Opinion: Has Biden learned from his mistakes?

Zachary Wood
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at the Des Moines Register Soapbox during a visit to the Iowa State Fair, Thursday, Aug. 8, 2019, in Des Moines, Iowa.

I first came across the name Joseph R. Biden as a fourth-grader at Grosse Pointe Academy. One fall afternoon, during silent reading time, I picked out a book on my teacher's shelf about the United States Congress. A few pages in, I paused at the sight of Biden’s mention in a sentence acknowledging stalwart Democratic senators. I can’t put names to the rest, but remember also seeing Edward (Ted) M. Kennedy, whom I had read about before at my mother’s behest. 

I had no idea who Biden was at the time. I thought who better to ask than my mom. She wasn’t a political junkie, but she knew quite a bit about every statesperson she liked. So, when she picked me up from school that day, I asked her if she knew anything about Biden. Looking down at her cellphone, she nodded easefully, which told me she was hardly a Biden enthusiast. “Who is he?” I nudged. Still on her cell, she replied: “The senator who let Clarence Thomas off the hook.” (Well, I knew exactly what my mother thought of Clarence Thomas, so I surmised she had considerable misgivings about Biden’s leadership.)

After putting her phone down on the center console between us, she characteristically let it rip. I don’t recall the details, but three things were clear. First, she thought Biden was an overrated political talent. Second, she appeared supremely confident his backbone was weaker than a bouncy floorboard. Third, she believed Anita Hill had plenty of reason to despise him. Her expression was firm, her opinion fixed. But she encouraged me to learn more about Biden to reach my own conclusions.

So that’s exactly what I did. 

A few years later, my mother and I found ourselves speaking warmly and very highly of Biden as he took on the mantle of vice president to Barack Obama. On the eve of the 2008 Democratic National Convention, my mother said with visible pride, “I think Obama’s got the right guy, Zach.” In the days leading up to Obama's first inauguration, I would ask my peers rhetorically, “when was the last time a VP was cool enough to wear Ray-Bans?”

Biden was spiffy as a VP, a fit sidekick to Obama. When Biden sat behind Obama during his first State of the Union Address, charming the audience with affect at every opportune moment, I said to myself, “I like this guy.”

Alas, Biden’s 2020 candidacy swells his most insufferable lesions. I recollect reading in the Detroit Public Library as a youngster about some of Biden’s "racially tinged" remarks. Here's one such quotation from Biden in 1970:

"I have some friends on the far left, and they can justify to me the murder of a white deaf mute for a nickel by five colored guys. They say the black men had been oppressed and so on. But they can’t justify some Alabama farmers tar and feathering an old colored woman."

Now, that was 1970. Times have changed. Biden would never say anything like that today (I pray). My contention, however, is that there are too many questionable utterances, of old and late, for which Biden has not forthrightly and satisfactorily answered. Another quagmire, much less grievous, I know: Biden addressed Sen. Kamala Harris as “kid,” in the last Democratic primary debate. 

It shouldn’t stick in my craw. We all make mistakes.

But will Joe Biden learn from his?

Zachary R. Wood is an assistant curator at TED. Wood is the author of "Uncensored: My Life and Uncomfortable Conversations at the Intersection of Black and White America."