On Joe Biden and James Eastland

While the whole nation seems to be in the process of professing an unearned proficiency in American political history, I thought I’d share this little tidbit from Arthur Schlesinger’s book on RFK, Robert Kennedy and His Times. You may remember the nasty bit of nepotism that resulted in JFK nominating his brother to serve as attorney general. It caused quite a bit of grumbling even if in the end almost no one seemed to have the courage to oppose the move. For a time, though, it looked like a bloc of Southern Democrats in the Senate might cause problems, and RFK had to enlist LBJ to smooth his path. No one was more critical than the Judiciary Chairman James Eastland of Mississippi.

Robert Kennedy and His Times is a fawning book that paints RFK as a brilliant administrator of the Justice Department. You can see that Robert’s good relationship with a virulent racist “devoid of any socially redeeming quality” is breezily chalked up to an “Irish weakness for rogues.” There’s also the obvious power dynamic involved here, where Eastland’s support was required so it made more sense to be on good terms.

The Washington Post went down to look at Eastland’s archives at the University of Mississippi and unearthed a similar dynamic between Eastland and a young Irish senator from Delaware named Joe Biden. In reading through the 30 pieces of correspondence between the two senators from the mid-1970s, I noticed that almost all of them are explained by Biden’s desire to win appointments to various committees. In addition to being the chairman of the Judiciary Committee, Eastland was also the leader of the Steering Committee that decided on committee assignments, so Biden wrote him a letter immediately after being elected and told him what his preferences were. Then Biden wrote him another letter thanking him for his assignments even though they weren’t what Biden asked for.

Some of the examples were “dear colleague” letters written to all the senators that invited them to join him on the floor in support of a particular amendment or bill. There are a couple pieces about the organization and jurisdiction of subcommittees. What’s clear is that Biden’s correspondence with Eastland was that of a supplicant asking for good treatment and consideration from a powerful man who had control of his fate.  It’s the same humbling exercise RFK went through during his confirmation process.

The one glaring exception to this pattern is Biden’s effort to enlist Eastland’s support for his anti-busing legislation. That’s what is causing most of the criticism today, and it’s certainly a part of Biden’s history that deserves scrutiny. It’s clear that he and his Republican colleague from Delaware, Senator William Roth who co-sponsored the bill, were feeling pressure from their white constituents at home to oppose forced busing of students. It’s also clear that by pushing the bill, Biden knew he could ingratiate himself to the powerful Eastland. Forty-two years later, we can judge that how we may and attach whatever negative weight to it that we want.

We should keep in mind, however, that Biden wasn’t an equal to Eastland or some kind of friend. He kissed his ass because his ass needed kissing. It was a situation that made many Northerners and liberals bristle at the time. A lot of the committees in both chambers of Congress were controlled by old-school Southerners because Democrats never lost in the South and so naturally Southern politicians often wound up with the most seniority.

When the so-called Watergate babies were seated in the House in January 1975, one of their first orders of business was to try to change the seniority system to knock some of the segregationists out of their committee chairs. As long as they were there, as Eastland was until he retired in 1978, they had to be reckoned with. It was a big deal when Teddy Kennedy replaced Eastland as the Judiciary Chair in 1979.  Thereafter, it was a liberal who needed to be appeased.

Biden does a poor job of explaining these things, which is going to continue to cause him unnecessary problems. He was civil to Eastland because it would have been harmful to his ambitions and his effectiveness to be anything else. They were never equals. Yet, in fairness, Biden was civil in all his Senate relationships, including with members of the opposing party. It was part of his strategy for maximizing his influence and getting things done, and it informs how he views the Senate today.

It’s difficult for people who didn’t serve in the Senate in the 1970s to relate to a lot of what Biden is saying and it comes off as tone-deaf in a variety of ways. He isn’t trying to say that the best way to deal with white supremacists is to be on friendly terms with them, although that was in fact the case in the limited context of being a freshman senator during the Ford and Carter administrations. It was also the case for RFK when he needed confirmation as attorney general in 1961.

We don’t live in those worlds anymore and we have to be careful how we talk about that troubled past. But we also shouldn’t distort it in a way that makes it seem like there was no cost to standing up to the power these men wielded at the time.

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Martin Longman

Martin Longman is the web editor for the Washington Monthly. See all his writing at ProgressPond.com