COLUMBIA, S.C. — It only took one minute for Joe Biden to bring up a former segregationist Friday night.
Biden closed his brief speech at Rep. Jim Clyburn’s (D-S.C.) fish fry Friday night by turning to Clyburn and honoring their recently departed mutual friend — who just happens to have begun his career as a segregationist.
“I tell you, I do miss Fritz being here,” Biden told Clyburn as he concluded his remarks, shouting out former South Carolina Sen. Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.) who died earlier this year.
The event, which drew 21 Democratic candidates for president and thousands of local voters and activists,of the fight for South Carolina, an early-primary state where as many as 60% of the electorate is African American. Clyburn, a close Biden ally who as yet hasn’t endorsed a candidate, is a kingmaker of unusual heft in the state.
Biden’s remarks seemed a subtle but stubborn poke at the week’s scandal — one that risked Biden’s crucial support with African American voters. The former vice president landed in hot water on Tuesday when he brought up his strong working relationship with a pair of hardline racist senators early in his Senate career to illustrate his ability to work with ideological foes, saying one “never called me boy, he always called me son.”
That drew sharp criticism from almost all of his primary opponents, and a heated back-and-forth between Biden and Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) that dominated headlines for much of the week. When Booker called on Biden to apologize for the “boy” remark, Biden sniped back that Booker should apologize to him.
Hollings isn’t like the others Biden referenced — he actually changed over his career. Unlike the others, Biden had a close friendship with the South Carolina senator. And Biden often shouts out his old colleague and mentor on the campaign trail in the state. During his eulogy of Hollings earlier this year, Biden talked of how he "moved to the good side" on racial issues during his four-decade Senate career.
The Hollings reference was much safer territory than Biden’s earlier remarks, but underlined his earlier intended point about the need for comity in Washington to get things done.
But while the reference likely sailed over the audience — the speakers weren’t working well and Biden’s soft-spoken finish was hard to hear over the din of the crowd — Biden’s point was hard to miss after a drama-filled week that risked damaging his strong standing with black voters, who are fueling his lead in polls both nationally and in South Carolina.
This isn’t the first time Biden has scoffed in the face of criticism from the left this campaign — after a handful of women accused him of inappropriate (though nonsexual) physical contact, he made a joke about it during a speech a firefighters’ union. He did reverse himself on a previous position that Medicaid shouldn’t cover abortion after criticism, however. The vice president is set to speak at a Planned Parenthood forum in South Carolina on Saturday where his complicated views on abortion are likely to be a focus.
Biden and Clyburn, the top-ranked African American in Congress, were the two men to eulogize Hollings after his death early this year. The South Carolina senator began his long career fighting to protect segregation, before morphing into a racial moderate who developed strong ties with the state’s African American community.
Clyburn has come to his old friend’s defense, arguing Biden’s comments about working with racists were no different than Clyburn’s own work with famed segregationist Sen. Strom Thurmond (R-S.C.) to help their state.
Biden adviser Symone Sanders shrugged off the Hollings remark, saying she hadn’t discussed it with the vice president ahead of time.
“We know this is a long game and we know this is going to be a fight. But the vice president has been a friend of South Carolina for a really long time,” she told VICE News. “He’s especially been a friend to the African American community. We’re not taking any votes for granted, we know we’re going to have to work for votes, and that’s what we’re doing this weekend.”
She declined to go into further detail on the drama that dominated the past week, saying Biden would likely address them himself during an MSNBC interview planned for Saturday.
The drama may not be done. As Biden signaled Friday — and as he’s done throughout much of his campaign — he’s not been willing to back down from perceived screw-ups even when he's risked offending parts of his base.
Cover: Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden, 2020 Democratic presidential candidate, speaks during Jim Clyburn's World Famous Fish Fry event in Columbia, South Carolina, U.S., on Friday, June 21, 2019. Joe Biden is trying to make amends after a misstep over his history of working alongside segregationist senators as he heads for a weekend of campaign events in South Carolina, where African-American voters are crucial to victory in the state's Democratic primary. (Photo: Al Drago/Bloomberg via Getty Images)