After I got off work in the early 80s, the speaker on my 19 inch portable TV broadcast speeches, testimony, debates, and political events. I was addicted to C-SPAN. Back then, a single C-SPAN station covered all Congressional proceedings. (Today, there are 3 C-SPAN stations.) There were some interviews, call-in shows, and book reviews, but mainly the camera simply ran, without a host, showing whatever was happening on the floors of the House of Representatives and Senate. I know it sounds dull, but after watching for a while, the political dialog had the feel of a soap opera, with the same tentative relationships, arguments, back stabbings, betrayals, reconciliations, and ongoing dramatic moments that you would find in Days of Our Lives. But, this was not just a soap-opera; the decisions that were made really mattered.
Various leaders would come to the microphone and try to steal the spotlight by scoring points against their opponents. The world would end, they’d say, if the opponents’ bills passed. You can see why political debate is called political theater. Eventually, after the combatants had played to the press by hammering away at their opponents, a deal would be struck behind closed doors. Horse trading it’s called. More often than not, back in those days, the political enemies in the soap opera would return to their real lives and continue their friendships with their theatrical enemies sharing a few beers together before the next day’s episode began.
Joe Biden was one of the few on C-SPAN who stood out in my mind as being above the fray. While most others would attack their opponents to bolster their image, secure their party’s position or affect public opinion, Biden seemed to ask questions that got to the heart of the matter. He made insightful comments and tried to bridge the differences between the two parties. At the time, I thought he would make a good president. The opportunity came. But, while running for the presidency back in the late 80s, it was revealed that he plagiarized a paper in law school (he was caught at the time). He also gave some speeches without naming the sources, and he stretched the truth about his involvement in the civil rights movement, among other things (see the New York Times article at this link: http://www.nytimes.com/1987/09/18/us/biden-admits-plagiarism-in-school-but-says-it-was-not-malevolent.html?pagewanted=all). As a result of the revelations, I no longer thought he was a true statesperson: He seemed to be just another politician. I had lost my trust in him; his credibility was damaged.
One of the big stories this past week was Joe Biden’s decision not to run for the presidency. Before he spoke in the Rose Garden telling people he was not running, I read several magazine articles that indicated that he was definitely running. What was the evidence? Biden was meeting with potential running mates, he was setting up PACs, he spoke with people about running his campaign, he got the president’s blessing, etc. Another reason given for his run was that he disliked Hillary Clinton. The national polls were favorable even though he was not even an announced candidate. The most emotional reason given was the press report that his son Beau, on his death-bed, asked him to run for the presidency.
What did the vice-president say before he made his decision? He said all along that he was undecided. He was not sure if he was emotionally strong enough to give 100% to a presidential campaign following the death of his son. Having been a candidate twice before, he knew about the toll a campaign would take on his family. He also understood the grieving process having lost his wife and a baby daughter in a car crash back in 1972. Losing a spouse would probably be the most difficult thing for most people to endure. Losing a child would probably be just about as painful. Yes, he wanted to be president. For sure. But, he did not want his run to cause his family to suffer. On Sixty Minutes last night, he spoke about his grandchildren asking him about their father, Beau. I think Joe didn’t run for president because he felt he needed to be there for those kids. He was telling the truth all along about being undecided, but few in the press listened.
Speculation often makes for a better story than reporting the facts. Vice-President Biden said, contrary to what was reported, that he had a good relationship with Secretary Clinton. Biden denied that his son ever asked him to run as a last request. Joe Biden said he had simply needed to take some time to evaluate how quickly his family would recover from its recent tragedy, and he eventually decided that he could not give his all to a presidential campaign. This was a logical explanation of an emotion-filled decision, but the press and the American people always look for hidden motives in politicians.
In this campaign season, the American people seem to be favoring candidates who are consistent and up front about their beliefs. The public prefers political outsiders because people have grown weary of the political soap opera. The behind the closed doors deals are no longer getting made. We simply have endless debate, with many people wanting to settle for nothing less than total victory. The government has ground to a halt as a result. America is more fragmented than it has ever been before. With all of the new forms of communication technology, all the country’s varied voices have outlets for expression and the shrillest voices attract the most attention. However, we need to keep in mind that behind all the diversity of communication, there are human beings. We will sometimes experience tragedy and sometimes experience triumph. However, we will spend most of our lives living between the realms of victory and defeat. We have to figure out how to live together when we only get part of what we want. We also have to admit that we are not always right. We have to be open-minded and tolerant. And sometimes, we have to trust that people are telling us the truth, even if they are politicians.