The state of Delaware has given the world three gifts: chemicals, debt and Joe Biden. Each promises great things but may deliver undesirable side effects. Until the 19th century Delaware’s primary crop was tobacco. Then a French Huguenot called Éleuthère Irénée du Pont, son of an adviser to Louis XVI, began manufacturing gunpowder on the Brandywine River, north of Wilmington. His firm became the largest supplier of explosives to the Union during the Civil War and it now ranks fourth among US corporations as a generator of air pollution. Among its innovations are nylon, Teflon, Mylar, Tyvek and Kevlar. It made the powder that fired the bullets and it perfected the bullet-proof vest.
By the 1970s the DuPont family’s hold on Delaware was total. ‘General Motors could buy Delaware if DuPont were willing to sell it,’ Ralph Nader said. As Tim Murphy wrote last year in Mother Jones, ‘the state’s centre of gravity began to shift from the world of chemicals to the big business of other people’s business – banking, accounting, law and telemarketing.’ Delaware is suited for this: a chancery court was created for the settlement of business disputes in the state’s constitution, and its 1899 General Corporation Law allowed any American to form a company in Delaware and made it a haven for the refugees of busted trusts. Many companies, including 63 per cent of the Fortune 500, are incorporated there simply because it is, in one governor’s phrase, ‘the Luxembourg of the United States’. Over the decades, corporate accommodation has extended to a light tax regime, no limits on the interest rates and late fees creditors can charge, and a quick green light to home foreclosures for those whose payments are in arrears.
‘It puts me in a precarious financial position when you fellows don’t pay,’ Joe Biden wrote to his tenants when he was a landlord in his mid-twenties. ‘To get right down to it, I need money quickly. Please get in touch with me this weekend so that we can make some definite arrangements and I can get myself out of the hole.’ Just out of law school, Biden had borrowed money from his father-in-law and bought three houses, renting out one to students (‘you fellows’) from the University of Delaware. Biden and his wife, Neilia, lived in a cottage on the grounds of a swimming club in exchange for managing the pool. ‘I was probably the only working attorney in Delaware who lifeguarded on Saturdays.’ Even when he was elected to the Senate at the age of thirty Biden hadn’t got into the black. In What It Takes (1992), a breathless work of campaign stenography, Richard Ben Cramer described the confession Biden made to his aides before deciding to run: ‘The debts – he went through his finances whole, the mortgages, the credit cards. He was into Visa, Amex for thousands.’
The letter to his tenants appears in Biden’s 2007 autobiography, Promises to Keep, a chronicle of his lifelong efforts to be both a regular guy and a Democrat palatable to Republicans. The book – highly readable thanks to the efforts of its ghost, Mark Zwonitzer – opens with a kitchen table conversation at Biden’s grandparents’ house in Scranton, Pennsylvania in the 1950s:
Grandpop, his pals from the neighbourhood, maybe a crony from the Scranton Tribune, and my Finnegan uncles, Jack and Boo-Boo, settled in at the kitchen table. They’d sit in the spreading afternoon light talking sports and politics. These men were educated, informed and eclectic – and they loved to debate. They’d argue local politics, state politics, world events, Truman against MacArthur, Truman against the steel companies. They were Truman Democrats, working men, or sons of working men, but they had to admit Truman might have gone too far when he tried to take over Youngstown Steel. Probably the Supreme Court was right when they knocked him back. A president’s a president, not a dictator. It seemed un-American. Still, at least he was up front about it. That’s the thing they liked about Harry Truman: no artifice. He knew where he stood, and he wasn’t afraid to say it. The fellows at Grandpop’s table didn’t trust the new Democratic standard-bearer, Adlai Stevenson. They thought he might be a little soft. They were willing to give Eisenhower the benefit of the doubt; he was a hero of the war, after all. My dad, who didn’t join in the talk much, trusted Ike because he had been able to win a war while negotiating the competing national prerogatives of the Western allies and the substantial egos of Franklin Roosevelt, Winston Churchill, Charles de Gaulle, Field Marshal Montgomery and General Patton. Dad thought Eisenhower was a man with ballast, a leader. But the Finnegans wanted to argue Ike’s policies.
Note the trace of red-baiting in the bit about the steel company (‘un-American’); the implication that Stevenson was, if not effeminate, a bookworm (‘a little soft’); the appeal to masculine authenticity and action (‘a man with ballast’). It might seem an odd posture for someone whose purpose, when the book was published, was to seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2008. His Bush Lite campaign died in Iowa that January with a fifth place finish and 0.9 per cent of the vote. But the pose had been proven to work.‘We’re Eisenhower Republicans here,’ Bill Clinton told Bob Woodward after taking office in 1993. ‘We stand for lower deficits, free trade and the bond market. Isn’t that great?’
‘My dad always said you couldn’t blame a guy for being rich,’ Biden writes. ‘I love Bernie, but I’m not Bernie Sanders,’ he said in 2018. ‘I don’t think five hundred billionaires are the reason we’re in trouble. The folks at the top aren’t bad guys.’ During the Second World War, Joseph Sr could have been forgiven for thinking he was on the way to being rich. He worked for his uncle Bill Sheen, the inventor of a sealant used in cemetery vaults and a military contractor. The job came with perks: free plane tickets, a Buick Roadster and a big house for his family. After the war he started a Long Island airfield with Bill Jr, but his cousin’s profligate ways put them out of business. His wife, Jean, insisted that they move back to her parents’ house in Scranton, where he did odd jobs before becoming a car salesman in Wilmington. Their son would combine the common touch of his mother’s side of the family with his father’s sense of himself as a would-be wealthy person.
Scenes of the young Biden ingratiating himself to Republicans recur during a youth spent winging it, hustling, and depending on the kindness of a series of characters who, in the words of his letters of recommendation, took ‘a chance’ on him despite his ‘lousy marks’, because he was ‘a natural’. For spring break in his junior year he flew to the Bahamas, despite having only a fraction of an $89 tax refund left to spend. On the beach he met a blonde, Neilia Hunter, who picked up the tab for hamburgers for two and got him into a club for free because a friend of hers was dating the owner. (‘I fell ass over tin cup in love – at first sight. And she was so easy to talk to.’) By the end of the weekend they had decided to get married. Biden, a mediocre undergraduate at the University of Delaware with a spotty disciplinary record (he once sprayed a dorm adviser with a fire extinguisher), quit the football team and mustered the grades and testimonials for law school at Syracuse. There he managed to scrape through despite a charge of plagiarism – a matter of poor citation, he explains – and won the reluctant approval of Neilia’s father, who didn’t want to see his daughter marry a Catholic or a Democrat.
His father-in-law’s generosity set the pattern for Biden’s career in politics: he scrambled along on a shoestring budget, showing gratitude and deference to the holder of the purse; he set expectations low and either by a stroke of luck exceeded them or came home empty-handed because he never really had a chance. Early on he was very lucky. Joe and Neilia were living out their ‘adventure’, put in charge of managing her father’s swimming pool while having three children as he found his way into Delaware politics. While working at a prestigious Wilmington law firm, he turned down offers from local Republicans to stand for office. He didn’t like Nixon. Then he quit his job and became a public defender with a civil practice on the side. (Along with a teenage summer spent as a lifeguard at a pool in a Black neighbourhood, this constitutes Biden’s pre-political ties with Delaware’s Black community. ‘I was never an activist,’ he admitted.) In 1970 he won a seat as a Democrat on the county council, putting him in a position to recruit candidates for what seemed like a hopeless run against the Republican senator, Caleb Boggs, who hadn’t lost a race since 1946. There were no takers so he ran himself. Backed by a scrappy volunteer effort co-ordinated by Neilia and his sister Val and facing an opponent who seemed exhausted, showing up to one debate late and unprepared, he made a campaign pitch that would serve him for decades: ‘The Sussex County parent worries as much as the Newark production-line worker about the drugs that threaten the children of both. The fabric of our complex society is woven too tightly to permit any part of it to be damaged without damaging the whole.’ This young man was no hippie. A couple of scenes in Promises to Keep show him accepting donations from a national union representative and a set of wealthy Republicans, making no promises to either. He won the vote. ‘Well, Joe,’ his father-in-law told him. ‘If my daughter has to be married to a Democrat, he might as well be a United States senator.’
There’s a credible alternate universe life for Biden as a prosperous attorney and happy suburban dad, mowing his own lawn, hair plugs optional. He and Neilia might have started voting Republican in 1980 and would now be wealthy suburbanites of the sort the Democrats are desperate to lure back into the fold as they stress Trump’s indecency and pledge to return America to ‘normalcy’. Instead, Biden went to Washington, and Neilia was killed with their one-year-old daughter, Naomi, when their car was hit by a truck. Much has been written about Biden as ‘America’s mourner’, given preternatural powers of empathy by the loss of his wife, his daughter and then, in 2015, his son Beau, from brain cancer. ‘The sensation I had,’ Biden wrote, ‘was best captured in a line I knew from a sonnet by John Milton: “I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.”’
Biden became the tragic young man of the Senate, uncertain whether he should resign to look after his surviving children. But in his account the Senate’s old guard welcomed him and gave him unexpected responsibility in the form of committee seats. Ted Kennedy was responsible for Biden’s social initiation, taking him to the steam room in the Senate gym, where he met Jacob Javits of New York and Stuart Symington of Missouri: ‘They were standing there, two feet away from me, reaching out to shake my hand. And they were all as naked as the day they were born.’ It must be easier to reach across the aisle when you’re hanging out with your buddies in the steam room. Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana taught Biden not to question his colleagues’ motives after Biden said that Jesse Helms, the infamous racist homophobe from North Carolina who tried to ban HIV-positive travellers from entering the US, had no heart. Mansfield told Biden that the Helmses had adopted a nine-year-old with cerebral palsy after the child had appeared in a newspaper ad pleading for a new mommy and daddy for Christmas.
As for his own motives, Biden seems to have got into politics simply because he could: for the fuck of it, not out of any ethical commitment or bracing ambition. Unlike most recent Democrat and Republican nominees for president he isn’t a meritocrat (Dukakis, the Clintons, Obama) or an aristocrat (the Bushes, Gore, Kerry), or the son of a powerful father (McCain, Romney, Trump). Not being an egghead is his biggest asset in the fight v. Trump. With his famous love for ‘the poorly educated’, Trump often seems to be campaigning on behalf of those Hillary Clinton called the ‘deplorables’ and against the figures of the teacher’s pet and the goody two shoes. (His Democratic rivals have embodied these types but in a way he sought to paint as phony: Clinton, Trump claimed, was secretly corrupt and deserved to be locked up; Obama, according to the birther libel he flogged, was an illegitimate president because secretly foreign.) Little in their actual political records differentiates Biden from Clinton, but he can more persuasively tell an autoworker that his industry will return to the glories of the 1940s. When Trump first campaigned on the slogan ‘Make America Great Again’, he liked to do so in the shadow of abandoned steel mills. ‘They’ – Democrats, Republicans, globalists all – had done away with the jobs. As a campaigner, Biden seems oblivious to his complicity in this process.
Biden remarried after being set up with Jill Jacobs on a trip to Philadelphia in 1975. He knew her face already, because she had been on a billboard he had noticed at Wilmington airport. ‘She was blonde and gorgeous,’ he wrote. ‘I couldn’t imagine who was looking at trees with her in the photograph. I remember thinking to myself: That’s the kind of woman I’d like to meet.’ His luck had returned, but in the Senate luck wasn’t enough. In Yesterday’s Man, Branko Marcetic details the fruits of Biden’s decades of bipartisanship. The book was published too late to make much of an impact on the primary race, though a few of its themes were raised by Biden’s rivals. Biden opposed mandatory busing (as school desegregation was called outside the South) in Delaware in the 1970s, as his future running mate, Kamala Harris, pointed out in a primary debate (though it was later revealed that they were both in favour of the half-measure of voluntary busing). In 1977 he moved from the Senate’s banking committee to the judiciary committee, where he focused on crime legislation. ‘That Biden gave up his place on Banking’s housing subcommittee to do this was grimly symbolic,’ Marcetic writes. ‘Instead of providing homes for the poor, he would spend the following decades housing them in jails.’
During the Reagan administration Biden took part in the hysteria over drugs, and often tacked to the right of the president on narcotics law enforcement. ‘The drug trade,’ he said, ‘is as much a threat to the international security of America as anything the Soviets are doing.’ Along with the former segregationist Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, he was an early proponent of the idea of a US drugs tsar, who would unite the narcotics activities of various agencies and have unprecedented authority over the attorney general. Reagan reluctantly agreed to the proposal in 1988. Biden, here, was trying to dispel the image of Democrats as soft touches, just as his hawkishness about budget deficits was meant to rid them of their reputation as spendthrifts. (Increased expenditure on prisons put the two goals in tension.) These efforts culminated in the 1994 Crime Bill, drafted in its Senate version by Biden and signed into law by Bill Clinton. ‘What do we have to do, put half the country behind bars?’ Bernie Sanders, then the House representative for Vermont, said of Biden’s proposals in 1991. America’s incarcerated population peaked in 2008 at 2.3 million, a number that doesn’t include detained migrants, prisoners of war in Iraq and Afghanistan, those held at Guantánamo Bay etc.
In the 1976 primaries Biden had been an early supporter of Carter. In 1980 he served as a lacklustre campaign surrogate, saying on the stump: ‘Let’s face it, Jimmy Carter is not the finest thing since wheat cakes; he’s not the second coming … He’s not going to go down in the history books … but he is doing a good job.’ When Carter, along with many Democratic senators (Frank Church, George McGovern, Birch Bayh), lost out in that year’s elections, Biden found himself with increased seniority and free to tack further right.‘In a strange way,’ he said, ‘the election of Ronald Reagan is more consistent with the budgetary thrust that a guy like me … has been going for for the past few years.’ His own campaign for president, in 1988, was a dress rehearsal for the Third Way politics that would send Bill Clinton to the White House four years later. Its failure is usually attributed to Biden’s lifting of passages from a speech by Neil Kinnock about his working-class upbringing, but in fact he was following his mother’s advice when he dropped out. ‘The wounded, limping campaign was finally given its mercy killing,’ Marcetic writes,
after Newsweek unearthed C-Span footage of an April 7 event in New Hampshire, where an audience member had asked Biden which law school he had attended and where he had placed. Perceiving it as a slight, Biden had reacted badly. He’d shot back that he had ‘ended up in the top half’ of his class, graduated with three degrees, was ‘the outstanding student in the political science department’, and had gone to law school on a full academic scholarship. He then told the questioner he would ‘be delighted to sit back and compare my IQ to yours if you’d like’. All of this was proven to be untrue: Biden had placed toward the bottom of both his undergraduate and law school classes, had a single degree with a double major, had only been nominated for the political science award, and had received a partial scholarship based on financial need. ‘I exaggerate when I’m angry,’ he now explained.
The insecurities about an undistinguished academic career two decades in the past – one the young Biden, per his memoir, had never seemed too bothered about – suggest that Third Way politics was best suited to a technocrat with elite credentials like Dukakis or the Clintons. The scandals also affected his work as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, where he tried to grill the Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork on his voluminous writings on constitutional law. Biden offered to resign, but Thurmond and Kennedy told him not to. Bork’s nomination was thwarted, but Biden was still chairman four years later when George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas. The story of those hearings has been told many times, but Marcetic adds to the picture. Biden had cut a deal with the Republicans a year before when Thomas was nominated to a lower judgeship: he promised he would get Thomas confirmed if they would pledge not to nominate him to the highest court. The Republicans welched on the deal. Biden knew about Anita Hill’s allegations of sexual harassment against Thomas, but didn’t inform his committee colleagues of them before Thomas appeared at the Senate for confirmation. At least four other women were standing by to elaborate on Hill’s testimony, but Biden, caving in to White House pressure, stopped them turning up. Things could have been different.
Marcetic traces Biden’s evolution on foreign policy from dissent on Vietnam (‘I have only been here two years, but my little generation, which was the guys you fellows were drafting for war, is sick and tired of that war,’ he said in 1975) to abetting Bush’s invasion of Iraq as the ranking Democrat on the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations, to guiding Obama’s extension of the War on Terror. In 1976 he called Kissinger ‘the most brilliant secretary of state the United States has ever seen’. He voted against the first Gulf War but later recanted: ‘Bush took a real political chance. This could have been a long war based on what we knew, with 40,000 casualties. But the president said, “I don’t think so,” and gambled the whole presidency on his decision. For that he deserves credit. That’s leadership.’ (Marcetic points out that the war left ‘110,000 civilians dead, more than half of them children under 15’.) He was a cheerleader for Clinton’s interventions in the Balkans. ‘Biden,’ Marcetic writes, ‘had taken away an important lesson from the preceding decades: if you cared about political survival, it was safer to err on the side of war.’ Biden’s record after voting to authorise the invasion of Iraq is a muddle of political posturing, culminating in his pitch to partition the country between the Kurds, Shias and Sunnis – an idea he championed after a chance encounter on a plane with Leslie Gelb, a former president of the Council on Foreign Relations. ‘Look, I know these people,’ Marcetic quotes Biden telling a Middle East expert who had said to him Iraqis wanted an end to sectarianism. ‘My grandfather was Irish and hated the British. It’s like in the Balkans. They all grow up hating each other.’ One intervention Biden didn’t support was the toppling of Gaddafi: it was Hillary Clinton who persuaded Obama to join in the bombing of Libya.
Obama chose Biden as his vice president because he was fond of him personally, because the choice would assuage the party establishment, and because Biden wasn’t a Clinton and wouldn’t hoard his own power. He also served as a neutralising aged-white-guy foil to Obama’s 2008 opponent and Biden’s partner in chummy bipartisanship, John McCain. As vice president, Biden was responsible for conducting negotiations with the Republicans in Congress (Marcetic shows that he often made excessive concessions to the Republican leader in the Senate, Mitch McConnell), for safeguarding the post-crash economic stimulus from corruption (as part of this he scotched jobs programmes and cut aid to a non-profit organisation that fed the hungry) and for various foreign missions (‘Joe will do Iraq,’ Obama said). In Biden’s second memoir, Promise Me, Dad – released in 2017, again with Zwonitzer ghosting, and focusing on his vice presidency and his son’s illness and death – he recalls a trip to Moscow where he met Vladimir Putin:
As the meeting was coming to an end, Putin asked me to have a look around his office. The furnishings were elaborate and impressive. ‘It’s amazing what capitalism will do, isn’t it?’ I said, gazing up at the high ceiling. ‘Magnificent.’
As I looked back down, I was face to face with him. ‘Mr Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes,’ I told him, smiling. ‘I don’t think you have a soul.’
He looked at me for a second and smiled back. ‘We understand each other,’ he said.
And we did.
This is an amusing post-Cold War anecdote, poking fun at Bush’s claim that he understood Putin’s soul by looking into his eyes, but its real purpose is to pander to the current Russophobia in the political centre. Biden on Iraq is grimmer reading: ‘The irony of all ironies was that the very outfit that intended to tear the country apart, ISIL, was actually bringing Iraqis together, at least temporarily.’ His bond with Obama remained strong, though the president’s aides were tipping towards Hillary Clinton for the 2016 race. After Beau Biden’s cancer progressed to the point where he felt he had to step down as Delaware’s attorney general, Obama offered to lend the Bidens money when Biden’s only other option for supporting his son’s family was to take out a second mortgage on the family home. ‘I’ll give you the money,’ Obama said. ‘I have it. You can pay me back whenever’ – friendlier terms than you get from the banks and credit card companies of Delaware.
It’s to Obama that Biden owes his place at the top of the Democratic ticket. In a field of 29 candidates, only he and Sanders were established national figures. The rest of the slate was a vacuum of charisma. When Sanders emerged as a genuine threat after winning New Hampshire and Nevada, the endorsement of Congressman Jim Clyburn swung a tightening race in South Carolina and led to a Biden landslide. The last remaining centrists dropped out and endorsed Biden: first Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar – one imagines they received incentivising phone calls, perhaps from Obama himself – and then Michael Bloomberg, who was in any case only running to thwart the socialist Sanders. Elizabeth Warren, briefly a front runner, held on through Super Tuesday, though by January her campaign had cratered and a desperate attempt to paint Sanders as sexist did nothing to revive it. The centrist fix was in. At the funeral of the civil rights icon John Lewis in June, Bill Clinton thanked Clyburn for ending the ‘intra-family fight’ within the Democratic Party. Instead of a left platform including universal healthcare and a reining in of corporate power, the Democrats would be running against Trump on a promise of a return to the status quo ante.
After the primaries, Sanders and Biden met to set up a number of task forces, made up of both leftists and centrists, to issue reports on the economy, healthcare, education, climate change, criminal justice and immigration reform. ‘At the end of the day,’ Sanders told David Wallace-Wells of New York Magazine, ‘if the reports of the task force are implemented, Biden will in fact be the most progressive president since FDR.’ With unemployment above 10 per cent, a coronavirus body count exceeding 180,000, evictions and home foreclosures mounting, and a national protest movement still in full swing, there does seem to be a window for government intervention and further deficit spending. Universal healthcare is off the table, but Biden has pledged to spend $2 trillion on efforts against climate change – or, as Wallace-Wells put it, ‘twenty times the size of Barack Obama’s biggest green-energy investment – the $90 billion he snuck into the Recovery Act, which effectively kick-started the rapid global decline in the cost of renewables’. Yet platforms rarely become reality. ‘When we get in, the pantry is going to be bare,’ Ted Kaufman, Biden’s long-time chief of staff told the Wall Street Journal on 19 August. ‘When you see what Trump’s done to the deficit … forget about Covid-19, all the deficits that he built with the incredible tax cuts. So we’re going to be limited.’ We’re still Eisenhower Republicans here.
The Democratic National Convention, in its socially distanced Zoom infomercial incarnation, was largely aimed at wooing white suburbanites away from Trump, with many citizens expressing repentance for having voted against Hillary Clinton in 2016. The montage tribute to George Floyd and the Black Lives Matter movement was scored to a Bruce Springsteen song. ‘There is no vaccine for racism,’ Kamala Harris said – a good line but not much of a policy proposal. ‘We’ve gotta do the work,’ she continued, the work being a vote for the Biden-Harris ticket. Harris, a former attorney general of California, was painted by the left as a ‘cop’, an image she tried to soften in her own memoir, The Truths We Hold, published last year: ‘When activists came marching and banging on the doors, I wanted to be on the other side to let them in.’ During the convention, it was reported that California was short of firefighters to douse its raging wildfires because its standard practice is to employ prison inmates at a wage of $1.45 an hour, and many of them are sick with coronavirus. It’s a practice Harris upheld as attorney general, with lawyers from her office arguing in court that prisoners shouldn’t be given early parole because they were needed to fight fires. (She has since reversed her position.) Her nomination pleased donors from Wall Street and Silicon Valley – a boon for Biden, who has never been a star fundraiser outside Delaware.
The convention wasn’t short on therapeutic vibes – especially in Michelle Obama’s speech about unity, character and empathy – and had more talk about the logistics of voting than I ever hope to hear again. Barack Obama’s speech was an elaborate guilt trip aimed at non-voters. The highlight reel of Biden’s career focused on his authorship of the 1994 Violence against Women Act and his early support for gay marriage, two of his most admirable accomplishments. His role as architect of the Crime Bill and the Patriot Act – and his abetting of Bush’s gutting of bankruptcy protections, a policy friendly to Delaware’s lenders and cruel to the nation’s borrowers – were not part of the programme.
On the first night of the convention I flipped over to Fox News to watch Trump speaking at a rally in Wisconsin. So often recently a hapless buffoon, he was now in the vicious mode that won him the GOP primaries in 2016 and edged him past Clinton in the electoral college. The Democrats, he said, were ‘insane’ radicals who were going to destroy the country, allies of the looters wrecking America’s cities. Biden was a ‘puppet’ of the radical left. The Democrats would open the borders to hordes of criminals and ruin the American dream by moving low-income housing and crime into the suburbs. Trump was repulsive and rawly racist. The next week the Republican National Convention delivered more of the same, though the president’s own speech, despite its Citizen Kane theatrics, was prolix and dull.
In his acceptance speech, Biden said he would do what Trump had failed to do: protect the country. Of coronavirus he said: ‘I know how it feels to lose someone you love. I know that deep black hole that opens up in your chest. That you feel your whole being is sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.’ I’ll vote for him – ass over tin cup.