Election year 2016 was like no other year in American history, but it was 2015 that left its mark on the life and the heart of former Vice President Joe Biden. He was at the Los Angeles Times’ Ideas Exchange last week to talk about his book “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose,” the year of the illness and death of his son Beau, and of his long debate with himself about running for president.
As you dealt with your son’s illness, and tried to keep it private, you were also weighing whether to run for president.
I had planned on running before Beau got sick. I have great respect for Hillary [Clinton]. She would have made a hell of a president. But I thought I was far and away the most qualified person to finish the job Barack [Obama] and I started.
When Beau got sick, Beau was absolutely insistent that I not let anybody know. The people who had begun to organize for me, if I had told them, “Stop,” they would have known we didn’t expect Beau to live. So this developed into people thinking the reason I wasn’t running [was] because I was worried about Hillary.
When Clinton told you privately in early 2015 that she was running, you wrote, “She didn’t evince much joy at the prospect of running. She seemed to me like a person propelled by forces not entirely of her own making.” What were those forces?
I didn’t feel sorry for her, but I felt a little sad. Because she knew how brutal this was going to be. She’d been there before. She knew what she was going to go through — not that she couldn’t win, but it was going to be awful. And everybody thinks Hillary has this overwhelming ambition. I don’t see her that way. I saw her as a woman who thought it was her responsibility to run. A woman who knew that if she didn’t run, she’d be letting down millions of women around the world. She wouldn’t say this, but other people thought that was her manifest destiny. So this was nothing she was looking forward to.
It takes enormous courage. And I think Hillary would be able to die a happy woman never having been president of the United States. It wasn’t like this burning thing she had to do. Maybe earlier on it was. But I thought she felt an obligation. She knows all this, and she was ready to go do it. That’s what I meant.
You turned down Barack Obama when he first asked you about being his running mate, but your family — including your son Beau and your mother — had other ideas.
I never wanted to be vice president. I thought I could help [Obama] most [as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee], so I told him no. He said, ”I need an answer now,”and I told him no. Then he said, “Go home and talk it over with your family.” So we called a family meeting and to my great surprise everyone thought I should run, particularly Beau and [wife] Jill. I looked over at my mom and said, “Honey, you haven’t said anything.” And she said, “Remember I asked you about a month ago what Barack Obama was like? You said he’s a man of real character and you liked him.” I said, “Yeah, Mom.” She said, “Joey, let me get this straight — the first black man in American history who has a chance to be president, who says he needs you to win Pennsylvania, Ohio and Florida, and you told him no?” I said, “Dammit, Mom!” So I said yes. It turned out to be the best decision I ever made, but I really didn’t want to do it.
You and President Obama were so close that he joked that there were places in Indiana that wouldn’t serve the two of you pizza any more. What do you think as you’re watching the effort to dismantle the administration’s legacy?
We both worry about it. The most fundamental things we did, [President Trump] can’t dismantle. He can hurt the progress on same-sex marriage. He can try to dismantle the civil rights effort. But the American people have crossed the Rubicon on these things. This will be able to snap back. A lot of damage will be done in the meantime.
What I worry most about is the conduct of foreign policy. Unrelated to whatever idiosyncratic things bother us about him, he came to the office with no background whatsoever in this area. I worry about what he’ll do by omission almost as almost as hard as what he’ll do by commission. And I don’t think he fully realizes how consequential the words of a president are. The whole world listens. And it matters.
[New York Times columnist] David Brooks talks about this invisible moral fabric that holds up and gives buoyancy to our democratic system. My worry is that, as he says, it’s being rent, it’s being ripped apart by presidential actions.
And they’re not legislative in nature. I never thought I’d live to see the day when you’d see people literally coming out of fields with lighted torches, carrying Nazi flags, chanting the same anti-Semitic bile used in Hitler’s Germany. And those who countered them being told they were the moral equivalent of these folks. It gives license to the most unappealing aspects of humanity to crawl out from under the rocks.
What has been the unrelenting systemic attack for two years, coming from the alt-right? Going after the guys in the striped shirts, the referees: the press and the courts. That has been the history of the demise of every democracy in Europe from the late 19th century through the 20th. There’s a lot at stake and it’s less [Trump’s] policies than it is this abuse of power. And the American public’s not going to stand for it.
Would you assess the last year — the Trump year?
He should simply just grow up. Stop focusing everything through the prism of “me, me.” it is dangerous. And the damage that he’s doing is to our credibility around the world — I’ve got 14 heads of state calling me. And I’m not going to set up a separate foreign policy. But this borders on dangerous. My dad used to have the expression, “The only war worse than one that’s intended is one that’s unintended.” And this childish behavior of “my button is bigger than your button” — it’s not just ridiculously funny, it is dangerous.
Every serious [career] person in our administration, I begged them to stay in the [Trump] administration. There is a need for stability.
The president acts as if this [job] is about bargaining to determine who gets the last square footage downtown to build a skyscraper. It is so much more complicated.
Size up the Democratic field for 2020, starting with Oprah Winfrey and L.A. Mayor Eric Garcetti.
I’d be happy to be on either one of their tickets — I’m a good vice president! Eric Garcetti has character. Eric Garcetti is smart as hell. He is strategic. This is a guy who’s extremely thoughtful. [Oprah] is bright, she is tough, she is consequential. Can she do it? Yes. Is that what she wants to do? I have no idea. You’ve got guys like [Sen. Cory] Booker from New Jersey — solid. Your new senator from California [Kamala Harris].
Our former [party] chairman [Howard Dean], said we should get rid of the old guys and get young blood. I agree with him. But here’s the deal: It requires ideas. And what are those new ideas? What are the attributes needed? We badly need someone who has a strategic view of America’s role in the world. You need to have a confidence that’s grounded in some deep sense of what your foreign policy should be. You need to be able to convince the American people that you’re totally authentic. You have to have the ability in my view to reach across the aisle. America cannot constitutionally function without consensus.
I saw that you’ve got a ’67 Corvette. You’d be right at home on the L.A. freeways.
I’m a hell of a good driver, man. For eight years, I wasn’t allowed to drive [for security reasons]. But I got one chance when Jay Leno said would I drag-race out at their test track [against former Secretary of State] Colin Powell in his big Corvette. I actually was able to take him. Then I tried a Porsche and got it up to 182 miles per hour. Anyway, I like cars.