Those who know me, or have read my work, know that I am nothing if not critical of the Democratic Party and what I consider its corporate-friendly inner-workings, its perpetuation of any number of thoroughly inadequate pseudo-liberal policies, its willingness to go along with and prosecute unjust wars, its neglect of the neediest Americans and their issues for the sake of a safer, middle-class-pandering political narrative, etcetera, etcetera. I am a leftist, I make no bones about that, and am more often than not disappointed in Democrats and the Party itself.
That said, I must also admit there has always been something about Joe Biden that I have absolutely loved. Maybe it's the former competitive debater in me, which aspect of my own personality leads me to appreciate the combativeness and even the smart-ass way in which he, metaphorically speaking, has this incredible capacity to utterly defenestrate his political opponents: to throw them out of the proverbial window and laugh as they hit the ground. Yes he's pushy and sometimes rude, but no one said politics was supposed to be warm and cuddly and the equivalent of a nice, relaxing day at a spa.
But I think it's something more than that. It goes back a ways. And if you'll follow me beneath the squiggle I'd like to share it with you. Seriously, and despite the hackles I may have provoked with my critique of the Dems above -- after all, I know this is a Dem site, and how some folks are touchy about these things -- I think you'll end up appreciating what follows. In fact, I know you will.
See, here's the thing. There was a time when I actually considered myself a proud Democrat (and don't get me wrong, it's still how I vote in almost every instance, but I haven't felt a part of the party in a long time). In fact, I was the head of College Dems at Tulane for two years in the late '80s, trying (usually unsuccessfully) to push the group in a more progressive and left direction, having been frustrated by the increasingly rightward drift of the Party beginning even in high school.
But there was one area where I felt the Democrats, for all their moderation, stood clearly on principle, and Joe Biden was among the most consistent and compelling voices on the matter. This was with regard to the anti-apartheid struggle in South Africa and the role of the U.S. in either continuing to support that system or working to help bring it down.
Even before getting to Tulane, I had begun to take a deep interest in the anti-apartheid movement -- an interest that would become the focus of my campus activism from 1987 through 1990, as we pushed to get the University to divest from companies still operating there, propping up, as a result, white minority rule. And at the same time, the issue of apartheid was front and center on the national political stage, with the Democratic-controlled House (and soon-to-be reclaimed Senate) pushing for economic sanctions on South Africa, and Republicans (and especially Ronald Reagan) opposing any such action.
On July 23, 1986, a month before heading to New Orleans for the start of my freshman year, I had the occasion to turn on C-Span and watch a portion of that day's Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on South Africa policy. A day or so before, President Reagan (who once denied that apartheid was racist, insisting instead that it was really just "tribal" rather than racial), had given a speech on the matter, in which he soft-pedaled that country's racist oppression and insisted that his policy of "constructive engagement" was best for South African blacks. Of course, that constructive engagement had allowed the Commerce Department to ship shock batons to the fascists in Pretoria, to be used on black prisoners, phased him not a bit, nor dampened his enthusiasm for the presumably good intentions of the dear Boers, whose desire for a democratic South Africa he never thought to question, no matter the utter lack of evidence for said desire's sincerity.
In response to Reagan's apologia, Archbishop Desmond Tutu, of Cape Town -- who had won the Nobel Peace Prize two years earlier -- issued a blistering condemnation of U.S. policy, going so far as to call Reagan's speech "repulsive." At the Senate hearing, it fell to the hapless and dimwitted George Shultz, then the Secretary of State, to defend his increasingly demented boss, and it was his misfortune to have to do so in the presence of Joe Biden, who proceeded to give him possibly the most beautiful rhetorical beat down in the history of American politics. Though he later apologized for his emotionalism, I never felt he had anything to be sorry for. It was heartfelt and deserved, and the kind of honesty too often missing from our nation's political discourse, so laden is it with platitudes and poll-parsed sound bytes, calculated to appeal to the middle ground, or the emotional needs of low information voters.
Biden's voice was the most compelling I had ever heard from a Democrat, even more than Mario Cuomo's during his 1984 keynote at the DNC, or Jesse Jackson's presentation that same year. As stunning as those two pieces of prose had been, what Biden did was even more impressive because unlike convention presentations, which are canned, and massaged and intended to electrify the audience, this was an off-the-cuff, unrehearsed, completely genuine and honest explosion of political rage. It was Joe Biden, interrupting George Shultz, and essentially giving him his very own equivalent of Sen. Joseph Welch eviscerating Joe McCarthy by saying, "Have you no sense of decency sir, at long last?"
If you have never seen this, trust me when I say that you owe it to yourself to watch it now. Here is the video. The relevant portion begins at 1:40:00 and goes for about 7 and a half minutes.
Watching it again today, I can still remember exactly where I was in my grandmother's house at the time I first saw it, I can remember the temperature in the room, and the feeling that came over me as I watched this amazing man completely wreck the Secretary of State on principle.
I have never forgotten it, or Joe Biden for providing me with that moment of inspiration. As a young activist, and antiracist white ally, it was incredibly important for me to see that display of allyship, of solidarity with the oppressed, no matter how it might look to others, or how "rude" it might have been perceived.
Righteousness is no respecter of timidity, and truth no fan of measured tones. Joe Biden knows that. He has always known it. So should we all.