Davis: My advice to Joe Biden on eve of the debate — be Joe Biden

First, let me describe the Joe Biden I have known for — let me calculate almost exactly — 47 years.

I first met him in the fall of 1973 — I was 27, just beginning a congressional campaign in Montgomery County, Md. (suburban Washington) against an incumbent Republican, Rep. Gilbert Gude. I was told by local Democratic leaders that Gude was unbeatable, a liberal Republican Democrats loved to vote for, like his predecessor, the then Republican Sen. Charles “Mac” Mathias.

A member of the Democratic Central Committee named Wes Barthelmes urged me to run, even though I knew the only reason the party was asking me to run for Congress when I had never held elective office before and had just moved into the county was that they were desperate. But Wes said to me: if you think you can’t win, you have to meet my new boss, the new senator from Delaware, Joe Biden. (Barthelmes been recently hired to serve as Biden’s “administrative assistant” — the functional equivalent in today’s parlance of “chief of staff.”)

Biden, too, Wes told me, was told by everyone he couldn’t beat the venerable incumbent Republican incumbent, J. Caleb Boggs. So, he was told, no Democrat wanted to run against Boggs. So, he, Joe Biden, a 29-year-old councilman from the small town of New Castle, Del., was asked, like me, to be the sacrificial lamb.

He was over 30 points behind in the summer before the November 1972 election, with no money, just energy. No one thought he had a chance, except for his wife and indefatigable sister named Val, who was running his campaign. But Joe won by under 4,000 votes on election day, Nov. 7, 1972 — at 29, he wouldn’t turn 30, the constitutional required age to be a U.S. senator, until Nov. 20.

Then I had heard about the horrible tragedy a month after Joe’s amazing victory. His wife Neilia and 13-month daughter, Naomi, were killed in a horrible car accident while Christmas shopping; his two young sons, Beau and Hunter, survived. So, when I walked into his office with Wes Barthelmes to meet Biden, I think in October 1973, I felt awkward about talking about my political campaign when I knew he was still deep in grief.

It took about 10 seconds for me to see Joe Biden’s ability to overcome his grief when he became excited to talk and help and give advice to someone else about politics. He knew all about my “hopeless” campaign, and immediately told me to ignore all the pessimists the way he did. He reached into his desk and showed me his “key” to the upset victory: a huge tabloid-sized newspaper, about eight pages in length, with a big picture of the handsome young Biden on the front page, with a headline, something like: “Time for new energy and change in Washington” (I am making that up, but it was pretty close to that).

“You see, Lanny,” Joe said, “people like to read newspapers — they throw away fancy campaign brochures. I used to love looking back and seeing people turning the pages and actually reading.” His enthusiasm was infectious. And amazing.

Over the years, I went to Joe only once to lobby. It was about an organization my wife worked for as an attorney for many years — the National Center for Missing & Exploited Children, NCMEC, famous now for “Amber Alert,” finding abducted and abused children, and saving them from the monstrous predators lurking to seize them when their parents weren’t looking and to lure them away from home on the Internet.

“Tell me what I can do, and I will do it,” Joe said to me, without any hesitancy. He introduced me to one of his young aides, Anthony (“Tony”) Blinken. Tony helped my wife and she helped him and Joe with advice on various federal laws to help find missing children and track child sex abusers. (Tony Blinken went on to become deputy secretary of State to my longtime law school friend, Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton and is today a senior advisor and friend of VP Biden).

I saw Joe Biden every so often in the halls of Congress, busy walking to a committee hearing or surrounded by visiting constituents from Delaware. When he saw me he never missed stopping, breaking off, giving me a hug, and saying: “Hey Lanny — remember those tabloid newspapers!”

Now I can imagine the advice Joe is getting about debating Trump tomorrow night. “Don’t let him run you over with insults,” I can guess Joe is being told. “Stand up to him — be tough — and attack back.”

But no, I say: Don’t do it, Joe. Resist, resist, resist such advice.

Ignore those who warn you not to seem weak compared to the blustering, bullying Trump.

Instead, focus on what Americans want and need — to talk about the issues they care about: health care, the pandemic and finding a way that follows, not politicizes, science, jobs and education despite the pandemic.

Most of all, remind America what they really want is CHANGE and a HOPE (NOT “CARNAGE”) IN THE FUTURE — away from chaos and personal vitriol and lies and tweets. And back to unity, stability and decency by a president who brings us together.

Unity, stability and decency — those are the three words that describe you best, Joe.

That is exactly who you are, Joe. A person who cares about others, who knows the hurt of tragedy, feels other people’s pain as you have felt your own horrific pain, and knows the power of hope and empathy and healing from your life experience.

If you do that, you will win the debates and the election on Nov. 3 by being Joe Biden. You will remind us all — Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives, red states and blue states — that we can be one America again, able to disagree agreeably, bound together by our reverence for our history, our constitution, and the rule of law.

In other words, Joe — just be yourself. Be Joe Biden. Compared to Trump being Trump, as he must be — it won’t even be close.

Davis served as special counsel to President Bill Clinton (1996-98) and served as a member of President Bush’s Privacy and Civil Liberties Oversight Board. He is co-founder of the law firm of Davis Goldberg & Galper and the strategic media and crisis management firm Trident DMG. He authored “Crisis Tales: Five Rules for Coping with Crises in Business, Politics and Life” (Scribner Threshold 2013).

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