It is an unlikely and I certainly thought long forgotten tale.
The time: September, 1987.
The characters in this story: Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, New York Times reporter Maureen Dowd, the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy -- and me.
To begin, Biden. The then young Senator from Delaware, a rising star for the Democrats since his election to the Senate in 1972 at the age of thirty, was very much in the news that September. First, he was a popular and viable candidate for his party's 1988 presidential nomination. The field that year included such as 1984 nomination runner-up Gary Hart, Missouri Congressman Dick Gephardt, the Reverend Jesse Jackson, Tennessee Senator Al Gore and Massachusetts Governor Michael Dukakis. The campaign had been on in earnest for months, and the very eloquent young Senator Biden was in fact getting traction with his oratorical skills.
Biden was also getting a significant boost from the fact that President Reagan had decided to nominate Judge Robert Bork for a seat on the Supreme Court. The Senator was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, and the hearings, now legend for their brutal treatment of Bork that began from the moment Reagan made the appointment, were ready to begin with Biden holding the gavel.
Darting back and forth between Washington and the campaign trail, Biden was decidedly in the public eye. Unfortunately, as with all presidential candidates, he had rivals who were unhappy about both his prominence and his success with primary audiences. An aide to Massachusetts Governor Dukakis had also noticed something about Biden's rhetoric. One speech in particular had been plagiarized straight from the then leader of the British Labour Party, the Right Honorable Neil Kinnock. The Dukakis aide had a video of Kinnock, and one of Biden repeating the same speech, changing only the locale to make a Welsh coal miner into a Scranton coal miner. Leaked anonymously, the good ship Biden was barely scraped with this political shot across the bow. Biden said it was an accident that he had not made attribution to Kinnock, and for the moment, the story faded.
Sitting quietly in my White House office where I worked as a young political aide to President Reagan, I knew with certainty that what Biden had said about this being some sort of mistake was, to put it politely, untrue. I knew this because as a kid I was a deeply enthusiastic fan of the late Senator Robert F. Kennedy, brother to JFK and Teddy. RFK's 1968 presidential campaign had ended with his assassination. But in the style of the day, phonograph records of his speeches were shortly everywhere, along with a cascade of books. I not only bought them all with earnings from my high school jobs, politically precocious kid that I was, I took great care to memorize those records. To this day I can remember sitting for hour after hour listening to those Bobby Kennedy speeches until they were practically burned into my brain (such as my brain was in those days!).
Unfortunately for Senator Biden, months before the Kinnock controversy had arisen I had heard him on C-SPAN delivering a speech to a group of Democrats in California. I was stunned. Why? Because I realized as I watched Biden that I was getting to the end of his sentences before he was. Up from the mists of my teenage years, every sound, every memory of those Bobby Kennedy speeches came rushing out in a torrent. Most startling of all, it was very, very clear that Joe Biden was leaving the impression with these on-fire California Democrats that every last word he was uttering was -- Joe Biden's. Of Bobby Kennedy there was not a word. I was witnessing out and out plagiarism.
WHAT TO DO? Looking back I am amused about the steadiness of my youthful idealism. While I had evolved from an RFK enthusiast to a decided Reaganite -- and not to put too fine a point on it I was actually working for my hero in the White House -- my idealism was very much intact. I was incensed at Biden for expropriating Bobby Kennedy's words without so much as a nod. Yet -- the caution of a thirty-something political aide showing -- the good Senator was in fact in charge of Judge Bork's fate. What would he do to Judge Bork if I somehow decided to go public with this? Nothing, I convinced myself, that Biden and his liberal lobbyist friends weren't doing already. The word had yet to be coined, but along with everybody else in Washington I knew Judge Bork was being borked. It was appalling. And it was being led by Joe Biden. So...
I picked up the phone and did what Robert Redford did in that old Three Days of the Condor movie. When all is lost, spill your guts to the New York Times. In my case, I went to then-reporter (and now NYT columnist) Maureen Dowd. We'd never met. She drove Reaganites crazy. But she had been covering Biden, and I liked her writing. So Mo Dowd it was.
Her voice was careful at first. Cautious and skeptical in the way of a liberal reporter getting a call from a Reagan White House type. I explained my tale. Told her of my RFK and JFK-worship as a teenager and how I memorized all those hours of RFK speeches. When I told her that I could prove beyond question that Biden had simply been lifting RFK's words whole cloth she burst out laughing, saying something to the effect that this was just too good to be true. It seems (as I recall this all these years later) that the Biden staff had been irritated by the good Ms. Dowd as well. They had even gone to the point of making her life difficult as she sought to cover the Bork hearings. Maureen would love my records and would promise to return them in the mint condition in which I still had them. Telling her specifically which speech of RFK's had been used, and when and where Biden had done this, I delivered my treasured albums unto the New York Times. And waited.
It didn't take long.
Within days Ms. Dowd had a front page story, appearing on September 16, 1987. It appeared above-the-fold just under the photo of Judge Bork defending himself in front of Biden's Senate Judiciary Committee, flanked by ex-President Gerald Ford and Senator Bob Dole. The headline:
BIDEN IS FACING GROWING DEBATE ON HIS SPEECHES
Inside the fold, where the Times then covered all its campaign news, there I was in the continuation. Dowd described me accurately as a "devout Robert Kennedy fan as a youth who keeps a Jamie Wyeth portrait of John Kennedy in his office at the Reagan White House." It mentioned that I knew RFK's speeches "by heart." And told all the rest.
It was the first time I understood the accuracy of the phrase "media firestorm." I was besieged by press -- and after consultation with an astonished boss -- decided to simply just not say a word. Biden was not so lucky. He was the dead center of this frenzy and the pressure was building rapidly. The San Jose Mercury had discovered what I had known without any help from me. Now there were stories that Biden had plagiarized in law school and exaggerated his academic record. Lesley Stahl over at CBS had jumped on this, along with the rest of the networks. Biden was captured on tape snapping at a New Hampshire Democrat about his superior IQ. The attention on Judge Bork suddenly shifted to the besieged chairman. Democrats were stunned, furious with both Biden and each other. The Dukakis campaign was briefly under siege, the aide who leaked the original Kinnock video personally axed by Dukakis, summarily convicted of a "dirty trick." The White House was suspected of some deep, dark plot. A plot that didn't exist because, of course, it only involved my being, as described by Dowd, "ticked" at the notion of Biden masquerading as Bobby Kennedy. In the Biden campaign, there was chaos.
Seven days later, Joe Biden ended his campaign for president, quite publicly humiliated.
IN TRUTH, I felt somewhat disturbed at what I had done. While I thought there was some sort of fairness here -- Biden had actually done what I said he had done and it had been initially denied -- certainly I wasn't about trying to destroy the guy's life. This was, and is, a man who on a personal level is very well liked and respected by those who have spent any time around him. I've often wondered what he learned from the episode. Later, he suffered from a brain aneurysm and attributed his survival to the fact that he had been forced out of the presidential race.
But as time moved on, here's what I took from the experience. I think it's relevant now that Senator Biden is Senator Barack Obama's vice-presidential choice.
In all the coming days and weeks and months of look-backs the media will give us about Joe Biden's life, how many will touch on the substance of the speech I caught him lifting from Bobby Kennedy? What, in fact, did RFK say that Biden thought was so important? Here are excerpts from two RFK speeches that Biden tried to say were his own:
"The gross national product does not allow for the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play. It does not include the beauty of our poetry, or the strength of our marriages, the intelligence of our public debate or the integrity of our public officials. It measures neither our wit nor our courage, neither our wisdom nor our devotion to our country. It measures everything, in short, except that which makes life worthwhile, and it can tell us everything about America except why we are proud that we are Americans."
"Few will have the greatness to bend history. But each of us can work to change a small portion of those events, and in the total of all those acts will be written the history of this generation."
Today, these are the sentiments not of the left but of the right. They are what we would call today "values issues" and they have long since been abandoned by Democrats. In hindsight, it is no accident that Ronald Reagan carried the California governor's race in 1966 by a million-vote landslide. Reagan won by getting votes from the same Democrats who, two years later, would give a victory to Robert Kennedy in the California Democrats' 1968 presidential primary over the New Left's Eugene McCarthy. The great departure from the principles of JFK and RFK (and Truman and FDR) by the rising elites of the Democratic Party -- elites like Joe Biden and later Barack Obama -- had begun. The "Reagan Democrat" had been born.
WHY IS IT THAT the audience at the Saddleback church so vigorously applauded Senator McCain when he unambiguously responded to Pastor Rick Warren's question about abortion by saying life begins at conception? It is because McCain touched on the very core of precisely what RFK was talking about -- a value issue about "the health of our children, the quality of their education or the joy of their play." Which is to say, the value of life itself for the most vulnerable among us, children. One cannot imagine the very Catholic Bobby Kennedy responding to the same question from Warren with Obama's detached shrugging as he says of a child's life that "it's above my pay grade." Much less can one imagine RFK essentially endorsing infanticide as Obama did while an Illinois state senator. Biden, of course, takes Obama's side here -- and like the losing John Kerry of 2004 he is also a Catholic.
To reread RFK's value issue call to focus on "the strength of our marriages" is a reminder that it is the Obama-Biden Democrats who insist on court-ordered opposition to those same marriages between a man and a woman, fervently working in state after state to deny any attempt by voters to express their choices on the issue. Does anyone really see a care for the value issue of what RFK called "the intelligence of our public debate" in the gutter politics of MoveOn.org or the Daily Kos, two of the stalwarts of the Obama movement? How about respect for the value issue of "devotion to our country" as evidenced in the words of Obama's Senate colleague from Illinois, Dick Durbin? It is Durbin, you will recall, who compared American soldiers to Nazis.
Senator Biden is, as we hopefully all are, a different person in the world of 2008 than he was as a much younger man twenty years ago. Yet he in fact has played a key role in moving the Democrats away from precisely the values issues that had inspired so many young people when Bobby Kennedy was giving those value-laden speeches as he was running for president, myself included. Biden's presence on the Obama ticket should, correctly understood, be seen as exactly one of the reasons that the eventual 1988 nominee for the Democrats, Governor Dukakis, lost in a landslide to Ronald Reagan's vice president, George H.W. Bush. It explains as well why a Catholic like 2004 Democratic nominee Senator John Kerry loses the Catholic vote to a born-again Methodist like George W. Bush, or why the voters of Tennessee turned on their own Al Gore, costing him the White House in 2000. Or why even the ever charming Bill Clinton could only manage a 49% win against a decidedly lackluster Bob Dole in 1996.
Biden, it seemed all those years ago to his critics in both parties, was repeating the speeches of others because he didn't really have any ideas of his own. Now, after a lengthy thirty-plus years in the Senate, he has finally been given the green light to serve on a national Democratic ticket. Without doubt, that green-light comes because he has given the impression that when push comes to shove, he agrees with the spirit of the post-Kennedy 1968 Democrats of Obama and the left-wing values that have led so many Democratic presidential tickets down to defeat. Value issues that Robert Kennedy once spoke of with such passion that an impressionable young Senator Joe Biden took the words and tried to say they were his own.
He was really good at giving those speeches.
Jeffrey Lord, a former Reagan White House political director and author, writes from Pennsylvania.