Former U.S. Vice President Joe Biden held a public talk at Vanderbilt University with Vanderbilt Chancellor Nichols S. Zeppos. AP Photo by Mark Humphrey

By Clare Bratten

NASHVILLE, TN — An energized and articulate Joe Biden expressed concern about the worsening political climate in Washington last week in a public talk here with Chancellor Nicholas Zeppos on the Vanderbilt campus.

He cited as an example the reaction of President Trump to the Charlottesville, Virginia rally by white supremacists. It prompted Biden to write a political column expressing his worry about the deterioration of political relations.

“I wrote [the article] because I wanted to remind us of who the hell we are. What we are made of. We are not people that have been divided. We are not people based on tribe or religion. We are a people based on ideals. We’ve not met the ideals, but we’ve never denied that we have to strive for them. But there’s something missing now,” said Biden.

“I couldn’t remain silent any longer when Charlottesville occurred. The idea of people coming out of the fields with lighted torches, walking down the street of a historic city in America, chanting the same anti-Semitic bile–carrying the swastikas that were carried and chanted in Germany in the ‘30s–accompanied by white supremacists–and then confronted by those who oppose them and a moral equivalence being drawn [by Trump] between the two.”

Biden quoted Trump’s remark — “’There are good people in both camps.’” And responded… “What in the hell message do we then send to the rest of the world? I was raised up with a father who was a righteous Christian who said ‘Silence is complicity. Our children are listening.’ And for us to remain silent in that circumstance was absolutely wrong.”

Biden said he could trace the loss of political comity in the Senate and Congress to the Newt Gingrich Tea Party “revolution” in the early 1990s. Before that time, he would sit and listen to debates with his Republican friend and colleague, John McCain. They would eat lunch together, argue politics and hang out with each other.

“We’d have these terrible debates and we’d end up going down and having lunch together. The political system was not broken. The political system functioned. People played by the basic rules,” Biden said.

Then, in the Gingrich era, each political caucus told both Biden and McCain to stop eating lunch and sitting together.

“I said [to the caucus] ‘Who the hell are you telling me who I can sit with? Or where I’m going to sit?’  But this is the beginning of the time where you look at the other side as the enemy and not the opposition. Today our politics is so coarse. It is so, so degraded. It is so mean spirited.”

Biden pointed out the Senate lunch rooms were now gone and there was no place for Republicans and Democrats to meet on a social level with each other on the Capitol grounds.

Biden cited conservative columnist David Brooks as someone also worried about the damage to our national morality.

“[Brooks] talks about an invisible moral fabric that holds up all democracies and societies. It’s made up of certain norms of decency and honor. Giving hate no refuge, realizing that there is something bigger than us individually.  Working together. And it is under attack and … what happens is — that leaders, to their surprise, have outsized influence on the formation of ideas and thoughts of young people. It’s profound. It matters. It matters.”

Joe Biden talked about the impact of the loss of his wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972 and then the loss of his son Beau Biden in 2015 to cancer and its effect on his decision to run for office. He said he was still dealing with the loss of Beau to brain cancer. He said he would consider again in January whether to try a run for the Presidency.

He harkened back to the values he saw that America still has and part of the evidence of that was the election of Barack Obama.

“Look–America elected a black president and an Irish guy from Delaware.”

“We are not a leader because we have the most powerful military in the world. The reason why we’ve been a leader since World War II is not because of our power. It’s the power of our example.”

“[We have] The most productive workers – our workers are three times more productive than others. No one gets punished for challenging orthodoxy. We have constant renewal, the strength of America is our immigration. We got to cherry pick the best and bravest. We are better positioned to own the 21st century. I don’t know any leader of a country who wouldn’t trade to be a leader in the U.S. It’s time to realize who the hell we are – the future is absolutely open – we are energy independent – what the hell are we whining about?”

The conclusion of Joe Biden’s talk was greeted with standing ovation and cheers from the audience.