As Joseph R. Biden Jr. mulls another run for the White House, the former vice president traveled to South Carolina to fulfill a duty that underscores his ties to a bygone era.
Biden, the most prolific eulogist in American politics, found himself in another house of worship Tuesday morning, bidding farewell to another former Senate colleague, South Carolina’s Ernest F. Hollings, a Southern Democrat who once advocated segregation but later honored a judge who fought it.
“Recognizing people can change, with every breath, we have hope that we can learn from the past and build a better future,” Biden said of Hollings, who died over a week ago at the age of 97. He “learned from the past, and he built a better future, constantly. He was constantly evolving.”
Hollings and Biden were so close that there was never any reason to doubt that the 76-year-old prospective 2020 Democratic presidential candidate would make the trip to the Citadel in Charleston to eulogize the late senator, even at the risk of it demonstrating his ties to the Democratic Party’s past.
Watch: Joe Biden eulogizes friend and Senate partner Fritz Hollings
Finding the right tone for eulogizing Fritz Hollings was not the tall order Biden faced when he delivered remarks at the funeral years before for another South Carolina senator — Strom Thurmond.
Biden’s task this time was aided by Hollings’s progression from a gubernatorial candidate who supported segregated schools to a retired senator who asked that his name be taken off a federal court house in favor of J. Waties Waring. The federal judge had authored a dissent that argued that segregation was by its nature not equal, years before the landmark Brown v. Board of Education ruling.
Hollings was also the lone senator at the time to endorse Rev. Jesse Jackson’s 1988 presidential campaign. (A pair of future senators, Paul Wellstone of Minnesota and Bernie Sanders of Vermont, were also on that endorsement list.)
As chairman of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee, Hollings had backed Biden, a long-shot 29-year-old New Castle County, Delaware, councilman, originally from Scranton, Pennsylvania, against a longtime incumbent Republican senator in 1972.
“I was trying to get someone to take me seriously, that I could actually maybe win the seat,” Biden recalled. “I was trying to convince people that, particularly in Washington, it was possible I might be able to do it.”
“I was scared to death, going in to see the chairman of the senatorial campaign committee, Fritz Hollings,” said Biden, who went on to narrowly unseat GOP Sen. J. Caleb Boggs while President Richard Nixon was carrying the state by 20 points.
Biden spoke of traveling with a congressional delegation that included Hollings and other Senate veterans of World War II to Normandy for the 50th anniversary of American forces storming the beaches. And he talked of how Hollings was his desk mate throughout their years in the Senate.
“Thirty-two years we sat next to one another every single day the Senate was in session,” he said.
But the timing of the funeral gave Biden an opportunity of sorts, as well, to again remind Democrats of the role Hollings and his wife, Peatsy, played in December 1972 after Biden’s first wife and infant daughter were killed in a crash with a tractor-trailer. The devastated senator-elect was considering not even taking the oath of office for the seat he’d won a month earlier.
“Aside from my family, the first people to bring me back from that black hole that I found myself in were Fritz and Peatsy,” Biden remembered Tuesday. “Real friendship sees best in the dark, when you need somebody to be with you.”
Biden spoke of Hollings’ championing of the Women, Infants and Children nutrition program, commonly known as WIC.
And in a bit of a nod to the Democratic Party of 2019, Biden cast Hollings as a man ahead of his time, touting his opposition to offshore oil drilling and his role at the Commerce Committee in the establishment of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
“You talk about the new green deal, he started a green deal in a way long before anybody else thought of it,” Biden said. “He did it.”