At the time of writing, Joe Biden is around forty days into his tenure as 46th president of the USA. Anyone who becomes US president is interesting simply on account of the fact that they have managed to achieve that position. Biden is less charismatic than Obama and not as dynamic was Kennedy but is certainly much less stupid than Trump. This quick, readable biography offers the perfect opportunity for curious readers to brush up and gain some basic knowledge of the new guy.
He has been around for a while. He is seventy-eight years old, older than any of predecessors in that office and older today than four of the five living former US presidents, Clinton, Bush, Obama and the defeated Trump. It is widely suspected that he only plans to serve one term, leaving Vice President Kamala Harris as the strong favourite to win the Democratic nomination in 2024. If he does manage to serve two terms, Biden will be eighty-seven by the time he leaves office in January 2029.
He is undeniably a member of the political establishment. He was elected as the sixth youngest senator in US history as far back as 1972. He was thus a senator at the time of the Watergate scandal. His first bid for the presidency was launched as long ago as 1987. His rivals for the Democratic nomination then included such long ago vanished political figures as Michael Dukakis, Jesse Jackson and Gary Hart. Biden’s own ambitions were undermined by claims he allegedly plagarised a speech by British Labour leader, Neil Kinnock, never a well-known figure in the United States.
The upside of all this is that Biden is very experienced, an attribute his now disgraced immediate predecessor so clearly lacked. Biden has had a long and successful career as senator and two terms as Barack Obama’s Vice President.
Tragedy has been a recurrent feature of his life. His first wife and one-year-old daughter were both killed in a car accident only weeks before he was first sworn in as a senator. His son, Beau, died of cancer in 2015, aged 46. Biden himself was almost felled by aneurysm when he was in his forties.
He is the only the second Roman Catholic to become president and the first former vice president to rise to the top job since George HW Bush in 1989. Even a year ago, Biden’s chances of winning the presidency looked doubtful. However, in November, he won, achieving more votes than any other candidate in US history and crucially comfortably beating Trump in the electoral college.
This is not a hagiography. Biden’s occasional lapses – his gaffes and occasional failure to support progressive causes – are not glossed over. But with American politics potentially entering a more compassionate and progressive phase after the unhappy turmoil of the previous four years, this offers a concise and readable insight into the newest resident at the White House.
Book review: Joe Biden – American Dreamer, by Evan Osnos. Published by Bloomsbury.
There are many ways to lose the presidency whether you’re fighting a primary or battling for the ultimate prize itself in the November general election. These are just some of them…
Cry (Ed Muskie, 1972)
Public crying has played well for both Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama more recently but when Muskie appeared to weep over allegations about his wife’s drinking, he soon lost his status as the Democratic front-runner. Ultimately, the victim of a dirty tricks campaign by the Nixon camp, Muskie denied crying, saying reporters had mistaken snow melting on his face for tears.
Lose your temper (Bob Dole, 1988)
Dole snarled that his opponent George HW Bush should “quit lying about my record” after losing a Republican primary. Dole looked like a sore loser and his campaign never recovered. He later won the nomination in 1996, losing comfortably to President Bill Clinton.
Scream (Howard Dean, 2004)
Although he was probably on his way out anyway, Dean’s hysterical “I had a scream” speech which ended with a Kermit the frog-style note of hysteria ended his prospects of getting the Democratic nomination. John Kerry got it instead and subsequently lost to George W. Bush in November.
Fail to answer a simple question (Gary Hart, 1984)
Democrat Hart (of later sex scandal fame) proved unable to explain why he had changed his surname from Gary Hartpence. In 1980, Democratic Senator Edward Kennedy floundered desperately when he was asked the most basic question, during a TV interview: why do you want to be president?
Be inadvertently racist (H. Ross Perot, 1992)
The Texan billionaire independent offended a largely black audience by referring to them repeatedly as “you people” throughout a campaign speech.
Terrify everyone (Barry Goldwater, 1964)
The Republican nominee’s open extremism and apparent enthusiasm for nuclear weapons led him to lose by a record margin. “In your heart, you know he’s right” his campaign claimed. “In your guts, you know he’s nuts” countered his opponents.
Have an affair (Gary Hart, 1988)
Recovering from his 1984 failure, Hart enjoyed a 30% lead over his nearest rival and was the clear favourite to succeed Reagan until allegations of infidelity with model Donna Hart emerged. Hart initially denied meeting her until photos emerged of her sitting on his lap. Hart then withdrew from the campaign, then re-entered it later, totally sabotaging his own career in the process.
Skeletons in the closet (George HW Bush 1992, George W. Bush 2000)
A last minute recovery for President Bush against Bill Clinton stalled after allegations over his role in the Iran-Contra affair re-emerged. Later, his son was harmed by a last minute revelation over a 1979 drink driving incident during the closing stages of the very close 2000 campaign.
Picture: 43rd US president, George W. Bush and his father, the 41st president, George H.W Bush)
“Steal” a speech (Joe Biden, 1988)
Obama’s future vice president (and 2020’s current Democratic front-runner) withdrew after striking similarities were spotted between a campaign speech he delivered and one which had been made by British Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).
Ignore all attacks (Michael Dukakis, 1988)
When the Bush campaign cast doubt on the Democratic nominee’s mental health, Dukakis refused to sink to their level. Unfortunately, by the time he did release his records (which revealed a clean bill of health), the damage to his campaign had already been done.
(Picture: Future 2004 nominee John Kerry, ex-1980 candidate Ted Kennedy and 1988 nominee, Michael Dukakis)
Insult your rivals (Bush, 1992)
“My dog Millie knows more about foreign policy than these two bozos,” President Bush said of Clinton and Gore late in 1992. The “bozos” bit went down very badly with voters. Clinton’s lead grew by around five percent just before election day.
(Picture: 1992 debaters: Democratic nominee and eventual winner, Bill Clinton, Independent Ross Perot and the incumbent President Bush).
Be too honest (Walter Mondale, 1984, Michael Dukakis, 1988)
Both these Democratic nominees admitted taxes would have to increase substantially to tackle Reagan’s huge escalating deficit. Bush in 1988 was much less frank “read my lips – no new taxes” but won. Taxes went up dramatically soon afterwards (Picture: Walter Mondale in 1984)
Insult women (Mitt Romney, 2012)
The Republican nominee referred to “binders full of women” he could choose from for his cabinet. This played badly.
Rely too heavily on your war record (John Kerry, 2004)
This backfired when several campaign groups began casting doubt over the Democratic nominee’s Vietnam War heroism which had been contrasted with Bush’s decision to join the state National Guard (a classic draft dodging tactic) and Vice President Cheney’s decision to duck out of the war altogether.
Run against your own party’s incumbent (Eugene McCarthy, 1968, Ronald Reagan, 1976, Ted Kennedy, 1980, Pat Buchanan, 1992)
This has never worked, although McCarthy undoubtedly made history by prompting President Johnson’s withdraw from the 1968 contest. Reagan also undoubtedly enhanced his credentials for a future run by challenging President Ford. Four years later, Reagan ran again and won.
(Picture: Eugene McCarthy in 1968)
Pick the wrong running-mate (George McGovern, 1972, John McCain, 2008)
The McGovern campaign was thrown into chaos when running-mate Thomas Eagleton had to be replaced. John McCain’s campaign was similarly undermined when Sarah Palin’s intellectual shortcomings became too obvious to ignore. Oddly, however, Bush’s disastrous choice of Dan Quayle in 1988 seemed to do him little real harm.
Screw up the TV debate
Notably Richard Nixon in 1960.
Insult 47% of the electorate (Mitt Romney, 2012)
“There are 47 percent of the people who will vote for the president no matter what … who are dependent upon government, who believe that they are victims. … These are people who pay no income tax. … and so my job is not to worry about those people. I’ll never convince them that they should take personal responsibility and care for their lives.”
Mitt Romney, remarks at private fundraiser. Ironically, he ended up losing having received 47% of the vote.
Get paranoid (H. Ross Perot, 1992)
The independent candidate accused the Bush camp of trying to sabotage his daughter’s wedding by labelling her a lesbian.
Make huge factual errors in public (Gerald Ford, 1976)
“There is no Soviet domination in Eastern Europe and there never will be under a Ford Administration.” President Ford made this absurd claim in the 1976 TV debate. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he went on to lose narrowly to Jimmy Carter. (Picture: 1976 Democratic nominee and eventual winner, Jimmy Carter debating President Ford).
“Win” (Al Gore, 2000)
Few election results look more dubious than the 2000 one. Despite plenty of evidence to the contrary, the Supreme Court declared George W. Bush not Al Gore the winner.
It’s about George HW Bush (or as he was known then “George Bush”). That is, The Boring One.
Like episodes of the US sitcom Friends, US presidents can be easily identified in this way. There’s The Corrupt One Who Resigned, The Cool One Who Got Shot, The One Who Couldn’t Walk and many more. The only downside is there are too many eligible for the title The Stupid One.
To be fair the first Mr Bush was not actually stupid. This makes him unique along with Eisenhower amongst post-war US Republican presidents in being neither stupid nor a crook.
“What’s wrong with being a boring kinda guy?” he admitted and he had a point. You can’t have two Nixons, two Reagans or two Clintons in a row. You need someone dull in between. In Britain, we went for the similarly nice but dull John Major around this time. Two Thatchers in a row would have finished us off.
It was also a sensitive time on the international stage. Someone like Reagan or the second Bush would have been a disaster in the delicate period which saw the Berlin Wall come down, the USSR collapse, Apartheid end in South Africa and UN forces liberate Kuwait. Someone like George W Bush would have ignored the UN and escalated the war disastrously into Iraq without any thought as to the likely consequences. In fact, later on he did just that.
The 1988 elections did grab my interest though. I was only eleven and I hadn’t even noticed that the nation which had produced Garbage Pail Kid stickers had elections before. The large number of contenders involved grabbed my interest. It also didn’t hurt that British politics looked fairly dull at the time with Thatcher looking invincible as she approached a full decade in power.
I was less partisan then and thus more detached. The Republicans were torn between Bush and grumpy old Bob Dole who lost support after snarling that the Veep should “quit lying about his record” something that made him look like a sore loser after a primary defeat. There were others. Evangelist Pat Robertson represented the Religious Right lunatic fringe. The fact that Rupert Murdoch backed him tells us two things: one, that Murdoch wielded very little influence in the US back then. Another that Murdoch contrary to myth does not back winners, just people who share his own reactionary views.
Who would oppose Bush? The Democrats were unkindly referred to as the “seven dwarves”, a funny reference even though there were actually more than seven of them and they were not all short.
Michael Dukakis (in fact, only 5 ft. 6) emerged as the nominee. People don’t tend to remember presidential election losers and while I’m sure many Americans remember him, I doubt many Britons do. “Duke” is even less famous than many of those who opposed him in the primaries. Jesse Jackson, his main opponent for the nomination, came closer to the presidency than any other black man before Obama. Al Gore similarly is the only man to have won the US presidency (in 2000) and not actually become president. Another contender was Joe Biden who is in fact Obama’s Vice President today. Biden withdrew after it turned out one of his speeches had been stolen from one by Labour leader Neil Kinnock (an unknown figure in the US).
Early favourite Gary Hart meanwhile earned eternal notoriety for his spectacular fall from grace in a sex scandal, something that apparently discouraged Arkansas governor Bill Clinton from running until 1992.
Dukakis looked like a strong candidate at first leading the privileged unexciting Bush by around 15% in the summer. His rhetoric was Kennedy-esque. His running mate Lloyd Bentsen also memorably smashed Bush’s disastrous choice of vice president Dan Quayle in the TV debates destroying him with the words “You’re no Jack Kennedy.”
But Dukakis, though in some ways a better man than Bush, was undeniably a weaker candidate, slow to respond to often unfair attacks and lambasted for his controversial opinions on the death penalty (he opposed it) and “liberalism” by this point an insult in the US political lexicon.
Bush seemed to offer a continuation of the Reagan boom years and a continuation of the tax cuts better off Americans had enjoyed. “Read my lips. No new taxes” Bush intoned, probably the most famous thing he ever said. He was foolish to promise it. Thanks to Reagan, the deficit was already woefully out of control. Bush would soon introduce the second biggest tax increase in US history. And by then there would be a recession.
How closely did I follow all this as an eleven year old in Peterborough in 1988? Not THAT closely. I had other distractions: a school trip to Pwllheli in Wales, youth club, the difficult transition from junior to secondary school, reading Douglas Adams books, riding my BMX, a family holiday to the Netherlands, reading, writing and drawing comics, watching Neighbours, seeing Who Framed Roger Rabbit at the cinema, experiencing the first stirrings of adolescence.
But my interest in US politics had begun. Both Dukakis and Bush are retired now and in advanced old age. If you want to see them now, they appear on TV briefly in the opening minutes of the 2001 film Donnie Darko.