Former Vice President Joe Biden was in Charleston in late 2015 paying tribute to a friend of his, former Mayor Joe Riley, as the latter was wrapping up 40 years of mayoral service. The gala event was an impressive send-off and further helped raise money for one of Riley’s favorite projects: The International African American Museum.
We had the opportunity to meet the VP afterwards, and the takeaway was that you had to like the guy. Warm, engaging, big smile, comfortable chit-chat giving the appearance of not being in the least bit rushed, telling the ladies they looked beautiful — the Biden touch, so to speak —and without any hint of awkwardness, I might add.
And while we are still digesting the first wave of Democratic debates, it was dismaying to see at least a temporary drop in the vice president’s poll numbers as a result of the blatantly demagogic haymaker thrown squarely to his jaw by a chief up and coming adversary, California’s Sen. Kamala Harris.
Biden didn’t see it coming. He was lulled to sleep the previous night when his name was not so much as even mentioned and, whereas he knew the tone would be different, what he got from Harris was brutal. The contents of her remarks were one thing — blasting him for working with segregationist senators and not supporting federally mandated forced public school busing decades ago (and further stating that busing benefited her personally) — but equally eye-opening was her viscerally physical and emotionally charged body language.
A one point she said, “I do not believe you are a racist.” If every picture tells a story, by all appearances that was a big one, and certainly not unintended in the context of political theater. Mr. Biden was dumbstruck by her remarks, ill-prepared for them and could do little more than stammer around while generally claiming that Harris mischaracterized his record “across the board.”
Sen. Harris is a charismatic and formidable figure. As many either will not know or don’t recall (because they’re not old enough), forced busing was not without its very serious limitations and drawbacks and had arguably overall negative consequences — at least as it was conceived back in the day.
In Boston, things got extremely nasty so as to worsen racial relations, unfortunately borne out as riots in South Boston with the hurling of rocks and epithets. It would take years, but that city's busing program was finally recognized as a failure and essentially dismantled.
As pointed out by Boston Globe columnist Kevin Cullen, who I get the impression writes from the left of center, the intent of school busing was noble to the extent that the schools were not only segregated but unequal. The theory was that forced integration would lead to a more equitable allocation of resources. “Like many others when this subject is raised,” Cullen writes, “Harris seemed to be using support for busing and support for integration interchangeably, as if they mean the same thing.”
The main problem was that “organizers decided to begin not with little kids who are less likely to harbor prejudices or weapons, but with teenagers with raging hormones and raging parents.” (Harris was quite young when she entered the busing program and would therefore recall it favorably, according to that line of reasoning.)
The results of this social experimentation were discouraging, to say the least. People were frustrated, angry and trapped in disrupted neighborhoods, while the politicians who imposed such unwelcome policy were conveniently unaffected themselves and continued their lives undisturbed.
“If Democrats want to dismiss anyone who thinks busing in Boston was a bad idea as racist,” Cullen concludes, “that is certainly their right. But in doing so, they will do more to guarantee four more years of Donald Trump than advance the cause of racial equity and justice.”