“The journey of this country has always been: When we run into this phony populism that occurs, it always gets pushed back,” former vice president Joe Biden said on Monday night during the New York stop of his book tour. “It’s one step back, three steps forward.”
Biden offered numerous variations on this reassuring theme during a talk at Lincoln Center in New York City. He was speaking with Stephen Colbert on the American Promise tour, a trip around the country in support of the Vice President’s new book, Promise Me, Dad. (Biden recently narrated the book himself for Audible.) The volume tells the story of his eldest son Beau Biden’s battle with cancer, which ultimately led to his 2015 death at age 46. Biden said he hoped the narrative could serve as a salve for the pain of others, but it’s also a reminder for himself: The promise in the title is his commitment to “stay engaged” in the political arena.
At Lincoln Center, Biden discussed the challenges of writing Promise Me, Dad before pivoting into a discussion of the current political climate. He quoted the Declaration of Independence, laughed at Colbert’s impression of Donald Trump and urged those in attendance to be politically active. But most of all, he tried to offer hope to an audience that was desperately searching for signs of his “three steps forward.” Here are eight things we learned.
1. He misses politics.
Biden is staying busy juggling two university posts and the Biden Cancer Initiative, which he launched earlier this year. But it’s still strange for him not to be in elected office after over four decades. “I’m one of those guys who enjoyed [it] – I was proud to be a senator, I was proud to serve,” Biden told Colbert. “I came up in a generation where I believed that was an honorable thing. I enjoyed it; I enjoyed the people I worked with. Most people run because they have a good reason, they want to make things better from their perspective. I still respect the institutions.”
Biden believes those who are scared by Trump’s actions should be heartened by the persistence of those governmental institutions he holds dear. “The politics and the attacks in the first five administrations were meaner, tougher, more direct and more vicious than they even are today,” he added later. “But the institutions prevailed.”
“I think people are starting to realize, ‘woah, this is a lot worse than we realized.'”
2. He still believes in bipartisanship.
Much of Biden’s job on Monday night was to offer comfort to liberals who feel they’re witnessing the fall of democracy. “I’m hanging on by my fingernails sometimes; I have a twitch in my right eye,” Colbert told his guest. “You want to see the cardinal virtues exhibited in the world. You want to believe in the promise of the nation, in the promise of humanity. Do you see examples of political courage today?”
Biden turned quickly to “my friend John McCain” and Arizona’s other senator, Jeff Flake, “a guy who’s not getting enough credit.” “He knew when he wrote that book [Conscience of a Conservative: A Rejection of Destructive Politics and a Return to Principle] it was probably his death knell, but it was a matter of principle, he did it,” Biden asserted.
3. He thinks that public perception of President Trump is moving towards a tipping point.
Multiple times on Monday, Biden used a historical example to suggest that society was on the verge of what he believes will be a momentous shift. “I graduated from college in 1965, law school in 1968. In 1965, it was drop out, don’t trust anyone over 30, the Vietnam war was going on, don’t get engaged, don’t be involved. By 1968 when I graduated, I walked across that stage… Gosh darn it I was going to do something about changing this. And a whole generation rose up and said, ‘whoa, this is really, really bad, where we are.'”
“That’s what your generation is doing now,” Biden continued. “Look at this last election. I think people are starting to realize, ‘woah, this is a lot worse than we realized.’ What started out as maybe something amusing or distasteful, people are now starting to get genuinely worried about our democratic system. [Colbert silently raised his hand.] That’s the same thing that happened 45 years ago in my generation. It got to the point where we thought the system was corrupt, and we said, ‘we gotta change that.'”
4. He’s still a staunch defender of government.
Colbert asked Biden to defend public service at a time when faith in government has never been lower. “No one gets to hide, no matter how well you do,” Biden replied. “You can’t build a wall high enough to keep the environment clean. You are diminished when your sister can’t marry the woman she loves … when your friend is profiled because of their race or their color or their background.”
Biden remembered going to visit a college professor for advice when he was considering his first run for United States Senate. “He said, ‘look, remember Plato,'” Biden recalled. “To paraphrase it: The penalty good people pay for not being involved in politics is they’re governed by people worse than themselves. [Working in government] still can be and should be a noble undertaking. You gotta make a difference. You gotta get involved. There is no place to hide.”
5. He thinks Trump is sanctioning racism.
“Do you still have hope that the Trump administration is not a flaming toboggan ride?” Colbert asked. “It may be a toboggan ride, but it’s now almost at the end,” Biden stated. “The idea that I’d ever live to see what happened in Charlottesville – Nazis carrying Nazi flags and singing the same anti-semitic phrases that they used in Germany in the Thirties? It matters why this happens. It happens because of the Breitbarts of the world. What leaders say matters. It matters. People are listening. What you do by implication and by your silence is you legitimize people to come forward. I think the public has [now moved] from ‘ok, he’s a little different,’ to ‘ok, this is dangerous to the fabric of society.'”
6. He supports freedom of the press above all else.
“Breitbart and [Steve] Bannon, what are the two things they attack?” Biden asked. “What every dictator has [attacked] – the freedom of the press and the courts. Without those two arbiters, it all goes up in smoke. Jefferson said … ‘if you allowed me to have this democratic government or a free press, and I could only choose one, I would take the free press. My freedoms are more protected by the free press.’ This constant attempt to delegitimize the press is all about getting to the point where you can abuse power.”
“I think the public has [now moved] from ‘ok, he’s a little different,’ to ‘ok, this is dangerous to the fabric of society.'”
7. Numbers are on the Democrats’ side.
“Now it’s true, 80% of the people who said they voted for Trump before said they’ll vote for him again,” Biden allowed. “But remember, he needs 99% of the people who voted for him last time. And he has to hope that the millennials who stayed home will stay home this time. Last [presidential election], for the first time, there were .3% more registered millennials than baby boomers. But they didn’t show up. The campaign knew that one of the ways they could lose was if they didn’t generate a large turnout, they were gonna see big gaps. This thing all came down to 74,500 votes. People were like, ‘a pox on both your houses,’ and didn’t show up. Now they’re realizing there was a real price to pay.”
8. He’s in occasional communication with current Vice President Mike Pence on foreign policy.
Colbert asked Biden if he was in touch with his successor, Mike Pence. “One of the things that I try to do is give the best – especially when it’s solicited, but sometimes unsolicited – advice about where the lines are in foreign policy,” Biden said. “I’m fairly informed on American foreign policy. I will get on the phone, and I have, and my national security staff, which I still have, they’ll talk with his security people. I’ll say, I highly recommend you not do A, B, C or D because it will cause this reaction. And interestingly enough, I don’t want to get him in trouble, occasionally he’s sought that advice.”