• Can Joe Biden Pull It Off?

    The announcement by former Vice-President Joe Biden of his campaign for the Democratic nomination in the 2020 presidential election will – for those with long memories – bring back recollections of a famous instance of plagiarism which had repercussions on both sides of the Atlantic.

    In 1987, the British Labour Party was led by my old friend and colleague, Neil Kinnock. The voters’ reaction to Kinnock was at best mixed, but no one could doubt, as befitted his Welsh origins, his oratorical gifts; at his best, he was the finest and most effective platform speaker in the country.

    He made a particularly moving speech at the Welsh Labour Party’s Annual Conference in that year. Why, he asked, am I the first Kinnock in a thousand years to go to university? And why, pointing to his wife, Glenys, is Glenys the first woman in her family to go to university? Is it because, he asked rhetorically, all the earlier members of our families were thick?

    He went on to make the argument that social discrimination and economic inequality were the factors that had held their families back and to advance the case for making sure that those factors were counteracted by political action.

    The speech was widely commended and evidently did not pass unnoticed on the other side of the Atlantic. Joe Biden, then the promising young Senator from Delaware, announced later in that same year, that he would seek the Democratic nomination for the forthcoming presidential election. He made an effective speech in which he asked the same rhetorical questions as Kinnock had used – even to the extent of pointing to his wife, as Kinnock had done, and asking the same question about her.

    When sharp-eyed and sharp-eared commentators detected the plagiarism, Biden’s campaign was holed below the water line. His career eventually recovered and he duly became a well-regarded Vice-President to Barrack Obama – and the episode stimulated a friendship between Biden and Kinnock which led to Kinnock being invited to Biden’s inauguration, when Biden welcomed him jokingly as “my speech-writer”.

    Joe Biden is today recognised as one of the most popular, experienced and able Democrats, and reports have it that his candidature would be greatly feared by Donald Trump. That is not to say that his campaign has got off to a winning start; it has instead been dogged by allegations from a number of women of inappropriate touching, though nothing in the same league as Trump’s self-confessed (and notoriously boastful) groping.

    For those who look to 2020 as offering a new start for a USA that has lost its way, the Biden candidature nevertheless looks promising. He has made a strong start in identifying the 2020 campaign as a battle for “the soul of America”.

    We must hope that, in modern America politics, the revelation or recollection that a candidate is possessed of the odd human foible will not be a fatal handicap. The calamity into which a Trump presidency has plunged the country is so all-embracing that almost any escape route must be given constructive consideration.

    If, as Trump’s own assessment seems to suggest, Biden has the beating of Trump in 2020, then we must hope that Biden can again overcome setbacks and can win the battle for a more generous and inclusive America, an America that again can play a full and constructive part in resolving issues, like climate change, that matter to the world as a whole, and one that is led by someone who deserves the respect of those who are asked for their votes.

    We have surely had our fill of someone who lies and blusters as a matter of course, who entirely lacks a moral compass and any sense of social justice, and who deliberately exacerbates the fault lines of ethnicity and religion that threaten to disfigure and disable the world’s greatest and most closely scrutinised democracy.

    Someone with Biden’s record – not perfect and humanly fallible – may be just the kind of candidate who can remind the American people that politics is best conducted by those who are real people and not just constructs of reality television shows. I hope he has some great speeches left in him and does not need help from unwitting “speech-writers” – however good they may be.

    Bryan Gould
    28 April 2019