WPPB

Joe Biden Remembers His Son In His New Memoir

Nov 18, 2017
Originally published on November 19, 2017 12:50 am

This week, former Vice President Joe Biden spoke with NPR's Michel Martin, promoting his new book that reflects on his late son Beau's battle with brain cancer. During the interview, Biden also told NPR he has "no plans" to run in the 2020 presidential election.

Although Martin and Biden's conversation touched on many topics, it was apparent Beau's memory and presence continue to be at the forefront of his mind.

Along with his book, family and 2020 election prospects, NPR asked about Anita Hill's allegations of sexual harassment against Justice Clarence Thomas.

In 1991, Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judicial Committee during Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas's confirmation hearing when Hill's accusations came to light. People criticized Biden's handling of the hearing, blaming him for apathy towards Hill. With the so-called Weinstein effect empowering women to come forward regarding sexual harassment and abuse, Hill's case has resurfaced, with many criticizing the way her allegations were handled.

"That's why I wrote, I personally — with my own hand — wrote the Violence Against Women Act," he says.

"The part that I feel badly is: Anita Hill did not get treated fairly," he added.


Interview Highlights

On the difficulty of writing the book and the subsequent tour

Well, it's been a lot harder for me than I anticipated. I'll be blunt, I've been fairly surefooted about the things I've done in my career. This is the one place that I feel the least surefooted. The reason I wrote the book was because I wanted people to know what a remarkable man my son was. And I also wanted to give hope to people who have gone through what we are going through without anywhere near the amount of support we've had, and some with considerably more difficult crisis to face.

On coping with the death of his wife, daughter and son

There was a time, the first time around, when I actually began to lose my faith. But I had a father who wouldn't let that happen. It's the "Why me, God?" sort of syndrome. One time, I was essentially expressing that by my body language to my father, and he came over to the house. My father was a well-read, high school-educated man who was very graceful. He had gone to a card store and he got one of those rectangular frames with a cartoon inside of it. And it was Hagar the Horrible and there's a picture of Hagar's boat, having been hit by lighting, and it's sinking. And he's shaking his fist at heaven saying, "Why me, God?" In the next frame, a voice from heaven comes out and says: "Why not?"

And my dad taught us you just gotta get up. Where does it say the world owes you a living, pal? Get up. Get up. And what I learned the first time around was when you have purpose, it makes it all easier to deal with and you find yourself, at least I find myself internalizing: "What would my Beau want me to be doing now? What would Beau think of me if I didn't step up and do this?"

I still have that cartoon. If you come to my house, it sits on my desk. I've had it on my desk for the last, probably 25 years.

On Anita Hill and the Clarence Thomas allegations

I believed her allegations. I believed her allegations and said so, number one. Number two, that was 25 years ago and we've learned a lot since then. Number three, because of — and I talked then about harassment being a major, major social issue that we were not confronting. Number four, that's why I wrote, I personally — with my own hand — wrote the Violence Against Women Act. And that's why I had to fight through women's groups that didn't support it at first because they thought it was going to overcome the issues of choice and gender. And they eventually surrounded it and embraced it and we got it passed.

Absolutely, and I said [the Violence Against Women Act was because of Anita Hill].

The part that I feel badly is: Anita Hill did not get treated fairly. The part that was the most difficult was there were two witnesses — one major witness, a very substantial, well-respected woman who would be able to give evidence that she was told contemporaneously by Anita Hill what was happening. And so at the last minute, she said she did not want to testify.

So I had a really bright guy running the committee, well-known guy named Ron Klein and he suggested: look, we better go to her hotel and have an affidavit where, if she says she's not going to testify, she has to sign and say she's not. We want you to testify.

Now people say I should have made her testify, but what happens if she testified and she didn't corroborate what was happening, if she remained silent? Then I knew that would make sure Clarence Thomas would be on the Court. As it turned out, he got the smallest margin of any Supreme Court justice in history who made it. But I fought like hell to keep him of the court. But the point is, it took enormous courage for Anita Hill to — and she did get treated unfairly. I tried my best but she got treated unfairly — the way Republicans went after her. And I said then: You don't understand. This is about a national problem: harassment.

On the recent allegations against men and if this is the watershed moment that will change the culture

I do think we're at the moment. And by the way, this is all about the abuse of power. Clarence Thomas was [Anita Hill's] boss, Weinstein controlled the careers of so many people. All the people you see now are a bunch of cowards, and these guys deserve to be in jail.

On Thanksgiving with his family

No, we don't [set a place for Beau]. That was the hardest part, was that figuratively empty chair. But now Beau is — we're getting by the second year here and Beau is part of this. We talk about him, and we can talk about him now without crying. [My granddaughter Finnegan] had these bracelets made up: WWBD, "What would Beau do?" That's what we focus on now. I think now that things are getting better.

Former Vice President Joe Biden's book Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose is out now. He spoke with NPR from the New York City bureau.

NPR's Digital News intern Jose Olivares produced this story for digital.

Copyright 2017 NPR. To see more, visit http://www.npr.org/.

MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:

Finally, today, former Vice President Joe Biden. If you've even glanced at a television over the past two weeks, you've probably noticed him popping up all over the place - On NBC's "TODAY" show, CBS's Stephen Colbert, an emotional conversation with Oprah. You might have heard part of my conversation with him on Morning Edition earlier this week, when I asked him, among other things, if he plans to run for president.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED BROADCAST)

JOE BIDEN: I have no plans on running in 2020. My focus is on my boy. I want people to know what an incredible man he was. And I want people to understand that there is hope afterwards. He's still with me. And I'm going to do everything I can to elect a Democratic Congress. But do I - what people want me to say is under no circumstances will I run. That'd be a foolish thing to say. I don't know what's going to happen two years from now, but I have - I've done nothing organizationally or structurally or in any other way to prepare to run for president. That is not in the cards now.

MARTIN: Biden's media tour is in connection with his new memoir, recounting a traumatic year beginning in December 2014, when his elder son, Beau, was in the thick of his fight with brain cancer. The former vice president writes about how his family coped with that anguish while also managing the responsibilities of office. He went to our New York bureau to talk with me earlier this week.

BIDEN: Hi, Michel. I'm delighted to be with you, I really am.

MARTIN: Well, as we just mentioned, you've been making the rounds to talk about the book. But I couldn't help but wonder if this part of it has been hard. I mean, you revisited the year to write the book and now you're revisiting it to talk about it over and over again. What's this been like for you?

BIDEN: Well, it's been a lot harder for me than I anticipated. And I found myself about three weeks ago, when I realized the commitment I made to do this book tour, that I wasn't - well, I'll be blunt with you. I've been fairly sure-footed about the things I've done in my career. This is the one place that I feel the least sure-footed because the reason I wrote the book was I wanted people to know about a remarkable man our son was. And I also wanted to give hope to people who have gone through what we're going through without anywhere near the support we've had and some with considerably more difficult crises to face.

MARTIN: Look. As you say in the book, you've had more than your fair share of experience with grief. As you say, your story precedes you, having lost your wife and daughter and almost your boys after your first election as a senator. You got through that. But I do have to ask, was there a time when you just wanted to stay home with the covers over your head?

BIDEN: Yeah, I have to admit that. I - there was a time, the first time around, when I actually began to lose my faith. But I had a father who wouldn't let that happen. I remember, you know, it's the why me God sort of syndrome, which I didn't spend much time on. But one time, I was essentially - I guess expressing that by my body language to my father. And he came over to the house. My father was a well-read high-school educated man who was very graceful.

And he'd gone to a card store. And he got one of those little rectangular frames with a cartoon inside of it. And it was Hagar the Horrible. And there's a picture of Hagar's boat having been hit by lightning and is sinking. He's shaking his fist at heaven saying, why me, God? And the next frame, a voice from heaven comes out and says, why not?

And my dad taught us, you've just got to get up. Where does it say the, you know, the world knows you a living, pal? Get up. Get up. And what I learned the first time around was if - when you have purpose, it makes it all easier to deal with. And you find yourself - at least I find myself - internalizing, what would my Beau want me to be doing now? What would Beau think of me if I didn't step up and do this?

MARTIN: I will look at Hagar the Horrible with fresh eyes.

BIDEN: Yeah (laughter). And I'm not a guy that's used to - called the funny papers. I'm not a guy who reads the funny papers, but I still have that cartoon.

MARTIN: You still have it?

BIDEN: If you come to my house, it sits on my desk. I've had it on my desk for the last - probably 25 years.

MARTIN: If you're just joining us, I was speaking with the former vice president of the United States, Joe Biden. We're talking about his new book, "Promise Me, Dad: A Year Of Hope, Hardship, And Purpose." We're also talking about a lot of other things, including politics.

One of the issues that's very much in the public eye at the moment is the whole question of the treatment of women in various workplaces. Now, in the White House, you became known as a vocal advocate for women who'd suffered sexual assault, abuse or harassment. I understand that you and Lady Gaga even have something planned now to kind of help survivors of sexual abuse.

But, you know, you presided over what was for some people, like, the seminal or wakeup call, you know, however many years ago, when Clarence Thomas was - during his confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court and Anita Hill's allegations about his conduct in the workplace came forward.

And I'd like to ask you, as the person who presided over those hearings, which many people felt were unbalanced and unfair - I know that there are still many people who don't believe her allegations. And I know there are still many people who believe that Clarence Thomas was poorly treated. But for those who believe that there was a great deal of evidence that was not allowed to be brought forward that supported her position, I'd like to ask you - given everything you know now, is there anything you'd have done differently about that?

BIDEN: I believed her allegations. I believed her allegations and said so, number one. Number two, that was 25 years ago, and we've learned a lot since then. Number three, because of - and I talked then about harassment being a major, major social issue that we had not confronted. Number four, that's why I wrote, I personally, with my own hand, wrote the Violence Against Women Act. And that's why I had to fight through women's groups to - didn't support it at first because they thought it was going to overcome the issues of choice and gender. And they eventually surrounded it and embraced it. And we got it passed. And...

MARTIN: You're saying that was because of Anita Hill?

BIDEN: Absolutely, and I said so. The part that I feel badly is Anita Hill did not get treated fairly. The part that was the most difficult was there were two witnesses that - one major witness, a very substantial, well-respected woman who would be able to give evidence that she was told contemporaneously by Anita Hill what was happening. And so at the last minute, she said she did not want to testify. And so I had a really bright guy running the committee, a well-known guy named Ron Klain. And he suggested, look, we better go to her hotel and have an affidavit with this, where if she says she's not going to testify, she has to sign and say she - we want you to testify.

Now, people say I should have made her testify. But what happens if she testified and she didn't cooperate. What was happening? She remained silent. Then I knew that would make sure Clarence Thomas would be on the court. As it turned out, he got the smallest margin of any Supreme Court justice in history who made it. But I fought like hell to keep him off the court. But the point is it took enormous courage for what Anita Hill did. And she did get treated unfairly. I tried my best, but she got treated unfairly the way Republicans went after her. And I said then, you don't understand. This is about a national problem - harassment.

MARTIN: Well, to that end though, a lot of people thought that that was going to be the watershed moment that changed the culture. And given all that we seem to know now about what's coming out about Harvey Weinstein and Mark Halperin and so many others, it wasn't. Do you think we are now at that moment?

BIDEN: Oh, I do think we're at that moment. And, by the way, this is all about the abuse of power. Clarence Thomas was her boss. Weinstein controlled the careers of so many people. All the people you see now are a bunch of cowards, and these guys deserve to be in jail.

MARTIN: Before we let you go, I know that Thanksgiving is a special time for your family. And for years, you've all headed to Nantucket to have family time. And I just wondered, are you going this year?

BIDEN: We are going this year, and we are excited. We're going.

MARTIN: Are you going to set a table or set a place at the table for Beau?

BIDEN: No, we don't do that. That was the hardest part when we first went was that figuratively empty chair. But now, Beau is - we're getting by the second year here, and Beau is part of us. We talk about him. We can talk about him now without crying. We can talk about - like my little Finnegan talks about - she's not little, she's a freshman in college. She always - she had these bracelets made up, WWBD - what would Beau do? That's what we focus on now.

MARTIN: Well, can I be the first to wish you a blessed Thanksgiving? And I hope that it's a marvelous time with your family.

BIDEN: Oh, thank you. Well, we're excited about it. I think now that things are getting better, I hope I don't have to do the plunge this year.

MARTIN: The plunge?

BIDEN: My granddaughters always say - they have this ice-cold plunge every - on Thanksgiving. They raise money, I think it's for the library. And my granddaughters always say, my pop will do it. My pop will do it. And I got away with it the last two years not having to go in that icy water, but I'm hoping I can avoid it again this year.

MARTIN: Don't do it.

(LAUGHTER)

MARTIN: That's former Vice President Joe Biden. His book "Promise Me, Dad: A Year Of Hope, Hardship, And Purpose" is out now. He was kind enough to speak to us from our bureau in New York City. Former vice president, Mr. Biden, thank you so much for speaking with us. Our very best regards to you and your family.

BIDEN: Thank you.

(SOUNDBITE OF ATMOSPHERE'S "YESTERDAY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.