This is at least the fourth time over the years that I have put up a blogpost urging Joe Biden not to run for president.
My earliest recollections of Joe are from summers at Rehoboth Beach, Delaware where our families vacationed. I would be lying if I said young Joe seemed destined for politics, let alone greatness. He had little to distinguish himself from the older teenaged crowd that I aspired to be part of beyond having overcome a bad stutter to become a handsome and loquacious babe magnet who happened to have the nicest parents in the world.
Although it has trended increasingly liberal in recent years, Delaware is perhaps the purplest of states, having once elected a governor and lieutenant governor from different parties.
But after Joe’s first Senate victory by a mere 3,100 votes against a deeply entrenched incumbent Republican in 1972, the year of the Nixon landslide, his popularity soared and he comfortably won five more terms before being tapped by Barack Obama in 2008 to be his running mate. Without question, Joe was the most influential vice president for good in American history and a tireless advocate of the nearly extinct creature known as bipartisanship, as well. This by way of differentiating him, as if one needs to, from Dick Cheney, without question the most influential vice president for evil in American history.
Joe’s life has been dogged by tragedy, but he is stronger for it.
In December 1972, five weeks after his improbable victory, school teacher wife Neilia and their children Beau, 3, Hunter, 2, and Naomi, 1, were crossing an intersection near my boyhood home after doing some Christmas shopping. Their station wagon was T-boned by a tractor-trailer, killing wife and daughter and critically injuring the boys.
Beau, the Delaware attorney general, announced candidate for governor, a major in the Judge Advocate General Corps and presumed heir to his father’s Senate seat, was a “Fortunate Son,” in the words of the Credence Clearwater song. He could have avoided going to Iraq when called up in 2009, but did not.
He died in May 2015 after a long struggle with a brain cancer that almost certainly was a result of his exposure to toxic burn pits near where he was bivouacked. The burn pit story follows an arc tragically familiar to the victims of Agent Orange in Vietnam: Denial by the government that there was a problem, refusal by government agencies to address the problem, and finally, in the face of overwhelming evidence, a grudging admission by the government that there was indeed a problem.
Beau is said to have urged his father to wage one last campaign for the White House in 2016, asserting that America would be better served by his values.
That death-bed wish could have upended the presidential campaign, and I suggest that the father — as he again sat at Beau’s bedside 43 year after the accident that took the lives of his mother and sister — was all to aware that the son he had nursed back to health so long ago was leaving this mortal coil because of a runaway war he had foolishly promoted at its outset.
In October 2015, Joe announced that he would not run.
“I love Joe Biden,” a psychologist friend said after I shared the story of Joe and Beau with her. “I love Joe Biden for the trajectory of a life in which he has grown and changed and awakened in so many ways. I love him because he has suffered above and beyond so many.”
As the 2020 race heats up, Joe is again considering one last campaign — or at least playing the role of Hamlet — and that is breaking my heart.
The conventional wisdom about a Biden candidacy goes something like this: He appeals to the white, blue-collar workers who rejected Hillary Clinton in favor of Donald Trump, believes he could have won those voters in 2016, and he thinks he can win them in 2020.
I love Joe, too, and his appeal to working-class voters is undeniable. But the time has long passed when we should want to vote for a guy because he would be great to have a beer with. The Democratic Party desperately needs fresh, forward-looking faces at the top of the ticket, and by golly there is a surfeit of them, a welcomely outsized number of whom are women.
Joe deserves scrutiny for his abhorrent grilling of Anita Hill in 1991, which greased the skids for Clarence Thomas’s lifetime appointment to the Supreme Court, and his abominable 1995 crime bill, which led to the disproportionate mass incarceration of African-Americans.
Then there is this: The Washington Post reported on March 7 that during the 1970s, Joe was opposed to court-ordered busing to correct the gross racial imbalance between substantially black urban schools and mostly white suburban schools in northern Delaware and used rhetoric that would not play well with black and other minority voters.
Example: “I do not buy the concept, popular in the ’60s, which said, ‘We have suppressed the black man for 300 years and the white man is now far ahead in the race for everything our society offers,” Joe told a Delaware-based weekly newspaper in 1975. “In order to even the score, we must now give the black man a head start, or even hold the white man back, to even the race. I don’t buy that.”
But Joe is getting a bum rap, at least up to a point.
Court-ordered busing was a flawed but necessary solution to a racial imbalance that had to be addressed even if it provoked great hostility among many suburban whites. I also believe that Joe, whom I never would consider to be racist, has grown a great deal over the last 40 years, but his anti-busing rhetoric would haunt him were he to run and efforts to rationalize it during a long and grueling primary season with “that was then and now is now” explanations would fall flat.
Besides which, Joe couldn’t win the nomination when he had a decent shot at it, in his case several shots, so why would he secure the nomination, let alone be competitive, in 2020? Well, in a crowded field he could win the nomination because of name recognition and a lifetime of old-school party connections. Just like Hillary did.
It’s not a matter of having the chops, because Joe has them in spades. Or his age, because he is a vigorous 76. It’s a matter of not rolling back the clock and moving on, and that’s what Joe needs to do for the good of country, party and himself.
Editor’s Note: This essay originally appeared on March 16, 2019 on Kiko’s House, a website featuring commentary by journalist and author, Shaun Mullen. It was reproduced here with the consent of Mr. Mullen.