Former First Lady Michelle Obama refused to defend Joe Biden as the former vice president is engulfed in controversy for his longstanding views on busing and his more recent praise of segregationists.
On Saturday, Obama was asked at the Essence Festival in New Orleans, Louisiana, if she wanted to share her thoughts on the recent “dust up” between Biden and Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) at the first Democrat presidential debate last month.
The former first lady pointedly refused to engage on the topic, simply saying “I do not.” Obama added that she was not new to “this rodeo” and would not discuss the issue further.
“I’ve been doing this rodeo far too long,” she said. “And no comment.”
The Essence Festival was the first time that either of the Obamas was asked publicly to weigh in on the unfolding controversy surrounding Biden. Last month, the former vice president came under fire for invoking the late-Sens. James Eastland (D-MS) and Herman Talmadge (D-GA), at a fundraiser in New York City. Biden mentioned the two men while touting his ability to forge “consensus” in Congress, but offered little explanation for what the men were able to do together.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” Biden told donors, faking a Southern drawl as he spoke. “He never called me boy, he always called me son.”
“Well guess what?” the former vice president continued. “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
The praise was highly contentious, as Talmadge and Eastland were infamous segregationists that dedicated their careers to stopping the progress of civil rights. Eastland, whom Biden has praised as a friend and mentor in the past, was known as the “voice of the white South” for his defense of Jim Crow and propensity for referring to African Americans as “an inferior race.” Talmadge, on the other hand, pledged to do everything in his power to protect “separation of the races” in the wake of the Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education decision, which struck down segregation in public schools.
In the immediate aftermath of the remarks, Biden was heavily criticized by his fellow Democrats and 2020 rivals. Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), in particular, delivered an impassioned rebuke of the former vice president when demanding he apologize.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,’” Booker said. “Biden’s relationships with proud segregationists are not the model for how we make America a safer and more inclusive place for Black people, and for everyone… he is wrong for using his relationships with Eastland and Talmadge as examples of how to bring our country together.”
Biden stood defiant in the face of Booker’s criticism, even saying that if anyone was owed an apology over the incident it was himself.
“Cory should apologize. He knows better,” he said. “There’s not a racist bone in my body. I’ve been involved in civil rights my whole career, period, period, period.”
Although Biden had invoked segregationist Democrats like Eastland and Talmadge in the past, he never elaborated on the role such men played in his efforts to oppose busing for school integration during the 1970s. Eastland, as chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was an especially vital ally in Biden’s crusade against busing as evidenced by the two men’s Senate correspondence.
Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA) was quick to highlight those relationships when confronting the former vice president on the topic at the first Democrat debate.
“I agree with you when you commit yourself to the importance of finding common ground,” Harris said, “but I also believe and it’s personal and it was hurtful to hear you talk about the reputations of two United States senator who built their reputations and career on the segregation of race in this country.”
“It was not only that, but you also worked with them to oppose busing,” she continued. “There was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day. That little girl was me. So I will tell you that on this subject, it cannot be an intellectual debate… we have to take it seriously.”
Biden attempted to defuse the situation by claiming Harris had mischaracterized his record. Instead of providing evidence to dispute Harris’s claims, though, the former vice president only muddled his stance on busing and falsely claimed to have never praised racists.
On Saturday, Biden finally apologized for praising segregationist Democrats like Eastland and Talmadge during a campaign stop in South Carolina.
“Was I wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to people that I was praising those men who I successfully opposed time and again,” he asked rhetorically. “Yes, I was. I regret it. And I’m sorry for any of the pain or misconception they may have caused anybody.”
Biden’s mea culpa, however, caught some heat from the Obama’s inner-circle as coming well after the damage was done.
David Axelrod, a former top aide to President Barack Obama, criticized Biden by saying the apology should not have taken “weeks to land.”
“This is an important statement but would have been better weeks ago—or maybe on the debate stage! It shouldn’t take weeks to land,” Axelrod said on social media.