Joe Biden served as a U.S. senator for 36 years before becoming one of country’s most recognizable public figures as the 47th vice president.
The former VP sat down with Spectrum editors for an exclusive interview Thursday afternoon ahead of his sold-out Alumni Arena lecture as part of UB’s 32nd Annual Distinguished Speaker Series. The former VP, orange Gatorade in hand, shared personal memories, his political heroes and lines from his favorite works of poetry, all while extending the allotted interview time.
Biden discussed the current political climate, the recent targeted attacks and UB’s Student Association voter turnout in the 25-minute discussion.
Q: In light of today’s targeted attack toward you and the other targeted attacks this past week, what is your response to this and how do you see this impacting the security of our nation?
A: First of all, I got to give a lot of credit to the postal service and to the men and women who are more in danger than anybody else was. At least in my case the two bombs never got to me fortunately, number one. Number two, I don’t think we should overreact about it, but I do think that it gives some reason for us to tone down the rhetoric. We have to start choosing hope over hate, friends over our enemies, you know, internationally we have – Republicans are not my enemies; they’re my friends, they’re my competitors. I mean for real, for my whole career it has been that way. We shouldn’t look at each other as if we’re in some sort of death lock. I understand you have the largest collection of [James] Joyce here on campus. Colleagues always tease me because I’m always teasing Irish poets, but this is like Yeat’s poem, “the center is not holding.” I think if everyone takes a deep breath and begins to focus on who we are as a country.
We can have real disagreements from everything from health care to reform policy, but this is not – here’s the best way to put it. I learned a lesson a long, long time ago. I was a young Senator. I got elected when I was 29-years-old and I had to wait to be sworn in. During that interim period, I was in Washington and I got a phone call saying a tractor trailer had just broadsided the station wagon that had my wife while they were Christmas shopping and said they would kill my wife [and] kill my daughter. And my two boys were in real bad shape. I didn’t want to go down to Washington and long story short, a group of Democrat Senators came to me and said, “Look, please just help us organize the senate and then you can leave.” I was so naive, I thought they needed help organizing, but they were just saving my sanity. I used to have to once a week on Thursday afternoons usually go sit down with the majority leader of the Senate, a wonderful guy named that everybody loved called Mike Mansfield from Montana and it took me about five weeks to realize he was just taking my pulse to see how I was doing emotionally. One day I walked in the middle of May, I walked in the middle of the floor in the senate, I always walked through what they called the well of the senate, on my way over to the leader’s office and I checked when the last vote was going to be, so I could go home on a train and see my boys who were 125 miles away. And this particular day, Jesse Helms, who was characterized at that time as a real segregationist and he was excoriating and two people became very close friends of mine, one still is: Bob Dole, the Republican leader and Teddy Kennedy before introducing a thing called the precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act. He was up there saying it’s confiscatory to make a businessman have to have a curb cut to let a wheelchair in his business.
I thought, “God what an awful guy this guy is.” But I had to go to meeting and I went and sat down in front of Senator Mansfield’s desk as I always did. He was then 68 or something. He looked at me and he said, “What’s the matter, Joe?” And I pretended to go rip Jessie Helm’s hide off. I said there’s no social redeeming quality I can’t understand he didn’t care about people. And he listened to me for a minute and then told me the most important lesson I’ve ever learned. He said, “Joe, what would you say if I told you that two years ago sitting in his living room in December, Dot and Jesse Helms, that’s his wife, were reading The Rolling Observer and there was a photograph of a young man 14-years-old with steel braces from his ankles up under his arms with two steel crutches saying, “All I want for Christmas is for someone to love me and take me home.” He said, “What would you say Joe if I told you if I told he wanted someone to adopt that young man as his own?” I said, “I’d feel like a fool.” And he said, “He did, Joe.” He said, “Joe, it’s always appropriate to question another man’s or a woman’s judgment, but it’s never appropriate to question their motive.”
And what’s happening today leading to this intensity of this and what I imagine turns off all of your students as well is that we question certain motives. You’re bad, you’re evil, the reason you’re doing this is because you’re not a good Christian, you’re doing this because you don’t love America – instead of arguing the issues. And it just brings out the worst in the American people – far left and far right – it just brings out the worst in them. It creates an atmosphere that isn’t conducive to certain decency and truth. And so I think it’s time. I mean I hope to God that this sort of wakes up the country a little bit and citizens start demanding that we speak with respect. That we become part of the American story again. We’ve always been about fairness and decency. Everyone’s lived up to it, but it’s been the mantra of “We hold these truths self-evident.” I mean I just hope it turns the knob a little bit here and the people who don’t respond, I hope the public, whether the Democrats or Republicans say “You’re not going to be my congresswoman, senator or whoever – and that’s my hope.
Q: You mentioned in a Nevada rally last week that President Trump has “shredded” American values. Did you anticipate this when he took office and do you think he has potential to redeem these values?
A: I was quoting George Will and quoting the columnist David Brooks. And David Brooks talks about, he said, there’s a fabric – a moral fabric, an invisible fabric – that holds up society. And it’s made up of decency: giving hate no safe harbor, treating people with respect, realizing that [in] America there’s things bigger than an individual. And he talked about it being shredded, those values. And he talked about how the way in which, referring to immigrants as animals, talking about your opposition as they’re “hate-filled,” I mean even now I heard, coming over [here], that democrats are organizing a –I forget the phrase he used -- this march north. We’re about to be “invaded” by these hoards who are a thousand miles away, but that doesn’t matter, you know what I mean? It’s just, I didn’t anticipate that [Steve] Bannon and the alt-right would have as much influence as they seem to have.And I never have quite seen it quite like this before. And so, in that sense, I’m a little surprised of the strategy. And it’s based on two things, guys. It’s based on this – what my friend John McCain said when I gave him the Liberty Medal at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia -- it’s based on what he calls this “spurious nationalism.” It’s, you know, “I win, you lose,” the hobbesian notion that if we succeed you have to fail, if you succeed I have to fail, and all against one, one against all. And the second thing is this phony populism. It’s a tactic used by people before and being used today that if you have a problem, it’s that immigrant that’s the problem or that black guy or those women are getting too many rights, that’s why you’re in trouble, that’s why you don’t have your job. It is the most dangerous combination that I’ve seen since – and I wasn’t around at the time, I was a kid –– the Joe McCarthy era. It was this thing that you’re either a good American or a bad American. And so I’m surprised that they’ve abandoned and … seemed to doubled down on that rather than say, “This is not who we are.”
Q: Can you talk about the current political climate and the media? While serving under President Barack Obama, how did you handle situations where you may have not agreed with the media?
A: Look, you got to be a grown up, man. I think that I agree with Jefferson. To paraphrase it with Jefferson, he said “You let me have the democratic system we have now and no free media, or free media, give me the free media, that’s the kind of country I want to live in.” And I believe that. And the media has gotten some things wrong about me from my perspective, been really tough on me when I’ve screwed up, what I have done, but it’s the ballast that keeps this democracy in place. I mean it really is. I’m not saying it because you’re aspiring folks in the media, but it really, really is. But the media also has to – there’s a lot going on in your prospective profession right now because it’s really hard to breakthrough unless it’s really sensational. And so there’s a balance. On balance, the brightest people I have dealt with and I’ve dealt with an awful lot of people in my career on balance are the media are incredibly well-educated and incredibly informed. … It’s awful hard. I’ve had people apply for jobs for me when I was vice president as my press person who were major media people who I ask “Why would you leave?” They tell me, “Well, my paper tells me I have to acquire a brand. I have to be known for something rather than simply cover the news, so it’s getting so competitive. Your generation is going to have to figure it out. I’m not being a wise guy because the whole internet, all social media, it’s really hard and I imagine it’s hard for you as well. It’s probably harder for me than you, but to figure out what’s truth than what’s not truth out there. But I think the media, the mainstream media is just that. They have an obligation and they try to fulfill it to report the facts, you know, to hold us accountable. So, in other words, I don’t remember President Obama or me ever calling in or saying the media was this, that or the other thing. This woman here worked for me in the White House she’s from Buffalo. [She said] “No because we were honest brokers on both sides. You could agree to disagree on both sides, but we were honest brokers."
Q: For our own student government here at UB, in terms of elections, we had a 4 percent student voter turnout in the past election with roughly 20,000 students being undergraduates. What are your thoughts on this and do you think there’s still a way to increase voter turnout with numbers like this?
A: Look, there’s two things that most of the serious commentators, going all the way back to Aristotle right through to today, talk about. And for democracy to function, whether it’s a student government, the democratic questions that students have a say in or don’t have a say in, or the federal government, is that it requires a noble citizen. It requires you to participate. I’ll end with another story.
I came up as a young guy. I graduated from school in ‘68 and the generation just before me, everything was “drop out” … “don’t trust anybody over 30,” just “disengage completely” because of the war in Vietnam, the Civil Rights Movement -- which I come out of. And I never quite bought into that piece. But around 1969, things began to change because things got so bad -- like I’m hoping is happening here -- that students are sort of getting “enough is enough,” that the semester I was graduating, everybody in my class expected we were going to go to Vietnam. But we were told there was a light at the end of a tunnel. And there’s a … comedian Larry Bruce who said “yeah there’s a light at the end of the tunnel, it’s a freight train.” That January, you guys in school -- whether it’s in college or high school -- remember that iconic photograph of a South Vietnamese policeman with a gun literally blowing the brains out of VietCong at an intersection. Just scattered his brains all over the intersection in Vietnam. The next picture we had was Lyndon Johnson who coveted the White House, saying he wasn’t going to run. I only had two political heroes my whole life: Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King.
I’m sitting in an airport -- Syracuse Airport -- waiting for a package to come in on a plane and I hear Dr. King had been assassinated and I hear Bobby Kennedy is standing on top of a car in Indianapolis coming down the city, to keep it from being burned to the ground. My city, Wilmington, Delaware, was the only city since the Civil War occupied by the military for 10 months because a significant portion got burned to the ground in protest.
And the day before I graduated, Bobby Kennedy is shot dead after becoming the punitive nominee. Not long after that the college campus in Ohio, Kent State, you see these pictures of unarmed kids walking over Nole and -- no clubs or anything -- National Guard [was] shooting four dead and nine badly wounded. You thought ‘God almighty, what in the hell is happening?’ And so I came back from law school and I had a job with a fancy law firm and after six months I quit and become a public defender to represent the black community basically. The democratic party in my state was a southern democratic party … so I joined a group to have a more enlightened Civil Rights policy, women’s issues and it’s called the New Democratic Coalition and next thing I know, I get asked as a young guy [if I would] run for office through the state senate. I said “no, I can’t do that. I have to work here and can’t go to Dover.” And I was 26 years old. They said “how about running for the county council …” I said I can’t do that and they said “meet Tuesdays and Thursdays over in that building right there.”
I was assured I couldn’t win -- no democrat had ever won my district -- so I ran to be a good soldier and I won.
Republicans saw something in me I didn’t see and the Republicans were more of a liberal party or progressive party. They were more of a Rockefeller Republican party back in those days. But they reapportioned me. I had been elected to a four-year term and they reapportioned me back to a two-year term.
I remember going to a Democratic convention, an off-year convention, and I was a participant but I wasn’t any big role. I got a knock on the motel door I’m in before the evening session and these four guys are standing in my door. I thought they were friends of mine. One was a former governor, one was a former congressman and the other was the chairman of the Democratic party and the other was a major political figure, a former chief justice of the court. I had a towel around me. I was shaving and I was embarrassed. I said “give me a second.” They came in and sat at the end of the beds and I’m sitting there with a towel around me and wiping the shaving cream off my face. And the chief justice … said “Joe, we just had dinner and we think you should run for the senate.” I said “what?” And I swear to God. Richard Nixon won my state by 60 percent of the vote that year.
I looked at him and said “Justice, I’m not old enough” and he said “You don’t know your Constitution well, Joe. It says you can be elected at any age, you just can’t be sworn in until you’re 30.” So I remember riding home thinking ‘what the hell just happened?’ I never, never thought about running for the Senate.
I remember going home and I went to one of my professors at Delaware who I really admired, a professor of political philosophy. I asked what he thought and he said “you should do it” and I said “really?” He said “remember Plato” and I’m thinking ‘what the hell did Plato say?’ He said -- to paraphrase Plato -- “the penalty good men play for not being involved in government is being governed by people worse that themselves.”
That’s what your generation has to figure out. … The day I did Harvard’s commencement, the Kennedy School came out with a report that said your generation is the most informed, the least prejudice, the most inclusive and the brightest generation in American history. But it also showed only seven percent of the women and nine percent of the men would even consider running for public office. And so I have no sympathy for y’all. You get exactly what you deserve. I don’t want to hear about how bad politics is. It was a hell of a lot worse in 1967, ‘68, ‘69, and ‘70. And so you guys can change it but I think that things are changing as I go around the country. We’ve got so many talented, young, new candidates: women and men who have said “enough, man.”
I just got the highest award you can get from a civil rights museum down in Memphis last week and there was a woman named Fannie Lou Hamer and Fannie Lou made famous the phrase in the Civil Rights Movement “I’m sick and tired of being sick and tired.” I hope your generation is sick and tired of being sick and tired about what you’re seeing.
If your generation, just 18 to 25 year olds, voted last time around on the same percentage as the national population, it would have been 5.7 million more votes cast. And guess what? We’d have a different president. Things would be different. So I don’t want to hear it.
Brenton J. Blanchet is the 2019-20 editor-in-chief of The Spectrum. His work has appeared in Billboard, Clash Magazine, DJBooth, PopCrush, The Face and more. Ask him about Mariah Carey.