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Twentieth-Century Man

A candidate lost to history—and to himself

The political commentator William Schneider has often quoted, over the years, a comment he attributes to the British prime minister Benjamin Disraeli. When an aspirational youth wrote to Disraeli for advice about how to succeed in public life, the Great Man purportedly responded in a letter telling the chap there were only two things he needed to know: “You must know yourself. And you must know the times.”

Schneider, who was once described by the writer Richard Ben Cramer as a “pilgarlic-pollster-pundit-columnist-TV-guest,” was for many years the voice of Washington’s conventional wisdom, delivering pronouncements for The Atlantic and CNN, while also holding a post at the American Enterprise Institute. I’ve found Schneider using the quote as early as 1987 and as recently as last year, in his 2018 book Standoff: How America Became Ungovernable. Though the advice from Disraeli is perhaps not quite as useful to today’s political leaders as Schneider seems to believe—“know how to bundle huge financial contributions” would be more practical—it does suggest a starting point for thinking about the motley mix of Democratic candidates who are competing for the party nomination in 2020. Who among them exhibits a baseline level of Socratic self-knowledge? Who understands the times?

It would be hard to find a more out-of-step-with-the-times candidate than Joe Biden. In a moment when two of the most important movements at the heart of the Democratic coalition—the Black Lives Matter protests and the #MeToo upsurge—suggest the need for someone with a strong record on racial justice and respect for women, up stands Joe Biden.

It would be hard to find a more out-of-step-with-the-times candidate than Joe Biden.

Here is Biden, who speaks of his formative days admiring the civil rights movement in the 1960s, but at a gut level spoke for the white ethnic urbanites who protested school busing and integration. Here is Biden, who wants credit for pushing the Violence Against Women Act in the 1990s, but at a gut level could not quite find a way to give Anita Hill the same respect and credence he gave Clarence Thomas in those atrocious 1991 hearings of the Senate Judiciary Committee that he chaired. Biden was so concerned at that time with appearing to be fair and even-handed to the Republicans that he allowed them to coordinate sustained attacks on Hill, which then allowed Thomas to belligerently shout his way onto a Supreme Court seat—and, not incidentally, provide the model that was followed to the letter by Brett Kavanaugh and his railing Republicans more than twenty-five years later.

Biden now steps up to lead a party that needs the energies of activist women and that is always in danger of telling activist youth they have no real place in Democratic Party politics, unless they fall in line and follow instructions. And before he even got to his official launch, he had to answer uncomfortable questions about his habits of putting his hands on women and girls without any sense of propriety. Even in minor stylistic ways, Biden shows himself to be a relic. On the day he formally announced his candidacy, the opening lines of his announcement email were “America is an idea. Based on a founding principle that all men are created equal.” He doesn’t realize that eighteenth-century “all men” constructions sound especially jarring now to vast numbers of people under the age of, maybe, seventy?

What about the time last year when Joe was on his book tour and he got to talking at a Los Angeles Times–sponsored event about the political struggles of the 1960s? “And so, the younger generation now tells me how tough things are. Give me a break,” Biden said. “No, no, I have no empathy for it. Give me a break. Because here’s the deal, guys. We decided we were going to change the world. And we did.” He doesn’t realize how much anger there is among today’s “younger generation” toward Baby Boomers? He thinks sounding like a clueless old grampy with “no empathy” is the way to win the youth vote?

Biden’s comment wasn’t directly about the student debt problem, but it was interpreted that way. And why not? His record on finance and debt matters is one of the worst parts of his long career in the Senate. He has been so consistently a shill for the financial industry that he has been blinded to one of the most dramatic and obvious structural changes in American life. Those students of the 1960s and 1970s he speaks about were the last generation to enjoy affordable college educations. The ones he has “no empathy” for lost something essential to middle-class stability. Saddled with debt and caught in the vise-grips of a predatory loan industry, college graduates spend years digging out—in a way nobody Biden’s age ever had to do.

And of course all that is part of a wider problem that both Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren have been speaking about for decades—the way the financial industry is allowed to prey on people in dire straits. Biden joined with Republicans in the 1990s in efforts to toughen up the bankruptcy laws, based on the idea that too many middle-class people were irresponsibly running up credit-card debt and then declaring bankruptcy. Warren was then popping up as a Harvard Law professor who understood what the big banks were up to, and joined opponents who stymied Biden and the bank lobbyists for years.

In May of 2002, Warren wrote in a New York Times op-ed:

More than 90 percent of women who file for bankruptcy have been hit by some combination of unemployment, medical bills and divorce. Women are more likely than men to seek bankruptcy in the aftermath of a divorce or a medical problem, though both men and women cite job problems as the biggest difficulty.

It took until 2005, but Biden and the banks finally won and President George W. Bush signed their long-sought bill into law. As Theodoric Meyer wrote this spring in Politico explaining the Biden-Warren battle, the bill would likely have failed if Biden hadn’t led enough Democrats to the financial lobbyists’ side. Of course, the explanation was the usual one for Washington politics: the banking giant MBNA (absorbed in 2005 by Bank of America) was based in Biden’s home state of Delaware. And MBNA was the third-largest company in issuing credit cards, Meyer noted. Further:

Its executives and employees were some of Biden’s biggest campaign contributors, giving more than $200,000 over the course of his career, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. One of Biden’s sons, Hunter, worked at MBNA after graduating from law school and later consulted for the company after a stint in the Commerce Department. The Bidens’ ties to the company ran so deep that Obama campaign officials told the New York Times in 2008 that they were “one of the most sensitive issues they examined while vetting the senator for a spot on the ticket.” Biden was seen as so close to the company that he felt it necessary to tell the Washington Post at one point that he was “not the senator from MBNA.”

He has been so consistently a shill for the financial industry that he has been blinded to one of the most dramatic and obvious structural changes in American life.

Most of the Democratic candidates last week went with a variation of the “Joe Biden is my friend” line. It’s the idea Biden will be selling, too: that he’s the warm, good-hearted, everyman who will out hustle and outshine Trump. The grief and heartache that Biden has experienced in life—losing his first wife and an infant daughter to a car wreck, and more recently losing his son Beau—make him warm and sympathetic to others who have suffered such grief. And yet, somehow he has not translated his identification with ordinary Americans into much of a record of accomplishment for them, much less to a set of public policies that speaks to our time of racial injustice, inequality, and governmental servility in the face of corporate prerogatives.

Joe Biden was one of several characters portrayed in Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, which some believe is one of the best campaign books ever written. Cramer unspools—over more than a thousand pages—the twists and turns of the presidential campaign of 1988, which saw Gary Hart and Biden, among others, fall by the wayside before the eventual choice between George H.W. Bush and Michael Dukakis. We learn early on that Biden first saw his future wife Neilia on a beach in Nassau on spring break in 1964. Shortly after, she told a friend, “He told me he’s going to be a Senator by the time he’s thirty. And then, he’s going to be President.”

It looked briefly as if 1988 was going to be Biden’s moment. Hart had dropped out. Biden was leading the hearings into whether Reagan’s far-right nominee Robert Bork would get a seat on the Supreme Court. And then it all fell apart in a sudden media firestorm. Biden had stood up at a candidate’s debate in Iowa and, reaching for a moving closing statement, proceeded to borrow the soaring language and emotions of the British politician Neil Kinnock, without attribution. Maureen Dowd wrote about it in the Times. Other stories appeared about him lifting language from a Bobby Kennedy speech, and about an incident of plagiarism in law school.

It turned out that Biden had been exposed to Kinnock’s speech by none other than William Schneider, who had recently returned from England and was so impressed by Kinnock that he carried a videotape of the speech home with him. Schneider wrote a long consideration for The Atlantic in early 1987 of the emerging Democratic candidates in which he measured Biden against Hart. After the piece came out, Schneider says, Biden asked him to lunch. Biden had heard about the Kinnock speech, and Schneider gave him a copy of the tape. Then Biden absorbed it. So much so that he seemed to forget that Kinnock’s history and words were not his own.

To read now about the way that campaign drama played out is to read about political events of a long-lost age. The Biden people suspected they were done in by one of the other campaigns. Who had sent the evidence of the two speeches to Maureen Dowd? Eventually it was revealed that it was John Sasso, the campaign manager for Dukakis. When Sasso fessed up to Dukakis, who had claimed his campaign was above any such “dirty tricks,” the candidate then fired Sasso. Nobody paid off any porn stars! Nobody lied about their finances. But it was all quite scandalous at the time.

Why couldn’t they see how much his family loved him, how much his voters loved him?

Cramer describes Schneider as a “part-time-Biden-guru.” Had Schneider not explained to Biden the importance of “knowing yourself and knowing your times”? In fact, Biden in those days was having trouble finding his political identity. He has admitted that he was too much under the spell one of his top consultants, Patrick Caddell, even (ill-advisedly) telling the Washington Post, “sometimes it’s hard to know where Pat’s thinking stops and mine begins.” And then, lacking his own statement of his convictions at that Iowa debate, he lost his sense of where Kinnock’s thinking stopped and his began.

As Biden and his family and advisers huddled at that moment of campaign turmoil, trying to decide whether to stay in the race or get out, the candidate felt hounded by the newspaper reporters. He wanted them to see him in the full context of his life—not to focus on a few dumb mistakes. Why couldn’t they see how much his family loved him, how much his voters loved him? He was just this guy named Joe from a middle-class family with roots in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and later in Delaware.

You got the same glimpse last week when he went on the television show The View.

Why couldn’t he directly apologize to Anita Hill for his role in how she was treated? he was asked by Joy Behar. “I’m sorry for the way she got treated,” Biden said, hewing to the passive voice. “If you go back to what I said, and didn’t say, I don’t think I treated her badly.” (In a subsequent interview, Biden said of Hill: “She did not get a fair hearing. She did not get treated well. That’s my responsibility.”) 

You get this feeling often as you watch Biden’s public performances. He’s trying to get you to know him the way his family and friends know him: as the guy who is warm and fair to everyone, including the nation’s top billionaires and the fellas down at the union hall. You are supposed to like him because he’s some salt-of-the-earth guy, though he’s been in the most privileged club in America since he was thirty years old. More so than ever, he seems to be a man out of context, looking backward, trying to catch up with the present, chasing only the future he imagined in 1964—a man out of time.