Several Democratic presidential candidates sharply criticized Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Wednesday for invoking two Southern segregationist senators by name as he defended himself over accusations of being “old-fashioned” and fondly recalled the “civility” of the Senate in the 1970s and 1980s.
Mr. Biden, speaking at a fund-raiser at the Carlyle Hotel in New York City on Tuesday night, stressed the need to “be able to reach consensus under our system,” and cast his decades in the Senate as a time of relative comity. His remarks come as some in his party say that Mr. Biden, the former vice president, is too focused on overtures to the right as he seeks the Democratic presidential nomination.
At the event, Mr. Biden noted that he served with the late Senators James O. Eastland of Mississippi and Herman Talmadge of Georgia, both Democrats who were staunch opponents of desegregation. Mr. Eastland was the powerful chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee when Mr. Biden entered the chamber in 1973.
“I was in a caucus with James O. Eastland,” said Mr. Biden, 76, slipping briefly into a Southern accent, according to a pool report from the fund-raiser. “He never called me ‘boy,’ he always called me ‘son.’”
He called Mr. Talmadge “one of the meanest guys I ever knew, you go down the list of all these guys.”
“Well guess what?” Mr. Biden continued. “At least there was some civility. We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition, the enemy. We don’t talk to each other anymore.”
On Wednesday, Senator Cory Booker of New Jersey, one of two black candidates running for president, said Mr. Biden was “wrong” to use segregationists as examples for bringing the country together.
“You don’t joke about calling black men ‘boys,’” Mr. Booker said in a statement. “I’m disappointed that he hasn’t issued an immediate apology for the pain his words are dredging up for many Americans. He should.” Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont later echoed Mr. Booker’s call for an apology.
Senator Kamala Harris of California, who is also black, said she found Mr. Biden’s comments concerning. “If those men had their way, I wouldn’t be in the United States Senate and on this elevator right now,” she said, referring to Mr. Eastland and Mr. Talmadge, according to ABC News.
Other presidential candidates weighed in as well. Mayor Bill de Blasio of New York posted a photo of his multiracial family on Twitter and cited a racial epithet that Mr. Eastland used.
“It’s 2019 & @JoeBiden is longing for the good old days of ‘civility’ typified by James Eastland,” Mr. de Blasio wrote. “It’s past time for apologies or evolution from @JoeBiden. He repeatedly demonstrates that he is out of step with the values of the modern Democratic Party.”
And former Representative John Delaney of Maryland said in a statement: “Evoking an avowed segregationist is not the best way to make the point that we need to work together and is insensitive; we need to learn from history but we also need to be aggressive in dismantling structural racism that exists today.”
Mr. Eastland, a plantation owner, was known as a vociferous opponent of integration efforts and a staunch critic of the civil rights movement, which he sometimes dismissed as the work of “communists.” Throughout his career he referred to African-Americans as members of an “inferior race” and used the racist term “mongrelization.”
Mr. Talmadge was also a critic of the civil rights movement and opposed the 1954 Supreme Court decision, Brown v. Board of Education, that declared racially segregated public schools unconstitutional.
Mr. Biden has long discussed his personal commitment to civil rights, and he has many strong relationships in the black community. He has also previously pointed to his dealings with segregationists like Mr. Eastland as an example of a time when Senate colleagues could disagree but still find ways to reach common ground.
But Mr. Biden is also now seeking the nomination of a party that is increasingly young and diverse — and skeptical of his emphasis on compromise, especially on issues that touch on matters of racial justice. His campaign declined to provide additional comment for this story.
“Folks, I believe one of the things I’m pretty good at is bringing people together,” Mr. Biden said. “Every time we had a trouble in the administration, who got sent to the Hill to settle it? Me. No, not a joke. Because I demonstrate respect for them.”
On Wednesday, Anita Dunn, an adviser to the Biden campaign and a veteran Democratic operative, appeared on MSNBC to defend Mr. Biden. “You have to be able to work with people, even if they hold positions that are repugnant to you,” she said, noting that Mr. Biden had clashed with the segregationist senators on the issues many times.
She also said that other Democratic candidates, including Mr. Booker and Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, had worked with Republicans who “are espousing views that are anathema to many people in the Democratic Party when it comes to women’s rights, when it comes to immigration, when it comes to some pretty broad civil rights issues that all of us feel pretty strongly about in 2020, including Joe Biden.”
While Mr. Booker had been vocal earlier in the day about Mr. Biden’s remarks, Ms. Warren had not been. Her team didn’t immediately respond to a request for comment, though later in the afternoon she told reporters that it was “never O.K. to celebrate segregationists. Never.”
Mr. Biden made the comments about Mr. Eastland and Mr. Talmadge on the eve of Juneteenth, the day that commemorates the end of slavery. His remarks came as he spoke about the need for unity, including a call for bipartisanship that has drawn derision from some liberals who don’t see room for compromise in today’s polarized Washington.
“I know the new New Left tells me that I’m — this is old-fashioned,” he said. “Well guess what? If we can’t reach a consensus in our system, what happens? It encourages and demands the abuse of power by a president.”
Mr. Biden’s appearance at the Carlyle was his third fund-raiser of the day. There and at previous stops, he implicitly suggested that bold actions on a range of issues could be achieved without anyone being “punished,” including the wealthy.
“I got in trouble with some of the people on my team, on the Democratic side, because I said, ‘You know what I’ve found is rich people are just as patriotic as poor people,’” he said. “Not a joke. I mean, we may not want to demonize anybody who has made money.”
At the same time, he warned, “when we have income inequality as large as we have in the United States today, it brews and ferments political discord and basic revolution.’’