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Biden back in South Carolina to address HBCU, honor Clyburn

Joe Biden
Matt Rourke/AP
/
AP
FILE - Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a primary night election rally in Columbia, S.C., Feb. 29, 2020, after winning the South Carolina primary, as Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., watches. (AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

To House Majority Whip Jim Clyburn, President Joe Biden's Friday trip to South Carolina is more than an ally's visit to a crucial early-voting state. It's a manifestation of the decades-long relationship between the two powerful Democrats, in a place that's played a pivotal role in cementing their legacies.

Biden is addressing December graduates at South Carolina State University, a historically Black school in Orangeburg. It's the alma mater of Clyburn, the top-ranking Black member of Congress and South Carolina's only congressional Democrat.

There were no December ceremonies when Clyburn graduated in 1961, so he received his diploma by mail. Instead of addressing this year's graduates, as had been planned, Clyburn will march across the stage with the students to receive his diploma from Biden, whom he asked to appear in his stead.

The president's visit comes at a fraught time for his agenda, with the future of his $2 trillion social and environmental spending package in doubt. While Democrats had hoped to make progress on the bill before Christmas, continued disagreements among lawmakers have all but halted negotiations, and Biden himself has signaled Democrats should shift their focus to passing a voting rights bill — another heavy lift in the evenly divided Senate.

Biden has spent much of the week engaged in those legislative negotiations, but he has said he's eager to help his longtime friend out.

"I'd almost walk to South Carolina to be able to do that for Jim," Biden said this week in an interview with WLTX-TV in Columbia. "Jim has been a champion for all the things that matter."

Biden will use his first commencement address as president to call on Congress to protect voting rights, talk about his and the administration's support for historically Black colleges and universities and honor Clyburn, said White House press secretary Jen Psaki.

Psaki shied away from any suggestion that Biden's visit and speech are a "thank you" to Clyburn, instead characterizing it as an opportunity for the president "to honor someone who he had great admiration and respect for for many decades."

The two men had been planning a gathering in South Carolina, Clyburn told reporters this week, and they figured this occasion would suffice. The meetup is significant for both, in that it's Biden's first time as president in South Carolina, where Clyburn's public support is credited with boosting him to the Democratic nomination.

On the cusp of South Carolina's first-in-the-South primary, after struggling through less-than-stellar performances in other early-voting contests, Biden secured a public endorsement from Clyburn, an awaited signal for many Black voters that Biden would be the candidate to stand up for their interests.

"My buddy Jim Clyburn, you brought me back!" Biden said in his victory speech, after winning South Carolina by nearly 30 percentage points, crediting Clyburn for breathing new life into his campaign.

Biden subsequently bested chief rival Bernie Sanders on Super Tuesday and claimed the nomination before defeating Republican incumbent Donald Trump in the general election.

On Wednesday, Clyburn said he was glad to have played a role in Biden's win but said the president had earned it.

"People can give me credit for his resounding victory here in South Carolina, but he deserves it," Clyburn said during a call with reporters. "I'm a good enough politician to accept the credit, but Joe Biden has a great relationship with this state. ... He's deserving of a lot more credit from South Carolina than he will ever get, and I suspect that's because he has a D behind his name."

Biden's roots in the state are much deeper than his 2020 campaign. Often coming to Kiawah Island near Charleston for family vacations, Biden also spent decades as desk mate to Fritz Hollings, South Carolina's longtime Democratic senator. Biden eulogized Hollings at his 2019 funeral, a task he previously performed for another South Carolina senator, Republican Strom Thurmond.

During Wednesday's call with reporters, Clyburn at times got emotional conveying the gravitas of Friday's combination of personal and professional accomplishments. As a politician, the ability to bring a sitting president to his home state shows constituents his ties to Biden, with whom Clyburn said Tuesday he has a "very special" relationship.

Moreover, South Carolina State is also the alma mater of his late wife, Emily, for whom the honors college is named. Clyburn said he would revel in the ability to receive his degree not only from the president but also accompanied by his three daughters and all of his grandchildren.

"I suspect that the students will remember it for the rest of their lives," Clyburn said of the event. "Not only will I get to march, but the president of the United States is going to hand me my degree."

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Meg Kinnard can be reached at http://twitter.com/MegKinnardAP.