So Biden was counting on his role as the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee in the forthcoming Bork hearings to propel him into the spotlight, and in Kinnock’s speech he found a message that seemed to resonate with voters. He used it several times that summer in New Hampshire, attributing the words to Kinnock.
“He was a very competitive candidate,” says Bill Carrick, a veteran Democratic campaign strategist who was then working for a Biden rival, Representative Richard Gephardt of Missouri. “He was moving in Iowa in polling, raising money and attracting the support of major fundraisers.”
Then, in his closing statement in a candidate debate at the Iowa State Fair, Biden channeled Kinnock’s words—and inflections and gestures and, seemingly, Kinnock’s whole life—as his own, without attribution. He would later explain that he’d been distracted by preparations for the Bork hearings, was rushed and not thinking, and moved by a woman in the front row with tears streaming down her face. An aide warned Biden of his lapse in real time. He could have, he would later ruefully recall, instantly corrected it, with reporters still standing by. But he did not, and the damage was done.
That’s because Schneider not only had given the Kinnock tape to Biden (and had shown it to another up-and-coming Democrat named Bill Clinton), but had passed it on to Jack Beatty, then his editor at this magazine. Beatty in turn gave it to a friend in Boston, John Sasso, the chief strategist for another Biden rival, Governor Michael Dukakis of Massachusetts, Schneider recalled. Sasso then sent a tape of the two speeches side by side to Maureen Dowd of The New York Times, whose damning front-page story appeared September 12 under the headline “Biden’s Debate Finale: An Echo From Abroad,” and the rest is history.
Soon, reporters were asking about other passages in Biden’s speeches, lifted without apparent attribution from Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, and about his long-ago failure in law school at Syracuse University to properly cite a source, an “academic mistake,” as he called it, that led to his flunking a course. Biden had explanations—even reasonable ones—but they were lost in the din of a media maelstrom. The New York Times’ William Safire branded him “Plagiarizing Joe.” His sons wanted him to stay in the race, worried that he might leave politics forever if he quit, but his own mother told him he had to drop out, and he did.
In her 2019 memoir, Where the Light Enters, Biden’s wife, Jill, remembered crying alone in her bedroom behind closed doors, and wrote that for her husband, the controversy “was not only politically damaging, it was personally devastating.”
Paradoxically, it may be the very scars from that searing experience—and from other tragedies and disappointments in Biden’s life, including the deaths of his first wife and daughter and of his firstborn son, Beau—that are helping Biden now.