Last Thursday, as Democrats were waking up across the Eastern Seaboard, they checked their phone notifications. The news was pretty much blowing up because, as you probably well know by now, Joe Biden had finally announced his candidacy for the presidency.
It didn’t take long to grok what the themes of the campaign would be. Biden started off with a Founding Father from Charlottesville, Virginia, and gave plenty of play to his most famous words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident…”
Wonderful. Inspiring. And then we moved on to the other Charlottesville — the violence and chaos during a far-right rally in 2017 in which a deranged racist killed a counter-protester.
Of course, President Donald Trump said that there were “very fine people on both sides” in the aftermath of the tragedy. It was a comment that wasn’t Trump’s finest moment, but has also been distorted by both the media and Biden in his video.
“With those words, the president of the United States assigned a moral equivalence between those spreading hate and those with the courage to stand against it,” Biden said. “And in that moment, I knew the threat to this nation was unlike any I had ever seen in my lifetime.”
The core values of this nation… our standing in the world… our very democracy…everything that has made America — America –is at stake. That’s why today I’m announcing my candidacy for President of the United States. #Joe2020 https://t.co/jzaQbyTEz3
— Joe Biden (@JoeBiden) April 25, 2019
This isn’t actually what Trump was saying, however. ‘
A fuller look at the context of his remarks shows he was referring to those who were there simply to protest the fact that a statue of Confederate Gen. Robert E. Lee was being taken down and a park named after him was being renamed.
Granted, these individuals were almost certainly in the distinct minority, but from what we can ascertain, those individuals were indeed present. Trump wasn’t praising neo-Nazis and white supremacists whom he had bashed throughout the remarks — something even Jake Tapper acknowledged on CNN.
The president re-emphasized this on Saturday, according to The Washington Post, telling reporters he was defending “people that went because they felt very strongly about the monument to Robert E. Lee — a great general, whether you like it or not.”
This received immediate opprobrium from Democrats.
“The fact of the matter is, Robert E. Lee was a great tactician,” House Majority Whip James Clyburn, D-S.C., said during an appearance on ABC News’ “This Week” on Sunday.
“Was not a great person. Robert E. Lee was a slave owner and a brutal slave master. Thankfully, he lost that war. And I find it kind of interesting that the president is now glorifying a loser. He always said that he hated losers. Robert E. Lee was a loser.”
This isn’t necessarily disagreeing with Trump’s remarks, mind you, although the “loser” quip was actually worth a chortle or two. However, wait until Clyburn finds out what the guy who started this debate — namely, Joe Biden — thought about Robert E. Lee.
“While many have [begun] criticizing the dead former Confederate leader, in 1975 the Senate, which included freshman Democratic Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, unanimously approved the reinstatement of General Robert E. Lee’s citizenship to the U.S.,” The Daily Caller reported Saturday.
“Following his surrender to Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House, Va., on April 9, 1865, Lee wrote to then-President Andrew Johnson and asked for a pardon so his citizenship could be restored, according to a New York Times article from 1975. One part of the process was to swear his allegiance to the president, but when Lee did submit it to the president, it never got to Johnson.”
Now, it’s worth noting that there was nothing particularly controversial about restoring Lee’s citizenship in 1975. In addition to the unanimous Senate approval, the measure passed the House with only 10 dissenting votes, according to the contemporary piece in The New York Times.
And the dissenters seemed to be more concerned that it did not include amnesty for Vietnam War draft dodgers than actually opposed to Lee’s citizenship, according to The Times report.
However, part of the issue is that Biden has been doggedly haunted by his past.
If it weren’t for the fact of the Anita Hill hearings, Biden’s remarks on forced busing to effect school desegregation in the 1970s would likely be the biggest anchor for his campaign in the Democratic primary contests.
Biden can’t erase the past or put a cordon sanitaire around it, but he can at least not remind people of it.
Charlottesville wasn’t Trump’s best moment, but for Biden and his campaign to deliberately misconstrue the president’s words and then apparently fail to anticipate that it might come back to bite Biden because of his vote on Robert E. Lee from the 1970s doesn’t indicate tactical brilliance in the Biden camp.
Could Biden apologize for his forgiving stance on Lee? Of course. Give the “times have changed” excuse. Democrats who aren’t running for the nomination might be happy to accept it.
As usual, however, Biden would be acting out of expediency, not consistency.
There’s only one consistent through-line in Biden’s career: All he really stands for is re-election.
When he needed to be Tough On Crime™, he was the man for the job. Fighting busing? That too. And now he can turn left because that’s the only way he’ll get elected again.
But then, nobody among the Democrats will call him on it. Even as they excoriate Robert E. Lee, they won’t talk about Biden’s vote. Neither will the media.
It’s disappointing, but it’s hardly surprising.
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