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Biden's Early Turning Point

Dec 19, 2019
Originally published on December 19, 2019 6:01 am
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STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

A man Barack Obama, presidential candidate, introduced in 2008 had a lot of experience running for office.

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BARACK OBAMA: A man with a distinguished record, a man with fundamental decency - and that man is Joe Biden.

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INSKEEP: That's how Obama described his running mate back then. The former vice president is now running for the top job, which he has done twice before.

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JOE BIDEN: Today I announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.

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INSKEEP: His first effort in the 1988 race ended so quickly that it was still 1987 when Biden dropped out. His setback came at the same moment that Joe Biden won a victory for Democrats by preventing President Reagan's nominee from getting to the Supreme Court. NPR White House correspondent Tamara Keith reports on a turning point for Joe Biden.

TAMARA KEITH, BYLINE: It was the beginning of the end of Joe Biden's first presidential campaign. He just didn't know it yet.

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UNIDENTIFIED DEBATE MODERATOR: Now Mr. Biden.

BIDEN: Thank you very much.

KEITH: In his closing statement in a Democratic debate at the Iowa State Fair in August 1987, Biden made a biographical turn...

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BIDEN: And I started thinking as I was coming over here - why is it that Joe Biden...

KEITH: Talking about why his family had remained working class for generations.

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BIDEN: Is it because they didn't work hard, my ancestors who worked in the coal mines in northeast Pennsylvania and who would come up after 12 hours and play football for four hours?

KEITH: It turns out he was paraphrasing a rousing speech-turned-campaign ad from a British politician named Neil Kinnock.

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NEIL KINNOCK: Was it because they were weak, those people who could work eight hours underground and then come up and play football? Weak?

KEITH: Biden had referenced it in speeches before with proper attribution. But this time, he made it his own. When the story broke, he had very little time to tamp down the controversy. Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and it was about to take up President Ronald Reagan's nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.

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BIDEN: ...But the truth so help you God?

ROBERT BORK: I do, Mr. Chairman.

BIDEN: Thank you.

KEITH: The stakes were high. As a law professor, Bork had criticized the legal reasoning behind Supreme Court decisions on civil rights and abortion. Republicans saw his nomination as a chance to reshape the court and public policy. Democrats, including Biden, were determined to stop him.

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BIDEN: This nomination is more, with all due respect, Judge - and I'm sure you agree - than about you.

KEITH: Bork's hearings went on for 12 long days. Meanwhile, Biden's campaign was in trouble. There were questions being asked about whether the slip-up with the Kinnock speech was part of a pattern.

HARRY REID: Shouldn't have made much difference anyway. But you guys - the press - jumped on him.

KEITH: Former Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid was a relatively junior Democratic senator at the time.

REID: You could not be running for president and trying to overcome some of the things that had gone wrong and still chair that committee. He had to get rid of running for president or the - his running that committee would not have worked.

KEITH: And that's exactly what Biden did. On Day 8 of the Bork hearings, during a break, he held a press conference in the Capitol.

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BIDEN: And therefore, it seems to me I have a choice. I have to choose between running for president and doing my job to keep the Supreme Court from moving in a direction that I believe to be truly harmful. There will be other opportunities for me to campaign for president, but there will not be many other opportunities for me to influence President Reagan's choice on the Supreme Court.

KEITH: At some point during that day, Biden called the Judiciary Committee members together behind closed doors. Alan Simpson, then a Republican senator from Wyoming, was there.

ALAN SIMPSON: It was devastating. I mean, he was - he was - he was ambitious, as he is now. And he was running for president of the United States. And he was - he was quite - quite filled with angst.

KEITH: Simpson says Biden was contrite.

SIMPSON: And he sat down. And he said, you know, it's been a tough thing; I've dropped out. And I'm embarrassed and hurt. But I want you to know - you of the committee to know that if I have embarrassed you in any way where you don't feel comfortable with my chairmanship, I will resign my chairmanship.

KEITH: There was silence in the room.

SIMPSON: And then old Strom Thurmond, who was ranking member, leaned over and slapped his knee. He said - oh, Joe - now, let me tell you; just you forget that stuff.

KEITH: By Simpson's telling, the senators went around the room talking about all the mistakes they had made over the years and had a good laugh.

Biden had long known that trying to run the Bork hearings while running for president might end badly, says Mark Gitenstein, a longtime Biden friend and adviser who was the chief counsel on the Judiciary Committee back then. He remembers a contentious meeting Biden attended with civil rights leaders about the Bork nomination.

MARK GITENSTEIN: They raised this issue with him. You know, which is more important - your presidential race or the Supreme Court fight? He said, without a doubt, the Supreme Court fight. I'll give up my presidential race, if necessary, to get - win this fight. I know how important and historic this was. And this was months before Kinnock broke. And of course, ultimately that's what happened.

KEITH: In a way, the Bork hearings allowed Biden to save face while quitting the race. He didn't have to stand there and say he was dropping out because of the plagiarism charges. No, he had something important to do.

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BIDEN: This country is going to be lifted up, and I'm going to play a big part in doing it. But for now, folks, got to go handle the Bork hearings.

KEITH: And then he turned around, went back to the hearing room and swore in the next witness.

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BIDEN: My business is behind us. Let's - let's move on. And would you stand, Mr. Cutler, to be sworn?

KEITH: Ultimately, Bork's nomination failed in the Senate. It was bipartisan. Biden was able to sway a handful of moderate Republicans to vote against Bork. Reagan went on to nominate Anthony Kennedy for that Supreme Court slot. Over his generation on the court, Kennedy became a swing justice. Mark Gitenstein argues Biden was able to do more for progressive causes by sinking Bork than he would have been able to do as president.

GITENSTEIN: It shaped the court for 30 years on everything from saving Roe vs. Wade to the - you know, the gay marriage issue.

KEITH: And, as Biden said the day he quit the race, there would be other presidential campaigns and he would be there.

Tamara Keith, NPR News.

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