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Joe Biden’s Non-Radical 1960s

  • October 17, 2020

If much of this accounting is plainly true in the abstract, those who knew him say, it also elides some finer points of Mr. Biden’s arc: his boundless personal ambition, his canny relationship-building as a political novice and, quite often, his conspicuous psychic distance from the activist fervor of the times as he plotted a path to office.

“He had other priorities,” Gilbert J. Sloan, a longtime supporter who was active in Delaware’s 1960s protest movements, said of Mr. Biden’s outlook then. “He was very young and ambitious.”

A review of how Mr. Biden navigated this period of national upheaval — drawn from interviews with more than a dozen friends, classmates and others who have known the Democratic nominee across the decades — at once lays bare the implausibility of Mr. Trump’s attack and supplies an enduring window into Mr. Biden’s own theories of social movements. Incremental progress is still progress, he has long believed, and within-the-system change is still change.

If today’s activists have at times viewed Mr. Biden skeptically through this season of unrest, questioning whether he can connect with the passion in the streets when he has rarely shown passion in the streets himself, his early history would appear to reinforce their doubts.

This is a man whose institutionalist instincts seemed to harden even before he belonged to any political institutions — and who has never shown much patience for protests that turn destructive or unruly.

“That’s the way he views activism,” said Bob Markel, a friend since the 1950s. “Occupying an office of a dean or something like that is not his style.”

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It never has been. As the Vietnam War reshaped lives across many less-than-affluent families like his own, with casualties and moral outrage mounting especially among young adults a few years behind him, Mr. Biden eluded both the conflict and the attendant anger. He received five student draft deferments during the war and was kept from service after a physical exam in 1968 because he had asthma as a teenager, according to his campaign. (Mr. Trump, now 74, received five deferments in all, including a medical deferment for bone spurs.)

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