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.
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.
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 American 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.