Rethinking America

Joe Biden: The Last of the 1968 Generation

The long march of the 1968 generation through politics is coming to its end. Biden is the big exception. He will be 1968er’s last hurrah.

Credit: Stas Walenga Shutterstock.com

Takeaways


  • The long march of the 1968 generation through politics is coming to its end. Biden is the big exception -- he will be 1968er’s last hurrah.
  • Biden (like Trump) is a life-long teetotaler. Irish families set great store by “signing the pledge” not to drink alcohol.
  • Biden was no radical. He was fixated on mainstream politics from an early age onward -- and talked the talk of social justice.
  • Because Biden is naturally polite, he won’t dismiss Britain despite the sense that Brexit is a form of auto-isolation that weakens the UK’s standing -- and influence.

Some years ago, when I was a foreign minister in Tony Blair’s government, part of my job was to attend some — unfortunately often quite boring — international politics conference held at splendid Lake Como in Northern Italy.

I skipped the five-course lunch to go for a swim. There, at the infinity pool, I found Joe Biden, tall, neat and trim in his swim shorts.

Biden (like Trump) is a life-long teetotaler. Irish families set great store by “signing the pledge” not to drink alcohol. Unusual for a young adult in the 1960s, Biden has kept off the booze all his life.

Modesty and 1968?

Joe Biden is a modest and easy man to talk to — and his life story is as “1968” as they come. He told me how his political awakening was as a student and young political activist in campaigns.

He stood up against the Vietnam War, for civil rights, for the early moves on women’s rights, for fair pay and trade union rights for workers in the tradition of Franklin D. Roosevelt.

Biden was no radical then. He was fixated on mainstream politics from an early age onward and talked the talk of social justice.

It was the big divide in the 1968 generation. Some like Bernie Sanders in the United States and Jeremy Corbyn in the United Kingdom kept the faith over decades for the possibility of a major and abrupt social and political transformation.

Others like Bill Clinton — or Britain’s Gordon Brown — as well as Joe Biden decided to swim in the political mainstream. Becoming a U.S. Senator at just 29 years of age, Biden entered into top flight politics at a remarkably young age.

The Biden perspective on racial injustice from four decade ago

Biden explained to me how he defended Black Panthers and African-Americans who faced the usual police brutality and judicial hostility of the time if they organized protests or were targeted by the police.

As a result, he had the support of the local Delaware black caucus in the Democratic Party when he sought the nomination as a 29-year-old to run for the U.S. Senate in 1972.

It was a Republican-held seat, but Biden ran a 1968 generation inspired campaign against the Vietnam War. He advocated for public transport, higher taxes on the rich, first-generation green issues, civil rights and affordable health care.

He won by the narrowest of margins and told me how, not yet being 30-years-old (as is constitutionally required in the United States), he had to wait a few weeks to reach the age of 30 in order to become a member of the U.S. Senate.

Mr. Can-Do Fix-It

Once there, Biden followed in the footsteps of Presidents Johnson and Roosevelt — and became a fixer, a can-do politician reaching out across the Democratic-Republican divide to cut deals to promote legislation he supported.

That is why those on the political left in U.S. politics have never liked or trusted him.

He faced the same problem as other 1968 generation democratic left politicians like Gordon Brown, Robin Cook, Felipe Gonzales, Joschka Fisher or George Papandreou, after they decided to commit to mainstream politics and leave behind their early radicalism of sit-ins and demonstrations.

The British and European left never trusted them either.

The last titan

Joe Biden is the last top politician of the 1968 generation. That generation’s impact on politics in many countries has been remarkable.

Biden is, above all, a practitioner of foreign policy — both as chair of the Senate’s Foreign Affairs Committee and then Obama’s Vice President.

It is hard to think of a country or capital Biden has not visited. In his 12 years as chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and vice president, he has visited more foreign leaders than any current top politician alive.

An Irish-heritage transatlanticist

When I talked to him in 2004, Biden said he wanted the United States of America and Europe to come together, but that it was going to be genuinely difficult under George W. Bush.

He told me that:

Condi Rice will be the new secretary of state. But she will take all her orders directly from Dick Cheney. They will be worse than the first Bush administration. Colin Powell has lost all influence with the president. He never gets to talk to him and Bush just isn’t interested in listening to him anymore.

He added that Secretary Powell could have had a restraining hand on the administration’s rush to military action in 2002 and 2003, but that — as a former four-star general and the first black American to command the U.S. military — he was too much of a loyal soldier to challenge the elected president.

A real pro on Europe, but no love for the current Tories

Biden is also a specialist on Europe as former Chair of the Senate’s Foreign Relations sub-committee on Europe. He went to difficult regions of Europe like the West Balkans — where his son Beau Biden served with the OSCE in Kosovo before succumbing to cancer.

Biden has described Boris Johnson as “the physical and emotional clone” of Donald Trump. To be sure, the current British cabinet stuffed full of elite public-school educated rich men is not where the Irish-American Biden will see many friends.

Remarkably, in view of his presidential ambitions at the time, Biden in February this year called China’s strong man Xi Jinping a “thug.”

He has also said he would support the democratic opposition in Turkey to Recep Tayyip Erdoğan — and insists on fair treatment for Kurds inside Turkey.

As President, Biden is likely to be a natural partner for Emmanuel Macron and the outgoing Angela Merkel in restoring the Euro-Atlantic axis which Britain has now walked out of following Brexit.

Still, because Biden is naturally polite, he won’t dismiss Britain, despite the widespread sense in the foreign policy community in many countries that Brexit is a form of auto-isolation that weakens the UK’s standing and influence.

Conclusion

The long march of the 1968 generation through politics is coming to its natural end.

Those who marched or took part in sit-ins 50 years ago as young radicals and self-proclaimed revolutionaries are now retired.

Or, like Jeremy Corbyn, they are people on the fringes of politics and irrelevant.

Biden is the big exception. He will be 1968’s last hurrah.

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About Denis MacShane

Denis MacShane is a Contributing Editor at The Globalist. He was the UK's Minister for Europe from 2002 to 2005 — and is the author of “Brexiternity. The Uncertain Fate of Britain” published by IB Tauris-Bloomsbury, London, October 2019. Follow him @DenisMacShane

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