR photographer for the university, I hesitated. But then I raised my hand. I was sitting at the end of the second row in the middle section of seats in the auditorium. Biden pointed at me and walked slowly in my direction.
His slow pace turned into a darting movement, and he was quickly right in front of me with that charming, slightly wry, wide Biden grin. He pointed right at my face as he looked out at the audience.
"This fellah thinks he's smart!" he said, as if the remark was a left jab. "He cleverly uses the term to de-criminalize drugs when what he really wants is to make the stuff legal."
I forget the rest. All I remember was standing there like a jerk. A while back, I'd given Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz some lip at the Germantown Public Library for not answering my question and he'd threatened to have security throw me out. I'm sure Biden had figured out I was the university's flak photographer and that he had me by the you-know-whats which he did. I liked my job, so I took his crap and sat down with not one bit of my question addressed.
So, while I don't hate Joe Biden, I do have a visceral disrespect for what seems his inclination to compromise with entrenched power at the expense of justice. The more I learned of Biden over the years, the more I began to understand his reaction to my question. I had unknowingly kicked his favorite pet schnauzer, and his nature was to make an ad-hominem attack.
It's not news that Biden is vulnerable to criticism for his crime legislation and its impact on the US prison population that has risen 500% since he began his legislative efforts with Thurmond in 1981. According to The Sentencing Project, "Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase." Also, as the senator from the corporate state of Delaware, his intimacy with the credit card industry is worth investigating; as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas, there are questions about his leadership; and there's the fact he voted in 2002 to authorize the Bush invasion of Iraq.
Young Liberal Charms an Aging Segregationist
How did Joe Biden end up so close to Strom Thurmond? In Crime & Politics: Big Government's Erratic Campaign for Law and Order, Ted Gest tells how an ambitious Senator Biden used crime, police and prison bills to get the Democrats back in the game after the election of Ronald Reagan devastated his party.
A too-decent President Carter goes down in ignominious defeat and Reagan is elected. Distressed Democrats face a bleak political future. According to Gest, this was in concert with "a broad conservative thrust to turn the criminal law to the right" that "ended up crystallizing into a highly debatable campaign to extend prison terms, especially for drug-law violations." (In the end, Gest notes, this thrust did little to solve the nation's crime problem, "which worsened during the decade, especially in its second half.")