Joe Biden was a liberal hero, fighting for birth control, when Maureen Dowd came for him. It was September 1987, and Robert Bork was before the Delaware senator’s Judiciary Committee. Biden was arguing that married couples have a right to privacy; Bork, in Biden’s retelling of the Supreme Court confirmation hearing, defended restrictions based on the “rationality standard in the law.”
Biden writes in his memoir Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics that this exchange was an inflection point. The New York Times—the liberal gold standard—had highlighted the interaction, Biden proudly writes, suggesting it was the first salvo in the destruction of Bork’s Supreme Court nomination.
But Biden, who was at the time running for president, was learning that what the Times gives, it can also take away. Just days before, Dowd, then a star reporter for the paper, had written that the Delaware senator “lifted [Neil] Kinnock’s closing speech with phrases, gestures and lyrical Welsh syntax intact for his own closing speech at a debate at the Iowa State Fair on Aug. 23—without crediting Mr. Kinnock.”
Kinnock, as Dowd described him in her campaign-killing article, was the eloquent British Labor leader whose “passionate speeches, against a cool soundtrack of Brahms, raised his approval rating by 19 points and became an instant classic.”
Biden appropriated this deeply personal speech for his own usage. He even borrowed Kinnock’s coal mining relatives, their love of “football,” and the “platform upon which” Kinnock stood.
The story led others to look into his past, which included accusations of plagiarism from his law school days at Syracuse. Biden intimates in his memoir that both stories may have originated from hardnosed Republicans. And he recounts the near-tearful reaction of his wife Jill: “Of all the things to attack you on. . . . Your integrity?”
Too late—the Washington sharks had noticed “a hint of blood in the water.” And Biden’s ambition to be the next president of the United States would soon be halted.
But of course that was not the last we would hear from him. Biden has remained gainfully employed in Washington, D.C., ever since those heady days nearly 30 years ago. His star rose in the Senate, and he became a leading voice on foreign policy in his party before being selected Barack Obama’s vice president.
In his 2007 book he recounts those events and is even able to praise Dowd, looking back, as a “talented young reporter.” It’s the kind of praise on which relationships are built in Washington, and it’s the kind of relationship that would seem to have served both of them well in their respective careers.
Because here we are, three decades on: The Democratic party is still the party of birth control. Joe Biden is still an ambitious officeholder. Maureen Dowd is still at the New York Times, no longer a talented young reporter but a top columnist, and she’s still playing a major role in Biden’s life.
In an emotional column last week, Dowd did the opposite of her 1987 article: She effectively put Joe Biden into a presidential race.
The column was raw and emotional. It was filled with details of the dying wish of Biden’s son, Beau, who succumbed in May to brain cancer.
“ ‘Dad, I know you don’t give a damn about money,’ Beau told him, dismissing the idea that his father would take some sort of cushy job after the vice presidency to cash in,” Dowd writes. “Beau was losing his nouns and the right side of his face was partially paralyzed. But he had a mission: He tried to make his father promise to run, arguing that the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.”
The column presented a very different Joe Biden, a likable, selfless father who may run for president to carry out the dying wish of his son.
Selflessness may not be needed, though, since Biden would have a decent chance of winning, should he decide to run. A sitting vice president has never in modern times failed to win his party’s nomination. In addition, Biden, as vice president, has earned a tremendous amount of goodwill from some of the president’s most loyal supporters.