Joe Biden’s Non-Radical 1960s

Trump has called Biden a tool of leftist agitators. Friends say that has never much been his way, even as a young man surrounded by protest.

As a young man, and as a student at the University of Delaware, Joseph R. Biden Jr., settled into the polished but unpretentious identity that would become his political brand.Credit…Biden Campaign

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By Matt Flegenheimer and Katie Glueck

Joseph R. Biden Jr. marched into adulthood in Bass Weejuns penny loafers.

He was known around the University of Delaware campus as the teetotaling semi-jock with a sweater around his neck — the type who seemed more consumed with date nights than civil rights and expected a certain standard of decorum from his companions, once threatening to break off an evening with a woman who lit a cigarette in his borrowed convertible.

And when Mr. Biden and his friends at Syracuse University law school happened upon antiwar protesters storming the chancellor’s office — the kind of Vietnam-era demonstration that galvanized so much of their generation — his group stepped past with disdain. They were going for pizza.

More than a half-century later, as Mr. Biden seeks the White House with a pledge to soothe the nation’s wounds and lower its collective temperature, he has been left to deflect a curious charge at the center of President Trump’s re-election effort: Mr. Biden, the president insists, is eager to do the far-left bidding of violent agitators and other assorted radicals.

“They’ve got you wrapped around their finger, Joe,” Mr. Trump taunted at their first debate.

Mr. Biden, a 77-year-old moderate who cites John Wayne movies and long-dead Senate peers, has generally defaulted to a visceral defense: Look at me.

“Ask yourself,” he implored voters in a recent address. “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?”

He does not now, friends from his youth say, and he did not then — in spite of, and perhaps partly because of, the decade in which he came of age.

Amid simmering protests, generational division and defining disputes about the course of American life, Mr. Biden was a young man keen on bringing a bit of a 1950s sensibility into the 1960s — a nice-house-on-a-cul-de-sac kind of guy who spent his weekends as a 20-something husband scouting available real estate from his Corvette.

There is a version of these years that Mr. Biden prefers to share publicly: how he was captivated by the civil rights movement, coming to understand the racial divide as a teenage lifeguard in a Black neighborhood of Wilmington, Del.; how he was brokenhearted by the murder of his heroes, Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers; how he was motivated chiefly by an altruistic call to service.

If much of this accounting is plainly true in the abstract, those who knew him say, it also elides some finer points of Mr. Biden’s arc: his boundless personal ambition, his canny relationship-building as a political novice and, quite often, his conspicuous psychic distance from the activist fervor of the times as he plotted a path to office.

“He had other priorities,” Gilbert J. Sloan, a longtime supporter who was active in Delaware’s 1960s protest movements, said of Mr. Biden’s outlook then. “He was very young and ambitious.”

A review of how Mr. Biden navigated this period of national upheaval — drawn from interviews with more than a dozen friends, classmates and others who have known the Democratic nominee across the decades — at once lays bare the implausibility of Mr. Trump’s attack and supplies an enduring window into Mr. Biden’s own theories of social movements. Incremental progress is still progress, he has long believed, and within-the-system change is still change.

If today’s activists have at times viewed Mr. Biden skeptically through this season of unrest, questioning whether he can connect with the passion in the streets when he has rarely shown passion in the streets himself, his early history would appear to reinforce their doubts.

This is a man whose institutionalist instincts seemed to harden even before he belonged to any political institutions — and who has never shown much patience for protests that turn destructive or unruly.

“That’s the way he views activism,” said Bob Markel, a friend since the 1950s. “Occupying an office of a dean or something like that is not his style.”

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