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Clyburn gets Biden to fill in as commencement speaker on Friday

House majority whip never got to march at his own ceremony

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., asked President Joe Biden to give a commencement address in his place.
House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn, D-S.C., asked President Joe Biden to give a commencement address in his place. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

House Majority Whip James E. Clyburn was an obvious choice to deliver the commencement address Friday at South Carolina State University, his alma mater, but the Democratic lawmaker had another idea.

“I can get out of this commencement address, if I get the president of the United States to do it, and they might forgive me for not doing it,” Clyburn, D-S.C., told reporters this week.

There was no December commencement back in 1961, when a young Clyburn completed his degree requirements. The state’s only public historically Black college and university was only permitted one commencement ceremony per school year in those days. He never came back for the spring graduation ceremony.

“So if you look at the program from 1962, the commencement program, you will see my name with all kinds of asterisks behind it. But I never went to march because my degree showed up in the mail,” Clyburn said.

Thus, President Joe Biden will be back in South Carolina on Friday, returning to a state whose largely Black Democratic primary electorate — and Clyburn’s endorsement — proved pivotal to his 2020 campaign.
Alexander Conyers, the university’s interim president, had expected to have Clyburn present Friday to both march and give the address. But that is not how it is going to play out.

“We’ll be there. I’ll march and the president will speak,” Clyburn said. “And hopefully students will remember it for the rest of their lives.”

Conyers, at a Wednesday news conference, relayed the story of how Clyburn called him late in the night on Dec. 9 seemingly seeking to back out of the commencement speech.

“I just don’t think I’ll be a great commencement speaker,” Conyers said Clyburn told him, according to the Greenville News.

Of course, later in that conversation Clyburn offered Biden as the alternate speaker, an offer that was quickly accepted.

“I said to him way back before the election that I didn’t want him to forget South Carolina,” Clyburn said. “And he’s demonstrating with this visit, he’s not going to forget South Carolina.”

But even as he was touting Biden’s agenda, including funding from the bipartisan infrastructure law to fix an infamous highway intersection known as “Malfunction Junction,” that doesn’t mean Clyburn expects to see any significant boost in the president’s overall support in the Palmetto State.

“So I talk to Joe Biden a lot about the needs of rural America, the needs of South Carolina, and he’s been very sensitive to it,” Clyburn said. “He is deserving of a whole lot more credit from South Carolinians that he will ever get. I suspect that’s basically because he has a ‘D’ behind his name.”

Biden got 43 percent of the vote in South Carolina in the general election last year against Donald Trump, who won the state with 55 percent of the vote.

Biden has been a regular visitor to South Carolina over the years, and not just because of the state’s traditional early position on the Democratic presidential primary calendar. As Clyburn reminded reporters on Wednesday, he made many connections to the state through his 36 years in the Senate.

“I’ll remind people that Joe Biden delivered the eulogy for Strom Thurmond at Strom Thurmond’s request. Joe Biden also eulogized Fritz Hollings, at their family request,” Clyburn said of the two longtime senators. “He was joined by me and the governor at that eulogy, but Joe Biden has a great relationship with this state, and this state should be showing a little more love to him than it currently is.”

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