In February 2019, I made the mistake of telling Joe Manchin, the US senator for West Virginia, that I couldn’t understand why people thought Joe Biden was so great. Manchin looked at me sternly and told me that his friend Joe was the most decent man in politics. Manchin’s wife, Gayle, delicately explained that she and her husband were close to Joe Biden and his wife, Jill. Clearly, I’d committed a faux pas.
Lots of powerful people adore the new president of the United States. Joe Biden’s just a great guy, says almost everyone in Washington, DC, a city full of not-such-great guys. Even Republican opponents like him. He’s warm and affectionate, they say. He has a unique talent for empathy and “the connect” – meeting, greeting and bonding with the public. His faults – his tendency to talk too much and be far too tactile with women, his occasional temper – are just products of his exuberant, passionate nature. He loves too much, you see.
Not everybody loves Joe Biden, however. A number of women have found his apparent handsiness, and his tendency to sniff their hair, discomfiting. Tara Reade, a former staffer in his Senate office, says he went much further and sexually assaulted her in a hallway in 1993. “Today I hear over and over about Joe Biden’s compassion and how great he is,” she tells me in the days leading up to his inauguration. “But I remember his anger, his smile, his eyes cold and furious and the roughness of him.”
Biden denies Reade’s allegation. “It never, never happened,” he says, and most people believe him. Plenty of journalists have uncovered inconsistencies in her story and made her out to be a crazy person. Reade says this is all the work of the Biden “machine”, headed by his PR guru Anita Dunn, who also just so happened to advise Harvey Weinstein. “I was smeared and gaslighted and my life was torn to pieces,” says Reade. “Yesterday I was in a queue with my daughter at a grocery store and saw Joe Biden’s face on the cover of some magazine proclaiming him to be the saviour of our country. I stood there with that cognitive-dissonance feeling, knowing that the truth about him was never really told. The truth has been professionally whitewashed.”
For all Biden’s talk of a Green New Deal, Big Oil surged following his election
Reade’s allegations about Biden may be highly contentious, but her assessment of the spin operation around America’s 46th commander-in-chief rings true. There are far too many spoon-fed long-reads in American magazines about Biden’s heroic struggles against adversity, his folksy humanity, his willingness to listen and, as the profiles always put it, “to heal the wounds” of 21st-century America.
You don’t read much about his bristling pride, his anger and his arrogance, even though those qualities are perfectly evident to anyone willing to look. Nice guys don’t spend four decades obsessively trying to become the leader of the free world. In the 1980s, some people claimed Biden would sell his own grandmother to be president. In 1987, Jeff Connaughton decided to quit his high-earning job in finance to work on Biden’s first presidential campaign. Almost ten years earlier, as a student, he had seen Biden give a speech and the young senator’s energy and passion inspired him. But his experience in politics left him disillusioned. In a memoir published in 2012, Connaughton described Biden as an “egomaniacal autocrat” who was “determined to manage his staff through fear”. Apparently, Biden liked to call staffers “Dumb Fuck” when he couldn’t remember their names. “His ambitions,” wrote Connaughton in his bridge-burning book, The Payoff: Why Wall Street Always Wins, “were mainly about himself.” Biden’s office declined to comment on the charges, but said, “The vice president has not read Mr Connaughton’s book but values his relationships with all members of his staff and appreciates their hard work and dedication.”
In response to Connaughton’s criticisms, Annie Tomasini said that Biden was “a mentor” to her and “incredibly kind”. Such loyalty is seemingly rewarded: Tomasini is now director of Oval Office operations in his White House. Biden’s friends and the Democratic court chroniclers will tell you that he has been mollified through suffering. He has been through a lot of pain: in 1972, his first wife and daughter died in a car crash just before he became the senator from Delaware. He suffered two cranial aneurysms in 1998 and his son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015. Such tragedy deserves sympathy and Biden’s ability to overcome his grief is profoundly admirable.
But Connaughton and others paint a picture of Biden as someone who can be vile to those around him. One young staffer once allegedly got into Biden’s car holding a list of names and phone numbers and said, “OK, Senator, time to do some fundraising calls.” “Get the fuck out of the car,” Biden is claimed to have replied, the old charmer.
People like to say that Trump is a liar, and he is, but Biden has honesty issues too. His presidential campaign in 1988 famously imploded after he was accused of plagiarising a Neil Kinnock speech. Earlier, he had been forced to redo a course while at the Syracuse University College Of Law in the 1960s because he had lifted five pages from an academic paper without attribution.
Biden’s problem is that he’s become so swept up in his own mythology that he’s lost touch with his reality. That’s why, for instance, he said he marched with the civil rights movement in the 1960s, a claim he later rolled back on. It’s why he said he was “shot at” in Iraq. Only when challenged did he downgrade the claim: “I was near where a shot landed.” Biden also likes to tell people that in a meeting with Vladimir Putin he squared up to the Russian leader and said, “Mr Prime Minister, I’m looking into your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul.” Does anybody seriously believe that happened?
“I exaggerate when I’m angry,” says Biden. But his tendency to say too much is weirder than that. For all his supposed empathy, he struggles to notice when he is boring his audience rigid. According to writer Benjamin Wallace-Wells, in 2005, when a young Barack Obama, just arrived in the Senate, sat through a speech by Biden to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, he allegedly passed an aide a three-word note. “Shoot. Me. Now,” it read. Obama never confirmed or denied it.
Connaughton described Biden as an ‘egomaniacal autocrat… determined to manage his staff through fear’
The Official Obama-Biden bromance narrative of President Obama is that the two men started out as an odd pair but ended up being one of the great Washington partnerships. But the truth may be that Obama wasn’t ever quite as comfortable with Biden as he made out and vice versa. Before Biden’s nomination became inevitable in 2020, Obama never seemed all that convinced about him as a presidential candidate. Obama annoyed Biden by seeming – at least in one media appearance alongside his then veep in 2014 – to anoint Hillary Clinton as his preferred successor. Biden did serve Obama loyally, but he could be neurotic about how outsiders perceived his role in the administration. “My manhood is not negotiable,” he reportedly once said when discussing how much power he ought to have as vice president.
Bullied as a child because of his speech impediment, Biden can be intensely sensitive to slights. But the worst part isn’t his personality. It’s his politics. Biden talks about “transforming the soul of America”. For decades, however, he has been accused by opponents of being behind some of the most toxic decision-making in Washington, for dressing up great government horrors in the name of overcoming partisanship or healing (that word again) divides. That may be why, for all his talk of making American healthcare more fair, Big Pharma stocks rose in the wake of Biden becoming the Democratic nominee. It might also be why, for all his talk of a Green New Deal to save the planet, Big Oil surged in the weeks following his election victory.
In 1994, Biden was the driving force behind the Violent Crime Control And Law Enforcement Act – AKA the Biden Crime Law – which is often blamed for contributing to mass incarceration of African-Americans and led to longer jail terms for nonviolent offences, all under the implacable banner of being “tough on crime”. It is strange to think that, in the year of George Floyd’s killing, when America seemed to cry out for more racial justice, the country ended up electing Biden. Given also his role in sponsoring anti-crime bills in the 1980s, which disproportionately affected African-Americans, it could be argued he supported policies that locked up more black men and women than any other figure in recent US history.
In the 1990s, in the same supposedly centrist vein, Biden supported various welfare and banking reforms that made it much it harder for the poor to pay off their debts. It’s no coincidence, surely, that Biden’s largest donor was the credit giant MBNA.
Taken together, that might help explain why today the most powerful forces in America seem so sanguine about having Good Ol’ Joe as the president: he won’t rock the privilege boat.
He never has.
Get your trial offer of 3 issues for £1 here.
Joe Biden doesn’t love or hate Britain… he doesn’t much care
The cracks inside Trump’s White House