Regardless of whether I agree with Joe Biden’s politics, after reading about him in depth I really like Joe Biden. I did not expect to like Joe Biden. I expected to find him to be an acceptable alternative to Donald Trump. But now I have real hope that a Biden presidency could transform our nation. Hear me out!
In 2010 Jules Witcover published an excellent biography of Joe Biden entitled: “Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption.” If you can only read one book about Joe Biden, that should be the one. Biden’s 2007 autobiography “Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics” give a little more detail about his motivations at key moments. His 2017 book “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose” is Joe Biden’s telling of the year his son Beau died of cancer and how Biden managed being the Vice President through that. Joe Biden is like FDR in that they both suffered great hardship, and that personal tragedy drove them to seek out compassionate policy. But we should start from the beginning.
Joe Biden’s childhood was idyllic. Joe was a star athlete throughout childhood, and apparently a fearless little dare devil. He did stunts, like Jackass, except he never got hurt. He had a community that rallied to him and lifted him up. His family was not wealthy, but they were not poor. They were upper middle class, though his Father Biden Sr. suffered a series of business failures and periodic unemployment throughout Joe’s early childhood in Scranton, Pennsylvania. The family is Irish Catholic, and so Biden had temperance drilled into him at a young age. It’s possible Joe Biden has never had an alcoholic drink. His parents seem to have succeeded in instilling in Joe Biden a basic optimism about human nature: the idea that people don’t mean to harm each other really, but they end up doing it on accident seems to be something Joe Biden fundamentally believes in. When Joe was 10 his family moved to Wilmington, Delaware where Biden Sr. got work cleaning boilers. Joe’s family couldn’t afford to send him to private school, but the young athletic teen had ambitions so he did a work study program. He worked as a janitor at the school so he could attend Archmere Academy (Witcover, p. 21). Joe Biden has a stutter, and he was made fun of by other kids and even one of the nuns who taught at his private school. That first experience of being humiliated for something he had no control over seems to inform the rest of his career: it’s probably why he became a civil rights activist.
Teen Joe Biden hung out at a burger joint called the Charcoal Pit. I just imagine the typical 50s pharmacy hang out where kids would go to have milkshakes after school. Joe Biden was a football star who wanted to become a priest. His mother insisted that he go to college first. The Archmere football team, the Archmere Archers, ended a long losing streak in 1960 thanks in part to Joe’s talents at playing half-back. Wilmington was not as segregated as much of the United States, and the football team had a Black player, Frank Hutchins. One day the owner of the Charcoal Pit refused to serve Frank Hutchins, and in response Joe Biden led the team in a walk out in protest. I’ve been around activist culture for a long time, but I haven’t met anyone who led a protest against racial discrimination in High School. That’s who Joe Biden is. Around this time is when Joe Biden became a lifeguard at a public swimming pool in the Black part of town. Ta-Nehisi Coates was recently interviewed by Ezra Klein. One of the things Coates mentions that makes him optimistic about the current moment is that white people seem to be aware of the racial discrimination that Black people face in America, an awareness that was missing in ‘68. It’s no small thing that Joe Biden was aware of racial discrimination in ‘61.