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Betrayed by Joe Biden: a Personal History

Drawing by Nathaniel St. Clair

Even at age 77, Joe Biden cuts a dashing figure. In 1972, when he was 29 and I was 15, he spoke at my high school in suburban Wilmington Delaware. I practically swooned over the handsome, charismatic young Biden as he spoke passionately about civil rights, environmental protection, womens’ rights and ending the Viet Nam War.  I’d already told my father that I wanted to work for environmental protection and he had assured me that he’d put me on the first train to Montreal if I were drafted for the war that Nixon had promised to end, but instead had escalated.  (My friend Rosemary’s older brother had returned from Viet Nam in a box.)  After hearing Biden, I enthusiastically volunteered to canvass Wilmington for both the presidential candidate George McGovern and Senate candidate Joe Biden.  On Election Day, we knocked on hundreds of doors to get out the vote. Biden’s victory felt like a silver lining to Senator McGovern’s lopsided defeat to Nixon.

Years later, in law school, as we read and discussed Supreme Court cases, Thurgood Marshall emerged as a hero to me.  He’d not only argued and won the Brown v. Board of Education case desegregating schools, during his tenure on the Court, Marshall and his colleagues, Justices Douglas and Brennan, had reshaped the law and our country, bringing to fruition more of the Constitution’s promises of civil rights and upholding newly-enacted environmental laws and regulations that were already under attack by the fossil fuel and chemical industries.  In the Rehnquist era, Marshall’s strongly-worded dissents left hope that the rightward trend of the country and the Court would not endure forever.  I hoped that, as Martin Luther King had said, “The arc of history bends toward justice.”

By September 1991, I was studying at George Washington University for a Master of Laws, specializing in environmental law and I’d taken a position as an enforcement attorney at EPA.  When President George H.W. Bush nominated Clarence Thomas to “replace” my idol, Thurgood Marshall, I was disgusted.  To me, Thomas seemed unfit to even carry Thurgood Marshall’s briefcase.

Apparently, other lawyers agreed.  The American Bar Association rated Clarence Thomas “unqualified,” the first time the ABA had rated any Supreme Court nominee unqualified.  And the press quoted women recounting vulgar and persistent harassment they’d endured from Thomas when he’d served as Chair of the U.S. Equal Opportunity Employment Commission – the very agency charged with eliminating workplace discrimination.

I was encouraged when Biden convened the Senate Judiciary Committee’s confirmation hearing of Thomas.  I expected Biden would fulfil the promises he’d made in numerous campaigns and speeches and at my high school two decades earlier.  The Judiciary Committee seemed to have plenty of ammunition to stop Thomas and force Bush to nominate a more moderate, better-qualified judge who hadn’t abused his power by harassing women.  At Biden’s urging, one of the complainants, Anita Hill, agreed to testify.

Well, the rest, as they say, is history.  Biden didn’t bother to call witnesses from the ABA to explain their “unqualified” rating or other lawyers who’d worked with Thomas.  He didn’t defend Anita Hill from vicious attacks by Republican Senators during the hearing and in the press.  And he didn’t bother to call corroborating witnesses to support her.  When Thomas (predictably) played the race card, describing the Senate hearing as a “high-tech lynching of an uppity black man,” Biden seemed to fold before the cameras.

The consequences of Biden’s ineptitude are profound and enduring.  In case anyone has forgotten, in 2000, Clarence Thomas was one of the five Supreme Court justices who voted to halt the Florida recount.  Arguably, if Biden had done his job, Bush might have been forced to nominate a moderate and more qualified judge who didn’t owe quite so much to the Republican Party.  And maybe a President Gore would have managed to enact climate legislation.

Alas, Biden’s mis-handling of the Thomas hearing is hardly an anomaly.  As chair of the Judiciary Committee, Biden pushed through bankruptcy “reform” over strong recommendations from Harvard law professor Elizabeth Warren, whose research found that consumers got into too much debt primarily because of medical bills, student loans and predatory credit card lending practices along with abusively-high interest rates.  Acting on behalf of his campaign donors at credit card giant MBNA (headquartered in Wilmington, Delaware), Biden ignored Prof. Warren’s recommendations and proceeded to all but eliminate access to Chapter 7 bankruptcy for consumers and families.

Other instances of Biden’s perfidy: As Judiciary chair, he pushed through the “crime bill” in 1994, imposing mandatory sentences for petty drug possession.  The result has been well documented: Mass incarceration, primarily of poor people of color.  And while in recent years he evades this point, Senator Biden voted in support of two wars in the Middle East.

Biden fooled me and others students at A.I. DuPont High School in 1972.  Don’t let him fool you.  While Biden claims to be a champion of the people, his 36-year record reveals a Senator who consistently did the bidding of the powerful and privileged.

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James Handley is an environmental lawyer and climate activist in Washington, DC.

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