Joe Biden compared President Donald Trump to the late-Alabama Gov. George Wallace (D) on Wednesday, despite his own history with the once ardent segregationist.
Biden, who in recent months has faced controversy for praising two segregationist Democrats with whom he served in the United States Senate, made the comments on Wednesday during an address in Burlington, Iowa.
The speech was billed by Biden’s campaign as a discussion about the “battle for the soul of our nation” in the wake of a string of mass shootings. Instead of suggesting more funding for mental health or new gun control measures — two of the usual solutions proposed in the aftermath of such tragedies — Biden laid the blame directly on Trump, claiming the president had encouraged hatred and disunity among the American people.
“We’re living through a rare moment in this nation’s history. Where our president isn’t up to the moment,” the former vice president said. “Where our president lacks the moral authority to lead. Where our president has more in common with George Wallace than George Washington.”
The comparison was not totally surprising, given that Biden has escalated his attacks on the president in recent days, even likening him to the Ku Klux Klan on Monday. It did, however, strike some as odd because of Biden’s own long history of invoking and at time praising the late-Alabama governor.
“I think the Democratic Party could stand a liberal George Wallace — someone who’s not afraid to stand up and offend people, someone who wouldn’t pander but would say what the American people know in their gut is right,” Biden told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1975 when discussing why liberals should not “apologize for locking up criminals.”
At the time, Biden was a young-first term senator from Delaware who was developing a reputation for bucking his party, most notedly on the contentious issue of busing to desegregate public schools. Notwithstanding the fact that racial norms were more antiquated then they are today, Biden’s comments, nonetheless, were viewed as controversial.
Wallace, who was governor of Alabama in the mid-1960s and then again throughout most of the 1970s, stood out in the national psyche for his stringent opposition to integration, even going as far to declare “segregation now, segregation tomorrow, segregation forever” in his 1963 inaugural address. The image was reinforced only months later when Wallace faced down federal law enforcement officers at the University of Alabama while attempting to block integration efforts by then-President John F. Kennedy.
Wallace took his opposition to civil rights nationwide in 1964 by challenging then-President Lyndon Johnson for the Democrat nomination. Although he lost the contest overwhelmingly, Wallace’s ability to garner more than ten percent of the vote outside of his native South drew the eyes of many.
In 1968 he ran for president as an independent on a platform that included opposition to federally mandated busing and reasserting law and order. He lost the general election, but buoyed by a strong showing in the Deep South, sought the Democrat nomination in 1972. Despite winning a few primaries, Wallace’s presidential ambitions ended after a failed assassination attempt left him paralyzed.
By the time Biden invoked him to the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1975, Wallace was trying to rehabilitate his image by making inroads with Alabama’s black community. Even though he succeeded in that effort by some measure, Wallace remained a vigilant proponent of states rights, especially when it came to busing and crime — two issues that defined Biden’s early political career.
The political and ideological similarities between the two men have been acknowledged by Biden, himself, on multiple occasions. In 1975, during an interview with National Public Radio (NPR) about his support for a constitutional amendment to stop busing, Biden claimed liberals only favored the practice because it was associated with “racists” like Wallace.
“I think that part of the reason why much of this has not developed, much of the change has not developed, is because it has been an issue that has been in the hands of the racist,” Biden told NPR. “We liberals have out-of-hand rejected it because, if George Wallace is for it, it must be bad.”
“And so we haven’t really looked at it,” he continued. “Now there’s a confluence of streams. There is academic ferment against it — not majority, but academic ferment against it. There are young blacks and young white leaders against it.”
The former vice president similarly invoked Wallace during a 1981 Senate Judiciary Committee hearing to explain why he and countless others supported tough-on-crime initiatives like the death penalty.
“Sometimes even George Wallace is right about some things,” Biden told the committee before claiming Americans supported the death penalty because the government did “not have the slightest idea how to rehabilitate” criminals.
Such instances in which Biden mentioned Wallace only grew through the 1980s, becoming more commonplace in the lead-up to his first presidential run in 1988. Back then, the South was still nominally Democrat but had voted overwhelmingly for President Ronald Reagan in 1980 and 1984. Biden appeared to believe his youth, moderate record, and stance on busing presented the best opportunity to bring Southern whites back into the Democrat camp.
As he traveled the South in 1986 and 1987, Biden not only downplayed his support for civil rights, but also made frequent references to Wallace. In April 1987, Biden even reportedly tried to court an Alabama audience by boasting about how Wallace had honored him with an award.
“Biden talked of his sympathy for the South; bragged of an award he had received from George Wallace in 1973 and said “we [Delawareans] were on the South’s side in the Civil War,” as reported by the Inquirer in September of that year.
Apart from openly touting “his sympathy for the South” and the accolade bestowed by Wallace, Biden also bragged the Alabama governor heaped praise on his capabilities as a politician.
“Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware … tells Southerners that the lower half of his state is culturally part of Dixie,” the Detroit Free Press reported in May 1987. “He reminds them that former Alabama Gov. George Wallace praised him as one of the outstanding young politicians of America.”
Biden, though, did not bring up any of this history to the voters in Iowa on Wednesday. Rather the former vice president stuck relentlessly to his message that it would be dangerous for the country to reelect trump in 2020.
“Everyone knows who Donald Trump is,” Biden said. “We need to show them who we are. We choose hope over fear.”