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The Joe Biden I knew in 1978 — and what it means for the next four years

The Joe Biden I knew in 1978 — and what it means for the next four years
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Shortly after Hubert Humphrey died in 1978, the Minnesota Historical Society had people who’d known him and worked with him interviewed. The group included friends he’d met in his university days, people around him during his years as mayor of Minneapolis, as well as Senate colleagues.

Among the senators interviewed was a first-term Democratic senator from Delaware named Joe Biden. I interviewed him, learning little new about Humphrey, but a great deal about the man who’s our new president which is relevant — I think — to the next four years. (I had also talked some with Humphrey about Senate colleagues, including Biden, when I helped on his autobiography.)

What Joe Biden valued in Humphrey then — empathy, intelligence and knowledge, respect for most everyone, affection for many, an openness to change as facts emerge — seem central to Biden’s character today.

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During the interview, Biden repeatedly referred to Humphrey as “the Boss.” As the interview ended, I asked if he called many people “Boss.”  Biden seemed bewildered by the question: He had done it so naturally that he was not even aware of his deference. They were equal in title, but the “Boss” taught and guided a receptive student.

As Biden described his relationship with Humphrey, it was clear to me that — from the beginning in the Senate and probably before — he knew what he didn’t know and was eager to learn. Biden asked and he listened. He held views strongly, about people and policy, but understood that he might be wrong — and accepted evidence that he was.

When Humphrey, as one example, told him that no Democrat in the Senate really knew much about housing, Biden set out to become that expert and to serve on the Housing and Urban Development Committee. When Biden told Humphrey he would like to be on the Foreign Relations committee, Humphrey was comfortable being his advocate.

Biden’s relationship with Humphrey had not begun easily. Biden had come to the Senate five years earlier where he met Humphrey for the first time. He arrived with the view that Humphrey was a windbag, old, out-of-touch with contemporary life — and could be ignored. Humphrey, he was certain, was a relic of the past, a political neanderthal hanging around beyond his time. That hostile view had been formed largely through the lens of 1968. Biden had been against the war in Vietnam and an ardent volunteer in Eugene McCarthy’s campaign for president. He considered Humphrey a sell-out to Lyndon Johnson. He embraced the Republican-inspired sneer, but widely held, that Humphrey talked too much. 

But something happened to young Biden. He met Humphrey in person.

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In the interview, Biden described how wrong he had been and how quickly he realized it.

What Biden discovered, once a Senator himself, was that Humphrey — demonstrating his skills on the floor in debate, his knowledge in committee discussion, his skill dealing with the media — was the smartest senator that he served with.

Looking back on that interview, I am encouraged to believe that Joe Biden comes to the Oval Office with strong views informed by serious study. As a good president, he will look to his Cabinet for advice, not adoration; he will turn to experts to inform and hone his views.

Senator Biden learned from the Boss. He listened and he learned. That inherent skill will make President BidenJoe BidenKinzinger, Gaetz get in back-and-forth on Twitter over Cheney vote Cheney in defiant floor speech: Trump on 'crusade to undermine our democracy' US officials testify on domestic terrorism in wake of Capitol attack MORE able to truly make our country great again.

Norman Sherman was Vice President Hubert Humphrey’s press secretary, including during the 1968 convention and campaign. He edited Humphrey’s autobiography. During his decades in Washington, he worked in the House, Senate and Executive agencies. He has managed political campaigns in his home state of Minnesota. He held a chair at Louisiana State University as Professor of Political Communication. He is the author of “From Nowhere to Somewhere: My Political Journey,” a memoir covering his various work — paid and otherwise — for Minnesota politicians Eugene McCarthy, Walter Mondale, Wendy Anderson and Don Fraser.