Special Report

Reagan on Biden: ‘Smooth But Pure Demagogue’

Gipper accused VP of being part of "lynch mob."

By 10.11.12

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Ronald Reagan was not impressed with Joe Biden.

In fact, writing in his diary in his usual abbreviated style on June 15, 1987, Reagan described Biden this way:

He's smooth but pure demagog [sic]-- out to save Am. [America] from Reagan Doctrine.

That was a year after Reagan made a note about Biden and Senators Ted Kennedy and Howard Metzenbaum, who were busy making "vitriolic attacks on TV" about Reagan's nominee for Chief Justice of the United States, then Associate Justice William Rehnquist. Wrote Reagan:

They really are a lynch mob.

As America settles in tonight to watch now-Vice President Biden face off in debate with Congressman Paul Ryan, whom no one has ever accused of being either a "smooth but pure demagogue" much less part of "a lynch mob," it's worth a look at exactly why the nation's 40th president saw Biden this way -- and how Reagan's assessment is reflected in the conduct of today's Obama-Biden administration. Reagan never recorded of Biden as he is seen by many today -- as a gaffe-prone fool.

Reagan's point was that no matter the issue -- it could have been the Reagan Doctrine one day or the confirmation of Reagan appointees the next day (on one occasion Biden smilingly told a nominee for an obscure government board, "by my definition you are a racist") or something else the day after -- Joe Biden was always there to play the role of the "smooth but pure demagogue" -- the hot headed guy in the leftist political lynch mob brandishing the rope. 

For Americans who have watched with alternating amusement and incredulity, this is precisely the trait that Biden has repeatedly displayed in the four years of his vice presidency. This is exactly what was going on when Biden took to a Danville, Virginia podium back in August and bellowed to a largely African-American audience:

"Look at what they [Republicans] value, and look at their budget. And look what they're proposing. [Romney] said in the first 100 days, he's going to let the big banks write their own rules -- unchain Wall Street. They're going to put y'all back in chains."

It was what was going on in Iowa the other day when Biden pushed his class-warfare theme by saying:

"...we're going to ask the wealthy to pay more. My heart breaks. Come on, man." 

To be a demagogue, of course, is to exhibit a personality trait not a policy. To appeal to prejudice. There is more to all of this Biden demagoguery than just the theatrical performance of personality and appeals to prejudice. In the Reagan-era Biden used -- still uses today as Obama's Number two -- the tools of a demagogue to push specific policies. And he has three policy favorites in which his addiction to demagoguery most frequently surface: foreign policy, race, and economics.

In matters of foreign policy, as Reagan noted with Biden's opposition to the Reagan Doctrine, Joe Biden was and is still today as Barack Obama's vice president a thorough-going partisan of left-wing, quasi-pacifist foreign policy precepts that effectively date to FDR's discredited (and dumped) Vice President Henry Wallace. Wallace lost out to Harry Truman, his policies losing out both with post-World War II Democrats and with the country at large in the election of 1948.

But the same far-left foreign policy principles of Wallace finally took over the Democrats with the ascension of South Dakota Senator George McGovern as the Democrats' nominee in 1972. McGovern had been a Wallace disciple, a delegate to the 1948 Progressive Party that nominated Wallace for president to oppose Truman. And it was in 1972, when McGovern-Democrats swarmed the party apparatus, that an ambitious 29-year old lawyer -- Biden -- took on the aging Republican Senator Caleb Boggs of Delaware and beat him in an upset.

Reagan specifically noted that Biden was opposed to the Reagan Doctrine.

Biden certainly wasn't alone. Every liberal senator breathing in the 1980s opposed the Reagan Doctrine. What was it? The Reagan Doctrine, so-named by Charles Krauthammer in a Time magazine column in April of 1985, was a description of Reagan's determination to mount a global challenge to the Soviet Union. The policy strategy that reflected Reagan's succinct belief of how to deal with the decades-old Cold War and the Communist Soviet Union:

"We win. They lose."

Senator Biden vehemently opposed the Reagan Doctrine, and took every opportunity to display that opposition, employing his talents for demagoguery whether the issue at hand was personnel or policy.

Yesterday, Reagan biographer Paul Kengor shared a story about then-Senator Biden's treatment of William Clark, Reagan's appointee in 1981 as Deputy Secretary of State. The story is a classic of Biden demagoguery for which Reagan had such disdain. And there's more to the story.

The humiliation of William Clark was merely the opening round in Biden's eight-year crusade to oppose Reagan's strategy of "we win, they lose".

Senator Biden would go on to oppose Reagan's successful effort to win the Cold War at every turn, never shy at using the tools of demagoguery to advance his goals. The Reagan Doctrine, Biden thundered, should be summed up as the idea that "we [the United States] will give up something, if they [the Soviets] give up everything." In other words, Biden saw Reagan as -- yes! -- being unfair to the heirs of Stalin! Really!

From opposing the Strategic Defense Initiative (aka "Star Wars") to opposing the Nicaraguan contras to opposing deployment of the MX missile and more, Biden furiously opposed every Reagan effort to bring down the Soviets and end the Cold War. Which Reagan ended, as Margaret Thatcher would later say, "without firing a shot."

In every single instance Biden would take what might be called the McGovernite, quasi-pacifist stance, which was repeatedly colored by Biden's own insistence on playing politics with foreign policy (as with everything else).

Biden backed the liberal favorite of a so-called "nuclear freeze," which Reagan dismissed out of hand as giving the Soviets a "huge advantage" in land-based nuclear missiles with multiple warheads. "Well-meaning or not," Reagan scoffed, "the nuclear freeze movement had an agenda that could have been written in Moscow." Biden replied by assailing Reagan for not seeking yet another arms agreement, insisting that if Reagan were serious about arms control "the freeze movement would evaporate tomorrow." The idea that Reagan wanted the Soviet Union to evaporate was something that simply appalled Biden.

Biden's demagoguery surfaced again and again and again as he dealt with Reagan foreign policy.

When Secretary of State George Shultz appeared in front of Biden's Foreign Relations Committee to discuss South Africa, Biden launched again. The Reagan administration staunchly opposed apartheid but was deeply concerned the country could dissolve in bloodshed -- a bloodletting related in part to the presence of Cuban troops and a heavy Soviet influence in nearby Angola. Instead of a rational discussion Biden famously played the demagogue, furiously attacking the genteel Shultz by saying Reagan's policy was "nauseating." With the cameras running, but of course, Biden dramatically shouted that:

"People are being mugged and shot, imprisoned, killed smothered…. these people are dying… you feel frustration, they're dying. They are being shot. Children are -- They are lining up and shooting children."

When Shultz persisted in urging caution, Biden exploded:

"Hell, they've [South African blacks] tried compromise for 20 years! They've tried everything in their power."

When Reagan's "we win, they lose" strategy worked and Soviet Union was carted off to the ash heap of history against Biden's active opposition -- wonder of wonders the Cubans left Angola. A mere two years later, apartheid was gone and Nelson Mandela was President of South Africa.

But of course, the exchange with Shultz made every mainstream television newscast -- which is to say, every newscast then in existence.

Noticeably, the New York Times was coming to the same conclusion about Senator Biden's standard operating procedure as Ronald Reagan. The only difference being the Times would think Biden's approach just ducky -- and never use the word demagogue.

A week after Biden's rant on South Africa, the Times ran a piece by reporter Robin Toner solely focused on Biden's by now clearly distinct habit of playing the demagogue -- and what it really meant. Said the Times: 

From his angry sparring with Secretary of State George P. Shultz to his intensive questioning of Associate Justice William H. Rehnquist, Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr. of Delaware has emerged as an aggressive presence on the Washington stage….

As a result of all this, Democratic activists and analysts say Mr. Biden has gained heightened recognition as a possible Presidential contender.

"He, more than any other Democratic candidate [for president in 1988], is aggressively speaking out, becoming visible, and that's a key part of the game, especially in the early days," said Frank Greer, a Democratic consultant.

Unsurprisingly, the then-chairman of the New Hampshire Democratic Party agreed, saying the obvious about what Biden's style had accomplished:

"His recent activities certainly haven't hurt him. He's been on the front pages here."

The then vice-chair of the DNC chimed in approvingly:

"It's name recognition, and it's becoming known in a way that imprints in people's minds. A Senator raising his voice and his fist in anger at the Secretary of State… is not something you forget right away."

Not something you forget right away.

Exactly. That would be the point, and hence Biden's style of politicizing everything, including American foreign policy, is precisely what Reagan saw as the work of the "smooth but pure demagogue."

Is there any wonder then as the reports of the discussions inside the Obama administration over whether or not to pull the trigger on the Seal Team Six operation to get Osama Bin Laden proceeded -- it was Biden who opposed the operation?

Why?

Reports the November issue of Vanity Fair in excerpting author Mark Bowden's new book The Finish: The Killing of Osama Bin Laden, Biden was true to form. Yes, it was Joe Biden who opposed getting Bin Laden right to the end. Why?

The vice president was never shy about political calculations. "Mr. President, my suggestion is: don't go." …Biden believed that if the…the effort failed, Obama could say good-by to a second term.

In other words, whether he was opposing Reagan on ending the Cold War by supporting the nuclear freeze and opposing the Reagan Doctrine, or whether he was opposing President Bush 41 on the Persian Gulf War, or opposing President Bush 43 on the surge that finally won the war in Iraq -- or opposing President Obama on the decision to kill Osama Bin Laden, Joe Biden has never changed.

He has missed one foreign policy call after another from Reagan to Obama. Getting them wrong and wrong again, from ending the Cold War to getting Osama Bin Laden.

He is to this moment the man Ronald Reagan believed would always appeal to Americans with the raw emotions of prejudice -- using race, class-warfare, leftist foreign policy or anything else that was handy.

Joe Biden, Ronald Reagan concluded, was nothing more -- or less -- than a "smooth but pure demagogue."

The Gipper called it as he saw it.

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About the Author
Jeffrey Lord is a former Reagan White House political director and author. He writes from Pennsylvania at jlpa1@aol.com.