Biden’s Holiday From History

The arc of Biden’s public career does not easily align with the Democratic Party’s current mood.

Joe Biden
Nancy Shia / Archive Photos / Getty

This year’s Democratic convention is heavy on biography, light on history. Speaker after speaker has told the story of Joe Biden’s personal life: his working-class roots, his family tragedies, his resilience. The message is that Biden cares about ordinary Americans because he sees their struggles as an echo of his own.

What no speaker has done is put Biden’s personal history in the context of American history. None has explained how the trajectory of his life has intersected with the country’s. For Democrats, that’s unusual. In “The Man From Hope,” the biographical video that played at the 1992 Democratic convention, Bill Clinton said he recited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from memory as a child. He reflected on the fact that the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy “broke the hearts and spirits of millions of people” and “changed a lot of things for my generation.” The implication was clear: As president, Clinton would return America to the path of moral progress it abandoned when those liberal giants died.

In 2004, John Kerry interwove his personal narrative with America’s war in Vietnam. The message was that Kerry was tough and patriotic enough to go to war, but wise enough to keep America out of unwinnable ones—in contrast to George W. Bush. Barack Obama evoked the ’60s in a different way. He cast his interracial parents’ “improbable love” as a testament to their “faith in the possibilities of this nation” at a time when those possibilities seemed bright. And he depicted his decision to become a community organizer during the Reagan era as an homage to the idealism of the decade in which his parents wed.

Like Clinton and Kerry, Biden entered adulthood in the ’60s, so it’s no surprise that in the past he’s linked his biography to the decade’s political struggles. Last summer, Biden told donors at a fundraiser that “I got involved in the civil-rights movement as a kid.”

But that was an exaggeration. In reality, Biden’s early political career was shaped as much by the white backlash against racial integration—a backlash that led Biden to abandon his support of school busing in the mid-’70s—as by the civil-rights movement. A generation ago, when Black Americans enjoyed less influence in the Democratic Party, Biden might have gotten away with depicting himself as a civil-rights champion. After all, Clinton boasted about his lifelong dedication to civil rights at the 1992 convention only months after leaving the campaign trail to execute a mentally disabled Black man.

In this year’s primary, however, Biden faced much greater scrutiny, particularly from two of his Black opponents—Kamala Harris and Cory Booker—who highlighted his opposition to school integration and his friendship with segregationists in an attempt to pry away his Black support. Although Harris and Booker failed to win over most of Biden’s Black voters, they made it impossible for him to portray himself as a child of the civil-rights movement. In fact, Michelle Obama may have subtly gestured to Biden’s problematic history on race Monday night, when she said that “Joe is not perfect” but he has shown the “ability to learn and grow.”

In the past, Biden has tied his biography to Vietnam too. In January, he told supporters that the war was “what got me involved in public life over 50 years ago.” But if Biden’s boosters have avoided his civil-rights record in their convention speeches, they’ve avoided Vietnam as well. One reason may be that Biden, like Donald Trump, evaded military service with multiple draft deferments. Another may be that while Biden opposed the war in Vietnam, he supported the war in Iraq. Which means that on foreign policy, as on race, the arc of Biden’s public career does not easily align with the Democratic Party’s current mood.

The result has been a convention that tells a story about Biden’s life history without situating it in American history. The absence is particularly striking at a moment when advocates for racial justice—by challenging Confederate statues, campaigning for reparations, and describing 1619 as America’s real founding—are giving historical debates new prominence. Last night, Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez offered a glimpse of what it might mean for Democrats to incorporate this historical perspective into their political vision. She called on her party to “repair the wounds of racial injustice,” recognize America’s history of “colonization,” and create “systems of immigrant and foreign policy that turn away from the violence and xenophobia of our past.”

Since Ocasio-Cortez’s favored presidential candidate lost, and because she held the camera for only 90 seconds, some might dismiss her radical rereading of U.S. history as politically irrelevant. But that’s wrong. There’s a reason the Biden campaign hasn’t offered its own historical narrative. It’s because the traditional, bipartisan story line—of America as a nation with a historic and exceptional commitment to freedom— endorsed even by Obama, convinces far fewer Democrats than it once did. Ocasio-Cortez and her allies on the left are offering an alternative. Establishment Democrats can ignore it this week. But they won’t be able to forever.