Politics & Policy

Twenty Things You Probably Didn’t Know about Joe Biden

Joe Biden in 2015 (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)
Praise for Bork and Thurmond, partial-birth-abortion-ban support, death-penalty enthusiasm, and more

1. As a young man, JoeBiden received five student draft deferments during the Vietnam War — which just happens to be the same number of deferments received by former vice president Dick Cheney. Biden later was disqualified from service because of the asthma that he suffered as a teenager. Oddly, the asthma was not severe enough to stop Biden from playing on his high-school football team or playing halfback for the University of Delaware Blue Hens.

2. In the earliest moments of his Senate career, Biden was a proponent of forced busing, which involved sending white children to schools in heavily black neighborhoods and vice versa. But by 1974, Biden had revised his position to support forced busing in the South, where he said segregation was “de jure,” but not in northern states such as Delaware, where it was “de facto.”

By 1975, Biden had shifted further, supporting an amendment from Senator Jesse Helms that would bar the Department of Health, Education, and Welfare (HEW) from collecting any data about the race of students or teachers. In addition, HEW could not “require any school . . . to classify teachers or students by race.” Helms said explicitly, “This is an anti-busing amendment.” Biden surprised many supporters by declaring, “I have become convinced that busing is a bankrupt concept” and later calling it “an asinine policy.”

Biden then introduced his own amendment, which declared that school systems could not use federal funds “to assign teachers or students to schools . . . for reasons of race,” which passed. Ed Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican and the first black senator ever to be popularly elected, called the vote on Biden’s amendment “the greatest symbolic defeat for civil rights since 1964.”

3. Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir Promises to Keep, “I’ve stuck to my middle-of-the-road position on abortion for more than thirty years. I still vote against partial birth abortion and federal funding, and I’d like to find ways to make it easier for scared young mothers to choose not to have an abortion, but I will also vote against a constitutional amendment that strips a woman of her right to make her own choice.” In interviews in 2008 and 2015, Biden said he believes life begins at conception, but as he put it in the latter interview, “I’m not prepared to say that to other God-fearing, non-God-fearing people that have a different view.” In 1995 and 1996, he voted to ban partial-birth abortion.

Whatever personal objections Biden had to abortion, they had no real impact on policies in the Obama administration, which defended federal funding for abortions at every opportunity.

4. Biden voted against Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court in 1987, but wrote in Promises to Keep that the judge had been unfairly demonized. “Robert Bork was a man of capacious and sharp intelligence. I didn’t believe, like many of the liberal interest groups did, that Bork was on a one-man crusade intent on stifling individual rights and liberties. . . . For example, I knew Bork contributed to Planned Parenthood. I came to believe that Bork was probably pro-choice personally, but he was intellectually honest in saying, in effect, I will vote for a pro-choice candidate to vote for legislation allowing women to have abortions. But I cannot find that explicit right in the Constitution, so in my role as judge, I cannot protect that right just because I personally find it worthy of protection. . . . Part of what Bork argued remains a legitimate concern: If you let nine individuals appointed for life set the bar, then what stops them from simply making up fundamental rights on their own?”

5. Biden cosponsored the 1984 Crime Control Act, which abolished federal parole, reestablished the death penalty, expanded civil asset forfeiture, and increased federal penalties for cultivation, possession, or transfer of marijuana.

In 1991, Biden bragged about the sweeping scope of civil asset forfeiture: “Under our forfeiture statutes, the government can take everything you own. Everything from your car, to your house, to your bank account, not merely what they confiscate in terms of the dollars of the transaction you’ve been caught engaging in. They can take everything!”

6. In June 1991, Biden bragged that his legislation would make more crimes eligible for the death penalty than would an alternative offered by the Bush administration and Senator Strom Thurmond: “The Biden crime bill before us calls for the death penalty for 51 offenses. . . . The president’s bill calls for the death penalty on 46 offenses.” He boasted, on final passage of compromise legislation, that it was “the single largest expansion of the federal death penalty in the history of the Congress.”

7. Biden voted against authorizing the use of force in what became known as the Persian Gulf War in 1991, accusing the United Nations of being “willing to fight to the last American.” He argued that no one had “laid out clearly what our vital interests are sufficient to have ten thousand, twenty thousand, thirty thousand, forty thousand Americans killed.” The United States suffered 219 casualties in the Persian Gulf War.

8. In 2001, after the 9/11 attacks, he proposed to his staff, “This would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran.” His staff was not receptive to the idea.

9. He repeatedly boasted that the PATRIOT Act — which passed in 2001 with his vote — was basically the same as a bill he introduced in 1994.

10. Biden found himself in controversy in October 2001 when he appeared to criticize the U.S. campaign of airstrikes against al-Qaeda and the Taliban during a speech at the Council on Foreign Relations. “How much longer does the bombing continue? Because we’re going to pay every single hour. Every single day it continues, we’re going to pay an escalating price in the Muslim world.” Biden added that the bombing fueled criticism that “we’re this high-tech bully that thinks from the air we can do whatever we want.” About three weeks later, the Taliban retreated from Kandahar, their last stronghold.

11. In 1998, Biden wrote in an op-ed in the Washington Post that “a policy based on sanctions does not guarantee that Saddam Hussein’s weapons program will be curtailed. Ultimately, as long as Saddam Hussein is at the helm, no inspectors can guarantee that they have rooted out the entirety of Saddam Hussein’s weapons program. And I said the only way to remove Saddam is a massive military effort, led by the United States.”

In July 2002, Biden chaired a Senate committee hearing featuring former Iraqi nuclear engineer Khidir Hamza, who’d defected from Iraq eight years earlier. Hamza warned that Saddam Hussein could develop nuclear weapons by 2005, and after the hearing Biden declared, “These weapons must be dislodged from Saddam, or Saddam must be dislodged from power.”

He voted to authorize the use of force in what became known as the Iraq War in October. He would later claim that he believed that authorizing the use of force would give President Bush “a stronger hand to get Saddam Hussein to act responsibly, and it was a very bad bet that I made.”

12. Biden publicly stated that, at the moment of decision about the raid that would ultimately kill Osama bin Laden, he had believed the mission was not worth the risk and told Obama, “Mr. President, my suggestion is don’t go.” But in a 2018 interview, he said he had publicly overstated his doubts to ensure Obama got more credit for making the decision to launch the raid. Unnamed Biden aides also claimed that Hillary Clinton had falsely claimed she had completely supported the decision to launch the raid, calling her account of the raid decision the “a**-covering, opportunistic version.”

13. Biden gave one of the eulogies at the funeral of South Carolina senator Strom Thurmond, who had filibustered the Civil Rights Act of 1957 and supported segregation for much of his career. He said: “Strom knew America was changing, and that there was a lot he didn’t understand about that change. Much of that change challenged many of his long-held views. But he also saw his beloved South Carolina and the people of South Carolina changing as well, and he knew the time had come to change himself. But I believe the change came to him easily. I believe he welcomed it, because I watched others of his era fight that change and never ultimately change.”

14. Also in Thurmond’s eulogy, Biden told a wild story of stepping between the South Carolina senator and an unnamed angry tourist in the U.S. Senate:

I was coming across to vote in the Senate and going up the escalator, and a fellow who apparently had held a longtime grudge against Senator Thurmond, a tourist, literally interposed himself between me and Strom and then said — and Thad may remember this — and said, “If you weren’t so old, I would knock you” — and, Reverend, I will not say what he said — “I will knock you down.” And I immediately stood between them. And Strom literally took off his coat and said, “Hold my coat, Joe.” Swear to God. And I looked at him and said, “No, no, no, no, no, no.” And with that, he went down and did 25 pushups. He had to be 88, 87. He stood up and looked at the man — he said, “If you weren’t so young, I’d knock you down.”

15. In 2005, the Senate passed a banking-reform bill that made it harder for consumers to file for bankruptcy protection. This was a longstanding goal of large banks and credit-card companies, many of which have headquarters in Biden’s home state of Delaware, and Biden was the legislation’s most important Democratic proponent. In addition, during the five preceding years that Biden and other senators had pushed for the changes, Biden’s son Hunter had had a $100,000-per-year consulting agreement with the bank MBNA. According to the Center for Responsive Politics, MBNA executives and employees contributed roughly $200,000 to Biden’s campaigns from 1989 to 2010.

16. Biden got himself in hot water in 2007 when, during a meeting with the editorial board of the Washington Post, he compared schoolchildren in Iowa with those in the District of Columbia:

There’s less than 1 percent of the population of Iowa that is African American. There is probably less than 4 or 5 percent that are minorities. What is in Washington? So look, it goes back to what you start off with, what you’re dealing with. . . . When you have children coming from dysfunctional homes, when you have children coming from homes where there’s no books, where the mother from the time they’re born doesn’t talk to them — as opposed to the mother in Iowa who’s sitting out there and talks to them, the kid starts out with a 300-word larger vocabulary at age three. Half this education gap exists before the kid steps foot in the classroom.

17. Biden, to an Iowa reporter, August 17, 2007: “I absolutely can say with certainty I would not be anybody’s vice president. End of story. I guarantee I will not do it.” While he agreed to be vetted, he reportedly initially turned down Obama’s offer of the vice presidency.

18. In 2014, in a speech denouncing predatory lenders who focused on military families, Biden denounced “these Shylocks who took advantage of these women and men while overseas.” Anti-Defamation League national director Abraham Foxman responded, “Shylock represents the medieval stereotype about Jews and remains an offensive characterization to this day. The Vice President should have been more careful.” A few days later, Biden called Singapore’s Lee Kuan Yew “the wisest man in the Orient.”

19. Biden’s first chief of staff as vice president, Ron Klain, apparently worked with allies of Hillary Clinton to discourage him from running for president in the 2016 cycle. On October 14, 2015, Ron Klain wrote to Clinton-campaign chairman John Podesta, “Thanks for inviting me into the campaign, and for sticking with me during the Biden anxiety. You are a great friend and a great leader. It’s been a little hard for me to play such a role in the Biden demise — and I am definitely dead to them — but I’m glad to be on Team HRC.” On October 21, Biden announced in the Rose Garden of the White House that he would not run for president.

20. Biden has offered some tough assessments of Hillary Clinton’s presidential campaign. In early 2017 at the University of Pennsylvania, he said, “This was the first campaign that I can recall where my party did not talk about what it always stood for — and that was how to maintain a burgeoning middle class. You didn’t hear a single solitary sentence in the last campaign about that guy working on the assembly line making 60,000 bucks a year and a wife making $32,000 as a hostess in a restaurant.” In her memoir, Clinton called the criticism “fairly remarkable, considering that Joe himself campaigned for me all over the Midwest and talked plenty about the middle class.”

Later that year, in an interview with Vanity Fair, Biden assessed her campaign (and perhaps her) as joyless. “Everyone thinks it was just raw ambition on her part,” he said. “I think she was sort of a prisoner of history. First woman who had a better-than-even chance of getting the nomination. First woman, relative to the Republican field, who had a better-than-even chance of being president. But there’s a lot of baggage, fair and unfair, and there was no illusion on her part — this wasn’t going to be a Marquess of Queensberry fight. And so I never got the sense that there was any joy in her campaign. Maybe it’s me, but I find joy in doing this.”

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