Biden won Delaware's heart in the 1970s, but does his appeal resonate nationally today?
Joe Biden's mythology, steeped in the values of postwar Americana, convinced Delaware voters in 1972 to send him to Washington, D.C. – just before his 30th birthday.
More than 36 years later, the former vice president and longtime senator has questioned whether his narrative still appeals to voters, particularly those in a leftward-shifting Democratic Party.
"This alleged appeal that I have. How deep does it run? Is it real?" Biden asked at the University of Delaware in February.
The theme arose again this week amid claims from women who describe Biden touching them without their consent. It was a political tremor for the former vice president as critics said his actions belittle women and leave them at a disadvantage in professional settings.
Yet, the outrage left many in Delaware perplexed, as they reflected on his decades of politicking in the state. Isn't this Joe being Joe?
How the Biden mythology took shape
Delaware first got to know Biden, the politician, in the 1970s, more than 40 years before #metoo. He was "a most promising young man," a News Journal profile had enthusiastically stated.
He was the kid, born to the "coal cracking region" of Scranton, Pennsylvania, with the appeal of a Kennedy.
He was the football player from Archmere Academy, who would go on to play for the University of Delaware and, after that, earn a law degree from Syracuse.
He didn't drink or do drugs like so many of his peers had during the tumult of the 1960s. His "crutch," he would say, was football, skiing and motorcycle jumping.
As for references to the Kennedys, they "never played football the way we play football," Biden once said, full of bravado.
Biden's first wife, Neilia Hunter – who died in a 1972 car crash – was a homecoming queen, whom he had met during a student trip to the Bahamas. After their marriage, Biden wanted her to stay at home in order to "mold my children" – at least in the early years, according to The News Journal profile.
"I'm not a 'Keep 'em barefoot and pregnant man," he had said. "But I am all for keeping them pregnant until I have a little girl."
du Pont v. Biden
In 1970, Biden's future as a national politician was beginning to take shape.
Even before he took his seat on county council, Delaware's Democratic Party chairman said Biden had all of the "qualifications for a great future in government."
Yet, some Delawareans resisted the Biden affection, notably prominent Republicans. Tension was particularly acute when the young attorney running for a seat on the council went on the attack against county officials whom, he said, were responsible for a spike in crime.
Calling for an expanded police criminal division, increased cooperation between departments and a focus on combating drug use, Biden introduced an agenda that would reappear throughout his later legislative career, particularly in his support for the 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act.
"Citizens of New Castle County are not receiving the police protection to which they are entitled," Biden proclaimed in August 1970.
At a Prices Corner community meeting in October of that year, Biden stated that a lack of imagination from Republicans was causing Brookland Terrace to lack police presence, allowing drug use to flourish.
The comment brought the conservative, then-Congressman Pete du Pont to his feet to proclaim that Biden was "somebody here running for county council who really doesn't know what he's talking about."
It would be an opening salvo in a political rivalry that lasted decades. In 1988, each man ran for the presidential nomination in their respective parties. Both failed.
While policing drug use was a central theme for his county council campaign, so was treatment.
Hinting at a policy that has re-emerged today with the heroin epidemic, Biden called for more in-patient treatment centers for drug users. But he did not support facilities run by "youngsters with severe problems of their own," he would say.
Biden also spoke about racism during the county council campaign, though news archives show no indication that he recounted his experience of being the only white lifeguard at a Wilmington city pool in the early 1960s.
Today, the former vice president frequently tells the story about how in the early 1960s he became inspired by Martin Luther King Jr.'s message. He wanted to get involved in the movement, he said in 2017, "but didn't know any black people." So, in the summer of 1962, he went to work at the pool at Brown-Burton Winchester Park in Northeast Wilmington.
In the following years, race became a prominent part of the national political conversation, punctuated by MLK's assassination, civil rights legislation in Congress and riots in Wilmington.
In 1970, Biden told The News Journal about how he had been criticized by racists for supporting public housing, though he was clear to point out that he was not among the people on the "far left" of the issue.
In the News Journal story, he appeared to equate a racist attack on an elderly black woman with violent street crime against a disabled white person. Biden criticized the ACLU for not acknowledging that perpetrators in each, he said, were "products of an environment."
"I have some friends on the far left, and they can justify to me the murder of a white deaf mute for a nickel by five colored guys. They say the black men had been oppressed and so on ... But they can't justify some Alabama farmers tar and feathering an old colored woman ... I suspect the ACLU would leap to defend the five black guys. But no one would go down to help the 'rednecks.' ... They are both products of an environment. The truth is somewhere between the two poles. And 'rednecks' are usually people with very real concerns, people who lack the education and skills to express themselves quietly and articulately."
Two years on county council
In November 1970, Biden convincingly won the race to represent the Prices Corner-area district on the New Castle County Council.
During the subsequent two years, county political news centered on Shell Oil's request to build a refinery near Smyrna and Biden's potential run for the U.S. Senate.
Both put him at odds with Delaware's Republican governor at the time, Russell W. Peterson, a noted environmentalist.
Regarding Shell, it was a divide that centered mostly around tone as both politicians expressed general opposition to the plan. Biden, though, wanted to give Shell a "fair opportunity" to make its case.
As for the prospect of a Senator Biden, Peterson began to ask Delaware why it would replace the incumbent Sen. J. Caleb Boggs "with some young kid?"
He said Biden's portrayal of himself as an environmentalist was a public relations stunt, akin to his staff crediting him with writing the Declaration of Independence. Other prominent state Republicans expressed harsher opposition with one calling him "a fraud."
"He shifts his position on busing school children, welfare, amnesty for draft dodgers and defense budget cuts," Colgate said.
The barbs apparently had little effect on the public as Biden outraised Boggs 2 to 1 in campaign contributions, setting his path to victory.
Biden's views about busing resurfaced recently in the Washington Post, when it reported how he took a lead role in opposing sending white students to majority-black schools and vice versa.
Biden's spokesman told the Post that the potential presidential candidate stands by his policy position from 40 years ago.
Contact Karl Baker at email@example.com or (302) 324-2329. Follow him on Twitter @kbaker6.