Recently in this space, I wrote about a little-noticed June 3 visit to the Vatican by Vice President Joe Biden, a self-professing “pro-choice Catholic.” Biden was in Rome for a ceremonial function, and got an invitation from the Holy Father. Both sides were tight-lipped on reasons and details. The visit wasn’t even listed on the pope’s daily public schedule. “I have no comment,” replied the Vatican spokesman when asked about the meeting. “It was a totally private meeting and there will be no communiqué.”
I was surprised by those at this website (readers’ comments) who came to Biden’s vigorous defense, or, at the least, testily told me that Biden’s discussions with Pope Benedict are none of my business. Of course, private matters of individual faith—if that’s what the meeting was about—aren’t my business. In Biden’s case, however, I imagine that the meeting had more to do with public matters of faith and state—namely, abortion. There, Biden has plainly betrayed his faith.
That aside, Biden was in the news again last week. This time, the issue was whether he referred to Tea Party members as “terrorists.” Biden claims he did not use that word, but others (including Politico) claim he did.
I’ll let the pundits keep digging on that one, but such a slight from Biden would not be a surprise. It strikes at the core of a longtime tendency of Biden’s: his ability to put on a smiling face while eviscerating political opponents.
The most infamous example that I know very well is the case of a saintly man named Bill Clark, who was Ronald Reagan’s closest friend and aide, dating back to Reagan’s gubernatorial years in the 1960s, when Clark was chief of staff. Clark, still alive at age 79, remains a very devout Catholic. I know him quite well—I’m his biographer.
I’ve never encountered anyone who didn’t like Bill Clark. I’ve also never encountered anyone who treated him as shabbily, with intended humiliation, as Joe Biden.
Here’s the deal: In February 1981, Clark had been nominated as deputy secretary of state by the new president. Reagan had begged Clark to leave the California Supreme Court to come to Washington to help him. He wanted Judge Clark at the State Department not for his foreign-policy expertise but for his wisdom, prudence, fairness, and management and administrative skills. He knew he could trust Clark, and he badly needed a reliable man at State. Clark grudgingly accepted, leaving his ranch and family out of a sense of loyalty to country.
Unfortunately, this meant that Clark had endure confirmation hearings before the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, where, in February 1981, sat a smiling senator from Delaware named Joe Biden. What happened next was so ugly that the Washington Post would title the episode, “The Interrogation of Justice Clark.”
Biden started his questioning by patronizing Clark, telling him how much he admired how Clark had struggled from such humble, poor beginnings. “I have a great deal of admiration for you,” said Biden.
The senator then curiously expressed that admiration by subjecting Clark to a silly Q&A that he knew Clark wouldn’t be able to answer—and didn’t need to be able to answer for the job.
“I sincerely hope you can answer these questions,” began Biden, disingenuously.
The pop quiz began:
Biden: “Let me begin with southern Africa—not South Africa, but southern Africa, such as Namibia, Zimbabwe, Swaziland, Mozambique, Angola and so on…. Can you tell me who is the prime minister of South Africa?”
Clark, sweating, squirming, red in the face: “No, sir, I cannot.”
Reporters scribbled studiously. Cameras clicked repeatedly.
Biden: “Can you tell me who the prime minister of Zimbabwe is?”
Clark: “It would be a guess.”
Biden: “Can you tell me what the major bilateral issues are between the United States and Brazil at this point?”
Biden, feigning an apology: “I really don’t like doing this, Justice Clark, but I don’t know how else to get at the point…. I really apologize, Mr. Justice. I know you are on the spot, and I don’t know how else I can do my job. This is one of the most distasteful question-and-answer periods in which I have participated. And, by the way, no one but me, not my staff, suggested that I use this approach… But this issue with regard to you, justice, in my opinion, is not whether or not you are bright. I think you are a bright man…. I have incredible regard for you. I really mean that.”
It was distasteful alright. And the media worldwide responded by mocking Clark, with foreign newspapers headlining and ridiculing him as a mumbling moron. The Soviets loved Biden’s display, smearing Clark in their newspapers as Reagan’s new idiot-in-chief at State.
Years after this, I discussed the episode with Clark’s family.
His son, Pete, a literal cowboy, a tough guy, held back tears, telling me: “It still hurts.”
His son, Colin, told me: “I was absolutely fried, furious. I turned purple with rage.”
That rage was visible. The Clark boys sat there in the hearing room, with their mom and siblings, proudly watching their dad—who they considered their hero. As Biden thoroughly embarrassed their father, Senator Nancy Kassebaum looked over at the boys and felt their pain, trying to interject to stop Biden’s odd expression of “incredible regard” for Bill Clark.
Clark, as usual, behaved like a gentleman, showing Biden undeserved respect, and calmly explaining to Biden what everyone already knew: Reagan hadn’t tapped him for expertise in foreign policy. That wasn’t the point.
Of course, Biden knew that.
When Clark and I discussed this, Clark recounted it with typical self-deprecation, saying the ordeal was “probably much deserved.”
So virtuous was Clark that he never even shared with the press what happened after all of this. After the hearings, down the hall and away from the microphones, Biden tugged Clark aside, and whispered, “Hey, Judge, no hard feelings…. And don’t worry: I didn’t know the answers to those questions either.”
I wish I could say this spectacle was unusual for Joe Biden, but it was not. He did similar things to two other good men under confirmation: Ed Meese, when Meese was up for attorney general, and Clarence Thomas, when Thomas was railroaded during his horrid confirmation hearings for the Supreme Court. In both cases, Biden finished the interrogation by walking up to each man, off-camera and out of public view, smiled, slapped them on the back, and said the same thing he said to Clark: “Hey, pal, no hard feelings!”
No hard feelings? For years, this Catholic public official has cast aspersions upon good people—always with a grin—and gotten away with it. Members of the Tea Party would be merely his latest victims.
Paul Kengor is professor of political science at Grove City College. His books include The Judge: William P. Clark, Ronald Reagan’s Top Hand (Ignatius Press) and Dupes: How America’s Adversaries Have Manipulated Progressives for a Century.