When Ted Little and I met for the first time, we were both eight years old, in the third grade and sitting a few desks apart from each other in math class.
He was new – one of the young black kids who was bused into my little hometown in northwestern Connecticut every morning from the state capital of Hartford.
The bus ride took about 40 minutes. But it might as well have been another planet away in that pre-Twitter, pre-Facebook age where even cable TV was still a distant gleam.
So, when California Sen. Kamala Harris schooled former Joe Biden during the second Democratic debate in Miami last Thursday for opposing the kind of busing that allowed her to attend integrated schools as a child, it had the ring of the familiar to it.
As the Washington Post later reported, the former Veep accused Harris, who is black, of “mischaracterizing his record,” during the debate, and said he would not have opposed Harris’ busing program because it was not court-imposed.
Biden’s opposition to court-ordered busing is “one of the most well documented of his career,” the Post reported, adding that, as a U.S. Senator from Delaware, Biden had once referred to busing as a “liberal train wreck.”
But for us kids – however it was imposed – busing wasn’t a train wreck. It was the vehicle to a better, kinder, more understanding, and more inclusive community.
For us, meeting Ted and his friends opened our eyes to a new world: New style, new words, new music, new culture, new food.
Maybe they learned from us, too.
Sure, we both noticed the difference in skin color. But with the simplicity of children, I don’t think many of us cared.
Perhaps for some of our parents, for whom Hartford was odious code for “poor,” “black,” and “crime-plagued,” and who are of Biden’s generation, felt differently. And perhaps they whispered it in the privacy of home.
But the simple – and shameful – fact was that the odds of any kid in my town meeting Ted and his fellow Hartford students would have been practically nonexistent had it not been for the bus program.
And that’s the point that Harris made so forcefully to Biden last week, telling him, “You know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools, and she was bused to school every day. And that little girl was me.”
By last Friday, Biden was, understandably, trying to change the subject, saying in an email to his supporters that the “discussion in this race shouldn’t be about the past.
“It should be about how we can do better and move forward and give every kid in this country an opportunity to succeed. That means good schools in every neighborhood,” the email reads, according to the Post.
It’s also true, as the Post reported, that during the Obama years Biden was part of a White House that actively worked on voluntary desegregation.
And, as the Post reports, Biden’s own school plan “promises new grants to help diversify schools and says he will restore guidance to help schools pursue legal strategies that was revoked under President [Donald] Trump.”
But he paid a price because of that debate gaffe.
Biden saw his support slip by 10 points, from 41.5 percent to 31.5 percent among Democratic primary voters in a Politico/Morning Consult poll released on the Friday morning after the debate.
Harris saw her standing, rise accordingly, from 7.9 percent to 16.6 percent in that same canvass.
More than most, that poll is a snapshot of voter sentiment at a moment in time. And as the Democrats continue their courtship of primary voters, the field is sure to remain volatile.
But from citing some of the Senate’s most vile racists as evidence of his ability to compromise to his whiplash-inducing pivot on the Hyde Amendment, which bans federal abortion funding (with exceptions for rape, incest and the life of the mother), Biden’s campaign to date has been filled with these moments.
So, it’s understandable that Biden was trying hard to change the subject.As has so often been noted, his greatest achievement – a life dedicated to public service – is also one of his greatest weaknesses.
And that means there are likely to be more of these awkward debate stage moments as the campaign grinds on to the opening contests in Iowa and New Hampshire.
And Democrats, who are set on ejecting Trump from the White House in 2020, will have to ask themselves, seriously, how many more they’re willing to endure.