65 minutes | Aug 4, 2020

17. A Guide to Joe Biden

Regardless of whether I agree with Joe Biden’s politics, after reading about him in depth I really like Joe Biden. I did not expect to like Joe Biden. I expected to find him to be an acceptable alternative to Donald Trump. But now I have real hope that a Biden presidency could transform our nation. Hear me out! In 2010 Jules Witcover published an excellent biography of Joe Biden entitled: “Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption.” If you can only read one book about Joe Biden, that should be the one. Biden’s 2007 autobiography “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics” give a little more detail about his motivations at key moments. His 2017 book “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose” is Joe Biden’s telling of the year his son Beau died of cancer and how Biden managed being the Vice President through that. Joe Biden is like FDR in that they both suffered great hardship, and that personal tragedy drove them to seek out compassionate policy. But we should start from the beginning. Joe Biden’s childhood was idyllic. Joe was a star athlete throughout childhood, and apparently a fearless little dare devil. He did stunts, like Jackass, except he never got hurt. He had a community that rallied to him and lifted him up. His family was not wealthy, but they were not poor. They were upper middle class, though his Father Biden Sr. suffered a series of business failures and periodic unemployment throughout Joe’s early childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The family is Irish Catholic, and so Biden had temperance drilled into him at a young age. It’s possible Joe Biden has never had an alcoholic drink. His parents seem to have succeeded in instilling in Joe Biden a basic optimism about human nature: the idea that people don’t mean to harm each other really, but they end up doing it on accident seems to be something Joe Biden fundamentally believes in. When Joe was 10 his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware where Biden Sr. got work cleaning boilers. Joe’s family couldn’t afford to send him to private school, but the young athletic teen had ambitions so he did a work study program. He worked as a janitor at the school so he could attend Archmere Academy (Witcover, p. 21). Joe Biden has a stutter, and he was made fun of by other kids and even one of the nuns who taught at his private school. That first experience of being humiliated for something he had no control over seems to inform the rest of his career: it’s probably why he became a civil rights activist. Teen Joe Biden hung out at a burger joint called the Charcoal Pit. I just imagine the typical 50s pharmacy hang out where kids would go to have milkshakes after school. Joe Biden was a football star who wanted to become a priest. His mother insisted that he go to college first. The Archmere football team, the Archmere Archers, ended a long losing streak in 1960 thanks in part to Joe’s talents at playing half-back. Wilmington was not as segregated as much of the United States, and the football team had a Black player, Frank Hutchins. One day the owner of the Charcoal Pit refused to serve Frank Hutchins, and in response Joe Biden led the team in a walk out in protest. I’ve been around activist culture for a long time, but I haven’t met anyone who led a protest against racial discrimination in High School. That’s who Joe Biden is. Around this time is when Joe Biden became a lifeguard at a public swimming pool in the Black part of town. Ta-Nehisi Coates was recently interviewed by Ezra Klein. One of the things Coates mentions that makes him optimistic about the current moment is that white people seem to be aware of the racial discrimination that Black people face in America, an awareness that was missing in ‘68. It’s no small thing that Joe Biden was aware of racial discrimination in ‘61. Though he was not throughout his life big on going to protests, he did march in the sixties in support of desegregation (Witcover, p. 31). In 1969 Joe Biden was a lawyer working at a fancy law firm Pricket, Ward, Burt and Sanders (Witcover, p.51). It was his first job as a lawyer. One day that year Biden helped write the defense of a company, Catalytic Construction Company. A welder had been badly burned and crippled, but because the worker had not been wearing protective gear the lawsuit failed to get him compensation. Biden decided he didn’t like practicing that kind of law, so he quit and took a much lower paying job as a public defender. Most of his clients were Black. His first case was a robbery, and the defendant, Mr. Earl Larkin, confessed the crime to Biden. Biden had been given one day to prepare to defend Larkin and lost the case. Several years later Biden, then a Senator, was touring a state prison with a reporter. All these inmates recognized Joe Biden, and the reporter quipped that Biden must be a helluva lawyer or something like that, making fun of the fact that many of Biden’s clients were behind bars. Witcover describes what happened next: “an arm reached out and grabbed the reporter, telling him ‘I’ll tell you one thing. Biden will stand up for a black motherfucker, unlike you!’ The inmate, Biden said, was none other than his first client, Earl Larkin.” (p. 55). In 1970 Joe Biden successfully runs for a county council seat. He won by 2,000 votes in an election where Democrats suffered big losses statewide (Wicover, p. 59). Biden made a name for himself on the council for fighting corporate developments, particularly in the oil industry, that threatened the local environment, taking on Shell’s attempts to set up refineries along Delaware’s coastline. (p. 62). In 1972 Joe Biden ran for Senate. He was running against a three term incumbent. Delaware is a small state, so Joe Biden was able to engage most of the electorate in a street fight, going door to door. He ran against the Vietnam War, though not against any and all American intervention overseas. He was also against granting amnesty for people who had dodged the draft, and against legalizing marijuana. In other words, there has always been in Joe Biden’s platform something for everyone to hate. But Joe Biden was never able to lie to people for political advantage. He never pandered to the public for personal gain. This will come up again and again in the discussion that follows: you may not like what Joe Biden is saying, but you can be sure he means it. One thing that forces itself on you when you investigate Joe Biden’s political career is that he was in the fight for racial equality before he was a politician, all the way back to High School. It was his strong stand for desegregation that earned him the support of Sonia Sloan. She passed away this past October at the age of 91, and according to her obituary she “was an advocate for Planned Parenthood in Delaware, the ACLU and the YWCA. She also opposed the Vietnam War” (https://www.delawarepublic.org/post/delaware-democratic-activist-sonia-sloan-dies-age-91). Sloan supported every one of Joe Biden’s campaigns over the years, and that started in 1972 when by her recommendation the Council for a Livable World invested $25,000 in Biden’s longshot Senate campaign. They are taking a bet on desegregation, because that’s what Joe Biden is about. Biden was running on a platform of voting rights, civil rights, calling for a national health care program for families in need and a capital gains tax. Regarding his fund raising efforts during that campaign he wrote this: “when I began to show strength adn it looked as though I might win, thirteen multimillionaires from my state invited me to cocktails. The spokesman of the group said, ‘Well, Joe, we would like to ask you a few questions. We know that everybody running for public office feels compelled to talk about tax reform, and we know that you have been talking tax reform, particularly capital gains and gains for millionaires by consequence of unearned income.’ Then one man -as if to say it was just among us- ‘Joe, you really don’t mean what you say about capital gains, do you?’ Again, I knew what the right answer to that question [and it] was worth $20,000 in contributions. I did not give the correct answers… and accordingly I received no money.’” (Wicover, p. 79). He won that first senate bid, and before he was even sworn in he suffered a terrible tragedy. His wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident. He almost didn’t serve as Senator, but people convinced him that his country needed him and that diving into the work would help him forget. He kept his house in Delaware, and his sister Valerie moved in to help him take care of his two remaining sons Beau and Hunter. This is when he became notorious for taking Amtrak trains every day early in the evening, around 4pm. He had to get home to be with his family. It meant he didn’t socialize with the other Senators. It meant he wasn’t as popular personally. He would often miss votes on the Senate floor. This is part of what I meant earlier when I said that Joe Biden is someone who has suffered terribly in life, and that this is part of where his compassion comes from. That compassion isn’t fake. It’s not political theatre. Again, you may disagree with him on policy, but I don’t think anyone who looks at Joe Biden’s life can really claim he isn’t motivated by a real desire to serve the public and to be a comfort for those who suffer. Before we get into Biden’s political career is as good a moment as any to address the accusation of corruption. It’s a banal commonplace on the left today to call Biden a corporate Democrat, to casually assume that Biden’s political judgements are controlled by corporate interests. We’ve already discussed the David v. Goliath struggles of Biden as a county councilman, and his refusal of quid pro quo arrangem
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