I just listened to Joe Biden’s seventeen-and-a-half minute 2003 eulogy for his political friend Strom Thurmond, the former Dixiecrat segregationist from South Carolina who became a Republican in 1964. It’s clear Biden liked the man, who he worked closely with to pass crime bills in the early 1980s. As Thurmond’s replacement as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden went on to push the now-controversial bill he proudly touts as “the 1994 Biden Crime Bill.” This is the bill about which, in 2015, former President Bill Clinton told an NAACP convention concerned about the mass incarceration of African Americans: “I signed a bill that made the problem worse. And I want to admit it.” According to a 2015 NY Times story, “Today, about 2.2 million Americans are locked up in federal and state prisons and local jails, twice as many as when Mr. Clinton took office.”
Biden’s long eulogy is full of warmth and wit and, for a liberal like Biden, driven by a spirit of forgiveness and, more important, a pragmatic sense of political synthesis between the dead man’s racist past and what Biden claims as his political mission, the pursuit of civil rights. He had been asked by Thurmond himself to give it. The problem is, when we forgive past shortcomings or evils in order to get over hurdles to make change possible so we can move on to better things, there needs to be true atonement, or it can’t work. And even if one argues that Strom Thurmond in old age was ready to atone in some way and to really move on, it’s crystal clear from the current state of Thurmond’s chosen Republican Party — still notorious for its cynical Nixonian “southern strategy” — that honest atonement is far from the order of the day; that, in fact, a dishonest, dog-whistle reanimation of that racist past is still alive in the heart of Thurmond’s Republican Party.
In 1981, when Biden and Thurmond began to work together, Thurmond, who had been in politics since 1933, may have become a kindly old man with very real personal desires to atone. And the savvy, new Senator Joe Biden, 40 years his junior, may have figured out how to exploit those personal issues in order to accomplish legislation he found advantageous to his own and Democratic power needs. But this is 2019, and in the current political environment, Joe Biden’s clearly documented instincts for appeasing the conservative right to juice-up eroding Democratic power would be a coward’s way of regaining power. What’s needed is a new, courageous and pragmatic vision.
I don’t hate Joe Biden; he seems a very personable man, someone this nobody would have no problem sitting down with to have that proverbial beer — as long as I was able to speak my mind and candidly tell him why I feel he’d be a terrible choice for president of the United States right now.
I had a very memorable one-on-one exchange in the 1990s with Senator Biden when I worked as a staff photographer in the PR department of a university. One day, Biden came to speak about the Drug War. I took a half-dozen shots of him to fulfill my duties, then sat down to listen, since the topic was one I was interested in. I’d traveled in Central America as a documentary photographer during the Reagan wars; I’d worked for years feeding the homeless at night in the alleys of Philadelphia; I’d photographed a controversial needle exchange program in North Philly, and I’d read a lot about drug issues like harm reduction programs and other well-researched and documented alternatives to the Drug War. Like many others, I saw the issue in terms of supply and demand and questioned the focus of using our military, police, courts and prisons in places like Latin America to attack the supply — while failing miserably to address the demand at home. By the late 1980s, the Drug War seemed to be an abject failure. As I listened to Biden, all this rumbled around in my head. Given my role as PR photographer for the university, I hesitated. But then I raised my hand. I was sitting at the end of the second row in the middle section of seats in the auditorium. Biden pointed at me and walked slowly in my direction.
“Sir, I was wondering what you thought of the alternative options to our drug problem, things like harm reduction and the de-criminalization of drugs. Is there a better way to address the drug problem?”
His slow pace turned into a darting movement, and he was quickly right in front of me with that charming, slightly wry, wide Biden grin. He pointed right at my face as he looked out at the audience.
“This fellah thinks he’s smart!” he said, as if the remark was a left jab. “He cleverly uses the term to de-criminalize drugs — when what he really wants is to make the stuff legal.”
I forget the rest. All I remember was standing there like a jerk. A while back, I’d given Pennsylvania Senator John Heinz some lip at the Germantown Public Library for not answering my question and he’d threatened to have security throw me out. I’m sure Biden had figured out I was the university’s flak photographer and that he had me by the you-know-whats — which he did. I liked my job, so I took his crap and sat down with not one bit of my question addressed.
So, while I don’t hate Joe Biden, I do have a visceral disrespect for what seems his inclination to compromise with entrenched power at the expense of justice. The more I learned of Biden over the years, the more I began to understand his reaction to my question. I had unknowingly kicked his favorite pet schnauzer, and his nature was to make an ad-hominem attack.
It’s not news that Biden is vulnerable to criticism for his crime legislation and its impact on the US prison population that has risen 500% since he began his legislative efforts with Thurmond in 1981. According to The Sentencing Project, “Changes in sentencing law and policy, not changes in crime rates, explain most of this increase.” Also, as the senator from the corporate state of Delaware, his intimacy with the credit card industry is worth investigating; as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation hearing for Clarence Thomas, there are questions about his leadership; and there’s the fact he voted in 2002 to authorize the Bush invasion of Iraq.
Young Liberal Charms an Aging Segregationist
How did Joe Biden end up so close to Strom Thurmond? In Crime & Politics: Big Government’s Erratic Campaign for Law and Order, Ted Gest tells how an ambitious Senator Biden used crime, police and prison bills to get the Democrats back in the game after the election of Ronald Reagan devastated his party.
A too-decent President Carter goes down in ignominious defeat and Reagan is elected. Distressed Democrats face a bleak political future. According to Gest, this was in concert with “a broad conservative thrust to turn the criminal law to the right” that “ended up crystallizing into a highly debatable campaign to extend prison terms, especially for drug-law violations.” (In the end, Gest notes, this thrust did little to solve the nation’s crime problem, “which worsened during the decade, especially in its second half.”)
Biden had been on the Church Committee looking into the US intelligence apparatus. From this experience, according to Gest, he came up with the idea that “crime should be viewed as a form of domestic security.” In an “aggressive manner,” he began to “put crime in a defense context — getting the armed forces involved in drug interdiction,” a posture that repelled some liberal senators. “‘Give me the crime issue,’ Biden would plead repeatedly to Democratic Party caucuses, one staff member recalled, ‘and you’ll never have trouble with it in an election.’”
Senator Thurmond of South Carolina was the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Biden visited Thurmond and made him an offer: The South Carolina senator should work with Biden on issues they agreed on and ignore those they didn’t agree on. Based on an interview with Biden, Gest learned that Biden told Thurmond: “‘If you do that, I promise that I will never embarrass you by publicly taking you on.’” Thus, in 1981, a seed was planted that led to the birth and growth of nearly two decades of bipartisan crime bills.
I gleaned through Biden’s 2007 memoir, Promises To Keep, looking for references to any of this. He writes of being named in 1977 to the Senate Judiciary Committee and how “I wanted to start working up legislation to make our streets safer and the criminal justice system fairer.” He writes that there had been “so many mistakes” that “started in the best of intentions” stretching back to the Progressive era. He writes that, “In the summer of 1983 I was trying to fashion a message to reinvigorate the Democratic Party, not so I could run for president but to push back at the ungenerous policies of the current [Reagan] administration.”
In The New Jim Crow, Michelle Alexander calls Biden, “one of the Senate’s most strident drug warriors.” In a televised response to a Bush Senior speech in 1989, Biden said: “Quite frankly, the President’s plan is not tough enough, bold enough, or imaginative enough to meet the crisis at hand. In a nutshell, the President’s plan does not include enough police officers to catch the violent thugs, enough prosecutors to convict them, enough judges to sentence them, or enough prison cells to put them away for a long time.” While President Clinton made an effort to atone for his contribution to mass incarceration, Biden continues to play the tough guy on crime — still often taking pride in being tougher than Republicans on the issue.
In a highly critical piece titled “Joe Biden, Mass Incarceration Zealot” in Jacobin magazine, Branko Marcetic writes this: “It’s not as if Biden didn’t know what he was doing. He had criticized Reagan in 1981 for insisting on harsher sentences, arguing that prisons were already overcrowded and calling for alternative sentencing for non-violent offenders. He just didn’t care. Biden had made a calculated decision that the elections he would win were worth the damage he inflicted.” Marcetic writes about what must be the epitome of Drug War craziness, the RAVE Act — or the Reducing Americans’ Vulnerability to Ecstasy Act of 2002 that Biden pushed hard. According to Marcetic, “It held concert promoters responsible for any drug use at events and treated objects like water bottles and glow sticks as drug paraphernalia. To get the bill passed, Biden re-introduced it numerous times, including once by slipping it into an unrelated bill that created the Amber Alert system. The years that followed saw heavily armed SWAT teams storming raves filled with bewildered, dancing kids — or sometimes DEA agents simply shutting down events that were neither raves nor involved any drug use.” (As a parenthetical note, like marijuana, studies have shown that ecstasy can be effective with combat soldiers wracked with PTSD.)
Joe Reaches For Bipartisan Nirvana
The final chapter of my saga of Joe Biden occurred in the evening on Veterans Day, November 11, when Biden agreed to award George W. and Laura Bush something called the Liberty Medal in a large tent outside the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia. I was with a group of disgruntled Americans outside the tent using their First Amendment rights to holler, “Shame! Shame! Shame!” as loud as they could. There were a number of Iraq combat veterans. My wife, Lou Ann Merkle, was moved to be there because she served seven days in federal prison for protesting Mr. Bush’s decision outside the federal courthouse in Philadelphia on the day of his shock-and-awe bombing of the highly populated city of Baghdad. And my good friend Celeste Zappala was there; her son Sherwood Baker was killed searching for Mr. Bush’s weapons-of-mass-destruction that didn’t exist. At a Washington Press Corp dinner Bush had memorably turned his misguided search for WMD into a joke video in which he’s seen looking under desks and saying, “Hmm. No WMD here!” Since I had come with my press pass, I was allowed into the event, where, as it turned out, I did some coaching by cell phone with my colleagues outside so they could be heard better. RT, formerly Russia Today, a Russian government-paid TV news channel, did a fantastic story on the event. (To watch the entire shameful hour honoring Bush click here.) As a Vietnam veteran and journalist who made two crazy trips by SUV into Baghdad during Bush’s war and who knows a number of antiwar Iraq veterans, some living with serious PTSD, part of the shame of an event like this is that it takes a foreign TV unit to extend credibility to responsible citizens in a supposed democracy who find this kind of power worshiping event obnoxious.
But there was Joe Biden praising George W. Bush for all the great things he’s done for wounded Iraq War veterans, things like holding BBQs and a book of primitive paintings of wounded vets he’d met, though, as a believer in the cathartic power of art, I would not discount the personal atonement aspect of making those paintings, even the one of his toes in the bathtub. As I pointed out in passing to the Action News anchor prepping to do his story, the wounded vets Bush was touted for working so hard for would not have been wounded if Bush (with Dick Cheney whispering in his ear) hadn’t chosen to blunder into Iraq. For anyone with any sense of honesty or compassion who has thought about the 2003 decision to go to war in Iraq, how can it be possible to award George W. Bush something called The Liberty Medal at the National Constitution Center — a medal designed to recognize “men and women of courage and conviction who have strived to secure the blessings of liberty to people around the globe”? Others who got the medal include Muhammad Ali, Malala Yousalza, John Lewis and the Dalai Lama. I mean, really! I wouldn’t “lock him up” for what is now seen across party lines as an unnecessary and destructive foreign policy debacle or for the suffering his decision caused — and is still causing — so many Americans and Iraqis. But if justice matters at all, I damn sure wouldn’t give him a medal on Veterans Day.
So what was Joe Biden doing there? Why would Joe Biden honor the man who gave us the debacle in Iraq, which in Anbar Province west of Baghdad contributed to the rise of ISIS, a psychopathic reaction force with the come-back potential of a Frankenstein sequel? It’s a no-brainer for me: I submit Joe Biden was just being Joe Biden, following what has been for him a very successful pattern. It worked back in 1981 when Reagan sucked all the oxygen out of the room; why can’t it work now when Democrats are on the ropes again? I imagine Biden (who, by the way, is chairman of the National Constitution Center’s Board of Trustees) would argue that to defeat Trump (let’s not forget he has said he’s the man to do it) it’s smart politics to make a friend of someone like George W. Bush. Like an aging racist with power might be open for some easy public atonement, Biden may have calculated that a scorned George W. Bush might be in need of some gentle, loving public resurrection. Why not help him out? And at the same time raise his national bipartisan cred.
It’s pure Biden.
Finally, there’s Joe Biden, the fictional crime-fighter. A writer named Andrew Shaffer has penned a crime novel called Hope Never Dies, in which Joe joins up with his pal Barrack to solve the murder of Joe’s favorite Amtrak conductor. I’ve read a few pages and it’s a well-written example of the light and fluffy crime genre. The following is from page 81: “I didn’t need a gun. I wanted a gun. Instead I pulled out my presidential Medal of Freedom.” I’m not aware of any connections between Shaffer and the Biden campaign or if Shaffer is writing a sequel. Maybe we’ll soon see Joe Biden, Vampire Hunter in which he teams up with Bush. Donald Trump has shown the overlap of pop culture and politics, so these days you never know.
Joe Biden is a very personable, very savvy politician who has suffered a number of family tragedies. But so have too many African American families caught on the wrong side of his drive for power via crime-bills. The same goes for Americans and Iraqi families and his voting for the Iraq War. This might be forgivable with the proper atonement, but publicly sucking up to the man who gave us that needless, cruel war is a bad sign. Too often when a reform wave comes along those of poor and modest means who were caught in the vice that led to the need for reform don’t get the relief they deserve or what’s implied in the reformist rhetoric. The legacy of the vice’s grip still retains a hold on them, while the powerful find a way to repackage themselves and go on to bigger and better things. I’ve worked on prison issues for 20 years and I feel this in my gut all the time.
So please, Joe, don’t turn the 2020 presidential campaign into race for the safe center. Find the guts to write an honest book that tells us the hard truths about American politics. Then support someone ready and able to lead America to a better place.