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Joe Biden


A few notes about the strange career of Joe Biden:

(1) Biden’s initial election to the Senate in 1972 was a bit of a freakish event. At the time, Biden had to put it mildly an extremely thin resume for the job: he was a 29-year-old small-time lawyer, who just four years earlier had graduated near the bottom (76th out of 85) of his class at Syracuse’s law school, after an undistinguished performance (506th of 688) as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware.

While it’s important not to put too much weight on academic credentials, and especially important not to obsess on whether political leaders went to elite schools, the significance of Biden’s sub-mediocre college and law school performance is that, when he first decided he was going to run for the Senate — he started talking about it seriously to Delaware politicos in 1969! — he basically hadn’t done anything but go to school. (Biden got deferments from the Vietnam War draft when he was an undergrad, then got reclassified in 1968 as unavailable for service because he had asthma as a teenager. This is of course example 765,523 of a connected guy avoiding military service during that era via means that — cough, bone spurs, cough — might well not stand up to intense scrutiny).

In any case, the 1972 Delaware Senate race was dominated by two facts. First, no established Democrats wanted to run against Caleb Boggs, a moderate Republican — remember those? — who had been in the Senate for 12 years already, had been governor of the state before that, was a heavily decorated WWII veteran, and was apparently considered pretty invulnerable.

Second, it turned out that Boggs didn’t actually want to run again. Richard Nixon convinced him to do so, supposedly because Nixon wanted to avoid a primary fight between Pete DuPont and Wilmington mayor Harry Haskell, although it being Dick Nixon I suspect it might have had something to do with Nixon hating DuPont, or some other similarly twisted rationale.

In the end Boggs agreed to run. His evident reluctance to do so seems to have been a key factor in the subsequent result, given that Biden was a complete unknown with no money and a pretty skeletal campaign staff — he did get some polling help from Pat Caddell, who was all of 21 years old at the time. Biden’s campaign was largely a family affair: his sister Valerie Biden Owens managed it, and other family members did a lot of work too. (I wouldn’t be surprised if a lot of the the initial financing came from Biden’s first wife Neilia, who came from a much wealthier background than her decidedly middle class husband).

Biden was trailing by nearly 30 points during the summer, but he was a talented campaigner, and ended up pulling off the biggest upset of that Senate election cycle, defeating Boggs by just 3,200 votes, and producing the only Senate seat flip from the GOP to the Democrats. [eta: this is incorrect. The Dems actually flipped six Senate seats and had a net gain of two. Thanks to commenter Michael Rebain for the correction] (Trivia note: Biden wasn’t even constitutionally eligible to be in the Senate on election day, as he wouldn’t turn 30 until later in the month).

(2) The news that Martin Scorsese is turning Charlie Brandt’s “I Heard You Paint Houses” into a movie will surely end up giving more attention to a claim from the book, which is a biography of Mafia hitman Frank Sheeran. Sheeran, who among many other things gave Brandt evidence that some people seem to consider pretty convincing that he killed Jimmy Hoffa, told Brandt that a big deal Delaware lawyer, supposedly part of Biden’s campaign, asked Sheeran, who was a member of the Teamsters local at the time, to help enforce a Teamsters’ picket line, that would keep copies of the Wilmington News Journal containing a GOP ad attacking Biden from being delivered for the week prior to the election. According to Sheeran, he then duly hired “people that nobody would mess with” to make sure the picket line was honored. The papers weren’t delivered, and, per Sheeran, after the election Sheeran knew that “he could always reach out to [Biden] and he would listen.” (There’s no evidence that Biden was aware of the scheme, let alone that he was aware Sheeran was a Mafia hitman).

ETA: This Slate piece argues that Sheeran was never a hitman, let alone Hoffa’s killer, and that the most lurid claims in “I Heard You Paint Houses” are wholly fabricated.

(3) Biden’s bid for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination was a disastrous face plant on many levels, and he ended up withdrawing from the race very early, in September of 1987, at the same time that he was chairing the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on Robert Bork’s nomination.

What everybody (“everybody” here means extreme political junkies — see below) remembers is that Biden ripped off a Neil Kinnock speech, and got outed for doing so by the Dukakis campaign. The details of that incident are actually pretty bizarre. It would be one thing if Biden had just plagiarized some soaring rhetoric from his Welsh counterpart, but what Biden (and his speechwriter) did was flat-out weird: he plagiarized Kinnock’s specific family history, which he then falsely characterized as his own.

Here’s Kinnock:

Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? [Then pointing to his wife in the audience] Why is Glenys the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Was it because all our predecessors were thick?

Here’s Biden:

I started thinking as I was coming over here, why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university? [Then pointing to his wife in the audience] Why is it that my wife who is sitting out there in the audience is the first in her family to ever go to college? Is it because our fathers and mothers were not bright? Is it because I’m the first Biden in a thousand generations to get a college and a graduate degree that I was smarter than the rest?

What was even weirder is that Biden had explicitly credited this anecdote to Kinnock when he used it in a speech in Iowa on August 14th, 1987. He then turned around and “repurposed” it as a story about himself, at two other Iowa campaign events just a few days later! (It was a simpler, more innocent time, kids).

What even most political junkies don’t remember is that, in the immediate wake of the Kinnock fiasco, somebody spilled the beans about Biden’s less than impressive law school performance, and specifically the pack of lies of commission and omission he had been telling about it.

To wit, Biden got into a confrontation at a coffee meet and greet in New Hampshire back in April, at which he told a skeptical voter “I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect,” and then followed up this bit of Trumpian nonsense with a bunch of flagrantly false claims about his law school performance. (He claimed he had graduated in the top half of his class when actually he was very near the bottom, and that he had a full academic scholarship, when in fact he doesn’t seem to have gotten any merit-based aid at all. The latter claim was particularly fantastic, given that merit-based scholarships were very rare at law schools at the time, and Biden, who again graduated in the bottom quarter of his undergraduate class, was an especially implausible candidate for one).

Again, echoing the Kinnock fiasco, all this came out because the coffee klatch was televised by C-SPAN. So it’s not just that Biden was making up a bunch of false — and eminently fact-checkable — claims about his academic record: He was doing so on live TV!

On top of all of that, as his campaign imploded, somebody who was at a dinner with the dean of the Syracuse law school ratted Biden out, by passing on to a reporter the dean’s story about how Biden had plagiarized large portions of a legal writing assignment as a first-year law student, leading him to flunk the course.

A couple of days later, Biden withdrew from the race.

(4) Speaking of political junkies, consider the following: When Biden ran for the 2008 Democratic nomination, his biggest initial barrier was that a huge percentage — nearly two in five — of potential voters literally did not know who he was. At this point –April 2007 — Biden was more than two months into his second presidential bid, and in his 35th year in the US Senate, where he had chaired the Anita Hill and Robert Bork hearings, etc. In the same poll, the percentage of respondents who did not know who Hillary Clinton was was zero. This is a good reminder that genuine political celebrity is a very limited phenomenon. At this moment, an enormous percentage of potential voters still probably have no idea who Elizabeth Warren, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, etc., are.

Of course Biden’s 2008 campaign went absolutely nowhere. He never came within a parsec of Clinton, Obama, or Edwards in the polls, and dropped out after getting one percent of the vote in the Iowa caucuses.

(5) The whole idea of Biden getting the Democratic nomination is kind of wacky on several levels. Consider some basic chronological facts: For those of us whose memories runneth back to when Biden was first elected to the Senate, Biden running for the presidency in 2020 is analogous to George McGovern running for the presidency in 2000. (Biden was born twenty years after McGovern).

To put it another way, if we go back to when Biden first joined the Senate, an analogous presidential candidate in 1972 would have been somebody first elected to the Senate in 1924, who bombed badly when running for president in 1940, and then again as an elder statesman in 1960.

Beyond this, Biden is a guy who almost literally has done nothing as an adult but hold elective office. What’s impressive about him is that he was great at holding a Senate seat in a tiny state — he got a total of 116,000 votes when he won his first Senate term — and at playing the role of Ed McMahon to Obama’s Johnny Carson for eight years. Absent his popular role as Obama’s goofy sidekick during the Before Time, his 2020 candidacy would be completely preposterous on its face.

There are certainly things to admire about Biden, starting with how he got himself elected to the U.S. Senate despite having done basically nothing impressive in his life to that point. Of course this also makes Biden a kind of poster boy for a certain type of white privilege of an extreme sort: you pretty much have to be an egomaniacal white guy to think, at age 29, with a track record consisting of not much more than gentleman’s Cs at obscure universities, that what the US Senate needs at this moment is me.

And it’s admirable that Biden was able to overcome a horrible personal tragedy immediately after winning that election (his wife and one-year-old daughter were killed in a car crash in December of 1972).

He also seems to have spent his whole pre-2017 career not cashing in on his political fame, which is an increasingly rare virtue in our political class (He does seem to have given a number of six-figure fee speeches since then though).

If he gets the nomination, I will of course support his candidacy with unambiguous enthusiasm (Again, Donald Trump is president of the United States). But the fact that he’s the frontrunner in the polls for the nomination at this point is hopefully just an artifact of our very strange moment in American politics.

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