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Former Vice President Joe Biden's History On Busing

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

It's the moment from last night's Democratic debate that everyone is talking about - when Senator Kamala Harris called out former Vice President Joe Biden about his opposition to busing in the early '70s.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

KAMALA HARRIS: Do you agree today that you were wrong to oppose busing in America then? Do you agree?

JOE BIDEN: No, I did not oppose busing in America. What I opposed is busing ordered by the Department of Education. That's what I opposed. I did oppose...

HARRIS: Well, there was a failure of states to integrate public schools in America.

BIDEN: No...

HARRIS: I was part of the second class to integrate - Berkeley Calif., public schools, almost two decades after Brown v. Board of Education.

BIDEN: Because your city council made that decision.

CORNISH: Now today in public remarks, Biden repeated that he had never opposed busing. Matt Viser is a national political reporter for The Washington Post. He dug into the history and joins us now to talk about it. Welcome to the program.

MATT VISER: Hey, thanks for having me.

CORNISH: First, set the stage for that time. What was the debate about court-ordered busing about and where did Biden fall at that time?

VISER: This was in the 1970s when there were court challenges in an effort to more fully integrate schools throughout the country, particularly in cities where neighborhood schools were still segregated, largely through housing patterns. And so there was an effort to bus children from one neighborhood to the other in order to more fully integrate the schools. And Joe Biden was adamantly opposed to that concept of busing a child from one neighborhood to the other in order to more fully integrate it.

CORNISH: Right. So this discussion is essentially about court-ordered racial integration. And in preparing for this interview, we came across tape in the NPR archives from 1975. And this is a story about the debate over busing, where an NPR reporter asked Biden whether he would support a constitutional amendment to stop busing programs.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED NPR BROADCAST)

BIDEN: I will not, in an attempt to eliminate busing, violate the Constitution. I won't do that. The only way - if I'm going to go at it, I'm going to go at it through a constitutional amendment, if it can't be done through a piece of legislation.

CORNISH: Does that square with what he's been saying in the last 48 hours?

VISER: In some cases, yes. But it undercuts, I think, some of his argument about downplaying how seriously he stood on this issue about busing. He was so adamant that he was willing to push a constitutional amendment to prevent busing from taking place. He has tried to today argue more narrowly that he was not opposed to voluntary busing, such as was the case for Kamala Harris in her school district, where it was not subject to a court order. But he was pushing for a constitutional amendment at the time in order to prevent court-ordered and government-ordered busing.

CORNISH: And you found that he wrote columns against busing as well, siding with one of the most conservative voices in the Senate at that time, Jesse Helms of North Carolina.

VISER: He did. And he's also - was siding with James Eastland, the segregationist senator from Mississippi who Biden cited last week as someone that he could work with in some instances.

CORNISH: Biden has apologized, albeit sometimes begrudgingly - right? - about parts of his record, including his handling of the Anita Hill hearings and his support of the crime bill. But he seems unwilling to apologize for his record on this issue. Why do you think that is?

VISER: He is still very dug in. We have asked his campaign about this, and he's been asked about it, you know, repeatedly today and yesterday about his views on this, and he still thinks he was right, you know, that busing was not the right way to try to integrate the schools. Biden argued for other solutions - investing more in predominantly black schools or changing the housing structure to improve different neighborhoods rather than moving kids from one neighborhood to the other.

And we should say that the history and the conclusion is mixed. I mean, some people do agree with Biden that busing was not a successful solution to solve the problem. But Biden has not nodded toward some of that mixed reaction, and he is still very adamant that this was the wrong thing to do.

CORNISH: Matt Viser is a national political reporter for The Washington Post. Thank you so much for speaking with us.

VISER: Thanks so much for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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