Former Vice President Biden targets Trump in ‘battle of soul of the nation’
Former Vice President Joseph Biden looks to Watergate for answers in the “battle for the soul of the nation”
by Kevin Cody
Shortly after being elected to represent Delaware in the U.S. Senate in 1972, Joe Biden watched Senator Jesse Helms excoriate fellow Republican Senator Bob Dole and Democratic Senator Ted Kennedy on the Senate floor for their support of equal rights for the disabled. Helms contended it was “confiscatory” to require small businesses to accommodate handicapped people with ramps and special bathrooms.
“How can Helms be so heartless?” the 30-year-old Biden asked fellow Democrat Mike Mansfield when the two met in the Senate Leader’s office later that day.
Mansfield told Biden that in 1963 Helms and his wife Dot saw a photograph in the Raleigh News of a 14-year-old boy with leg braces. He needed a home, so the Helms adopted him.
“Do you still think Helms is heartless?” Mansfield asked Biden.
“It’s always appropriate to question another man’s judgment, but it’s never appropriate to question his motives,” Mansfield advised the young Senator.
“I felt like a fool,” Biden said, after relating the story during his October 24 Distinguished Speaker talk at the Redondo Beach Performing Arts Center.
“Because when you question a man’s motive,” Biden explained, “when you say they’re acting out of greed, that they’re in the pocket of an interest group, it’s awfully hard to reach consensus. It’s awfully hard reaching across the table to shake that person’s hands.”
The former vice-president used the story to illustrate why he believes the national political system is broken and how to fix it.
Without once blaming President Donald Trump by name during his hour, 20 minute talk, Biden relentlessly pointed to the President as both cause and consequence for what he alternately referred to as “phony nationalism” or “phony populism.”
“The nature of work has ‘all changed, changed utterly,’” he said, quoting from William Butler Yeats’ poem about the 1916 Irish Uprising against their British overlords.
He traced the change to globalization and computerization.
“It makes a fertile field for demagogues to fish in,” he said.
“There used to be a basic bargain that if you contribute to an enterprise you share in the profits. Between 1948 and 1978, productivity increased 92 percent and wages increased 92 percent. Since then productivity has increased another 69 percent, but wages have increased just eight percent.
“The immigrants took our jobs. We spend too much money coddling the Blacks. It’s always ‘the other.’”
“I never thought I’d see Neo-Nazis marching in our historical cities, carrying swastikas and chanting the same anti-Semitic bile we saw in Germany in the 1930s. Then to hear some elected leaders drawing moral equivalences between these people and other protesters…” he said, not ending the sentence. He trusted his audience to remember Trump’s statements, following the Unite the Right Charlottesville protests in August, that “there is blame on both sides.”
Biden proposed a three pronged attack for winning what he called “a battle for the soul of the nation.”
First, “We need to talk to each other again and drop the idea that the opposition is the enemy.” The suggestion elicited sustained applause from the audience.
“When I got to the Senate, the Vietnam War was tearing the country apart. The women’s movement was viewed as radical and environmentalism was an attack on corporate America. We had segregationist senators like Strom Thurmond and Sam Irwin.
“But as divided as we were, we got things done because we knew one another.
“Senator Helms and I had profound political differences. He was constantly saying, ‘We’ve never lost a war and we’ve never won a treaty.’ But as Chairman and Ranking Member of the Foreign Relations Committee, we passed some of the most significant legislation of the last 40 years.
“How many senators and congressmen today have a friendship with a member of the opposite party?”
“I’m still in contact with Republican leaders. But I never let anyone know who they are because it would hurt them if it was known they were consulting with me.
“I went up to the Hill during my vice presidency and looked in on the senate dining room, where guests are allowed. It was full. I looked in on the dining room across the hall, where only senators are allowed. It used to have tables where opposing senators sat across from one another and worked out their differences over lunch, one on one. The room was empty. The tables have been replaced by lounges,” he said.
“We need to deal with nationalism,” Biden said in introducing his second strategy. “We’ve seen it before in our country and in other countries we thought were sound democracies.”
He recalled the 1968 presidential bid of American Independent Party candidate George Wallace. The Alabama governor’s rallying cry was, “Segregation now. Segregation tomorrow. Segregation forever.” Wallace won five southern states.
Biden is board chair of the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. Two weeks prior to his Distinguished Speakers talk, he presented Arizona Senator John McCain with the Center’s Liberty Medal.
Biden quoted from McCain’s acceptance speech, which also pounded Trump without mentioning Trump’s name.
“To abandon the ideals we have advanced around the globe, to refuse the obligations of international leadership for the sake of some half-baked, spurious nationalism cooked up by people who would rather find scapegoats than solve problems is as unpatriotic as an attachment to any other tired dogma of the past that Americans consigned to the ash heap of history,” Biden read from McCain’s speech.
Biden followed McCain with an excerpt from a New York Times column by David Brook, printed two days prior to Biden’s Redondo talk.
“Human beings can be rallied around three things: religion, tribe or ideals. Donald Trump and the campus multiculturalists want to organize people by ethnic tribe, which has always been the menacing temptation throughout our history.”
In a rising voice, Biden said, “We haven’t led the world just by examples of our power, but by the power of our example. That is why the world has repaired to us for the last seven decades. They believe that we believe what we say in our sacred documents.
“Can you picture,” he asked, almost shouting, “any past American president taunting a foreign leader with nuclear weapons about his size? Calling the president of South Korea an appeaser? Threatening China with a trade war and not appointing an assistant secretary of state for East Asia?”
Returning to a measured tone, he argued, “Every problem we face requires more than just us. It requires alliances, not just physical alliances, but alliances of ideals.” And yet, he contended, “U.S. foreign policy is closed off and clannish, as us versus them.”
Biden again quoted from Brooks’ Sunday column.
“The moral fabric of society is invisible but essential. Some use their public position to dissolve it so they can have an open space for their selfishness.”
“We can’t let that happen,” Biden said. “We have an obligation to reweave our values — honesty, dignity, giving hate no safe harbor, leaving no one behind — back into the fabric of our political system.”
Finally, Biden exhorted, “It’s time to stand up for the American story. We are energy independent. We have the world’s most powerful military. Our workers are three times more productive than Asia’s. Name a world-changing product invented in the last 20 years that was not invented in the United States.”
“Thanks to our underappreciated President Dwight D. Eisenhower, we have more research universities than the rest of the world combined..
“After Sputnik, Eisenhower convened a panel to discuss how to reclaim leadership in science and technology. They said invest in the military-industrial complex. He said, ‘No, send the money to the universities.’”
“I spent 25 hours in one-on-one conversations with Chinese President Xi Jinping, with just our translators present,” Biden said, returning to the theme of international alliances.
“I told him we want China to succeed. He asked why. So you can buy our products, I told him.”
During a visit to China shortly after the 2008 recession, Biden was present for a talk by Xi in China’s Great Hall. Xi said, “We don’t think America is finished. We think you will come back. But we want to know if our investment in American Treasury notes is safe. We are worried about your rising entitlement costs.”
“I said, ‘President Xi, I saw that the Thursday after America’s financial rating was downgraded, you bought $10 billion in U.S. Treasury notes. I know you did that to help us.’ Then, more seriously, I added, ‘Our entitlement policies can be fixed. But how will you fix your one child policy. By 2020, China will have more retirees than workers. If we can help, let us know.’”
Biden said Hillary Clinton and the Democrats share in the blame for the current political breakdown.
“It’s the responsibility of the opposition to offer rational alternatives. We hear about the angry, uneducated, prejudiced white guys in Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Wisconsin who voted for Trump. But four years earlier a Black man won those states. These people aren’t stupid. There are 600,000 middle class truck drivers in America who don’t know if they will have a job 10 years from now.
“Over the last four years, white males, ages 40 to 49, have had the highest suicide, divorce and drug abuse rates in the nation, higher than in the ghettos. It’s the only age group in America with a declining life expectancy.”
“Can anyone tell me from the last election, Hillary’s plan for tax reform, or college affordability?’
“I know I sound like a conspiracy nut,” he acknowledged, “but I think there was a method to the [Trump’s] madness. I spoke at 83 events for Hillary. On my way to Wisconsin, three and a half weeks before the election, I realized every time a serious issue was raised, it was pushed aside by extraneous issues.
“Two days prior to the second debate, the Entertainment Tonight tape of Trump’s groping was leaked. I knew the first question to Trump would be about the tape. I prayed to God that when Hillary was asked to respond, she would say something like, ‘We all know who Donald Trump is. Let me tell you what I’ll do to keep the economy going.’”
Instead, after Trump dismissed the tape as “locker room talk,” Clinton, in Biden’s opinion, took the bait. “I said starting back in June that he was not fit to be president and commander in chief.”
Trump quickly counter punched. He accused Clinton of enabling her husband’s abuse of women.
“If you look at Bill Clinton, mine are words and his was action… There’s never been anybody in the history of politics in this nation that has been so abusive to women,” Trump said, to devastating effect.
“Harvard did a study of the debates,” Biden said. “Just four percent of the words related to significant issues.”
“When we engage in gutter language, this demeaning conduct by our leaders, we pull it all down,” Biden said.
At the end of his talk, Biden turned to history for hope.
“I was there during Watergate. The people who saved the country were Republicans. Senators Howard Baker, Bill Cohen. Enough Republicans found their voices.”
In 1974, Nixon resigned after Republican leaders, including Arizona Senator Barry Goldwater told him he had lost his party’s support.
“I think you’ll see Republicans begin to realize how close to the edge we are. Our silence in the face of these things amounts to complicity,” Biden said.
“The American people, too, are awakening to the danger of phoney nationalism. There is a real hunger for bipartisanship,” he contended.
Biden told of his mother cautioning him when he was young, “Joey, the children are listening.”
“Right now” he told his Redondo Beach audience, “the world is listening.”
During the question and answer period Biden was asked, “Do politicians ever really retire?”
In 2020, when the next presidential election will be held, Biden will be 78 and Trump 74.
“Some do. Some don’t,” he answered. Then he digressed into a discussion about the Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement at the University of Pennsylvania. B