Joe Biden’s ’68 Throwback Special
At a campaign stop in Hanover, NH over the weekend, the end of former Vice President Joe Biden’s townhall event turned into story time with Joe about the not-so-good ‘ol days .
“My senior semester they (Robert Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr.) were both shot and killed,” Mr. Biden said. “Imagine what would have happened if, God forbid, Barack Obama had been assassinated after becoming the de facto nominee. What would have happened in America?”
I think of where we are at the moment. You know, none of you men are old — women are old enough, but a couple of you guys are old enough to remember. I graduated in 1968. Everybody before me was, drop out, go to Haight-Ashbury, don’t trust anybody over 30, everybody not getting involved. I’m serious, I know no woman will shake their head and acknowledge it, but you guys know what I’m talking about. Right? But then what happened? Dr. Ki— I only have two political heroes. I have one hero who was my dad, but I have two political heroes were Martin Luther King and Bobby Kennedy. My senior semester they were both shot and killed. Imagine what would have happened if, God forbid, Barack Obama had been assassinated after becoming the de facto nominee. What would have happened in America?
“Things changed,” he continued. “You had over 40 kids shot at Kent State on a beautiful lawn by the National Guard.”
That last bit was typical Joe Biden- it was 4 killed and 9 shot on that horrible day at Kent State. Not 40 thankfully, but no less tragic. The image of a screaming girl standing over a fatally shot man won the Pulitzer Prize and became indelible for a generation. The national trauma of two Kennedys and Martin Luther King, Jr. being assassinated were, like Joe Biden said they were for him, formative events to that generation.
The problem is, that was not only a generation ago, but nearly two generations ago. I’m bad at math, but I can keep 1968 straight. Last year we celebrated my parents 50th wedding anniversary, as they were married in 1968. That makes the assassinations and other turmoil of that year 51 years ago, or if you want to go with Kent State it’s 49 years from that bloody day in 1970.
I am either the youngest Gen Xer or oldest Millennial, depended on which numbers you use. I probably fit more into the former than the latter, as I grew up rather rural and traditional. My formative years meant escaping high school and stumbling into adulthood before the takeover of cell phones and the internet amalgamated the Millennials into the BigTech collective like the Borg. I think of the “major events” that may have shaped “my” generation, if there is such a thing. The 1998 midterm was the first election I could vote in, and the ensuing Clinton impeachment drama was formative to how I have viewed American politics ever since. I was already on active duty in the military when 9/11 happened, my phone ringing and ordering me to report for duty mere moments after the second plane hit. I was a homeowner trying to sell a home when the housing bubble popped and took the economy with it. I’ve had to pay for my family’s healthcare out of my own pocket through Cobra when in a transitional period, not long after the national debate on the Affordable Care Act. Confined to a hospital bed from August until November of 2016 I had my full fill and then some of the last presidential election and the coverage surrounding it.
And for all of my nearly 40 years of life the ’60s in America has constantly been referenced and discussed. Which is fine; there are plenty of things to learn, understand, and apply from that era. The historian I am at heart, no doubt influenced by a father who was a history teacher, I refer to the past as a marker and guide for the present and future to the point of annoyance. There are limits, however. Consider that discussing the 1960s in America today is the same as those folks in the 1960s discussing WWI-era America. Fifty years further back from that, and you would be discussing the actual shooting Civil War, not just today’s rhetorical allusions to one. Fifty years back from that, you have the White House Joe Biden is trying to return to gutted by flames at the hands of the British. Time is a funny thing, moving both rapidly and unnoticed, until you start taking 50 year chunks of it like story time with Joe did; all of the sudden the past is both really far away but strangely close to those who are old enough for 50 years to not seem that long ago.
Boomers, and those older, probably nod along to Joe’s story of those events. Boomers have been the dominant voting group in the country for a while. Depending on which numbers you use, Millennials either have or soon will surpass them. But more startling, when you combine the voting-age folks under 51, born since Joe Biden’s 1968 reference point, the numbers are a tidal wave of change. The 70 million Boomers give way to Millennials and Gen-Xers that now number by some estimates closer to 120 Million.
So aside from the gaffes, Joe-isms, and other parts of Biden waxing nostalgic, there is a fair question of how such things will land with the 2020 electorate. There are fair comparisons to be made in current turbulent political times with the past ones, but how much does that move the needle with folks? The knock on Joe Biden is that he is a front runner by default, the one people are settling on but not excited about. There are questions about his age — he would be the oldest elected president ever — not just for health and competency issues but also the undeniable truth that at some point, the world does pass you by.
How many in that 120 Million-odd that are 51 or younger would know what that Kent State photo is about without context? Probably most know about JFK being assassinated, but how many know about Robert’s murder during a primary? For a society that gets nostalgic about Stranger Things, which is set in the only 30-some years ago ’80s, it seems like teaching ancient history to bring up the Vietnam era outside of certain groups or settings. To many, anything before the advent of the smart phone is no longer the modern era.
The “is he too old?” conversation is not just one of physical and mental ability to perform the job. Time being the relentless force it is, it doesn’t stop, or pause, or wait. It is undefeated in its eternal competition against man and passes everyone by, usually just shortly before it ceases to be an issue at all thanks to time’s hunting partner, death. And those concerns are not just of the political nature. Fresh in my mind is the conversation and something of a running joke in my family about my own grandfather, who was within weeks of being the same age as Ronald Reagan. Grandad admired President Reagan, thought the world of him, and in the landslide re-election of 1984 he… refused to vote for him. “Men our age have no business being president,” he had declared in his calm but firm matter-of-fact tone we were all used to and knew better than to argue with. While open to disagreement, such integrity in selecting our candidates is far from the worst method.
Selecting a candidate based solely on nostalgia might well be one of those worst methods. Joe Biden is laying the nostalgia on thick; for the Obama years, for a bygone era, for times before now as if there were no problems whatsoever before the orange man descended the gold staircase and brought darkness with him. He’s gotten in a bit of trouble with nostalgia, reminiscing out loud about working with segregationist senators, and then with Senator Kamala Harris’s attempted decapitation strike over busing. Neither seemed to have hurt Biden in polling, but they did exhibit the 50 years of public life Joe Biden brings to the table, for good or ill. Go back far enough, and the very word nostalgia began not as an emotional term but a medical one for a returning, unwanted medical condition.
In mixing various forms of story time with Joe, Biden is trodding the well-worn paths of politicians who try to pitch themselves as the leader of now by appealing to the past and projecting that into the future. The question is, how far into the past can he reach without losing his grip on the present, or the audience he needs to win more than just 30% of a 20-odd person primary field.
Time will tell. Then again maybe it won’t, or at least won’t tell it correctly.
The image of the screaming girl and the fatally shot man that day at Kent State is a picture of two people who have names. Jeffrey Miller is the one on the ground, having been shot through the mouth by a National Guardsman 265 feet away. He died almost instantly. The image of Mary Ann Vecchio kneeling and screaming over him will probably live forever. The question is, with the passage of time, even if those born since then look at the photo and learn its story, does it have the same impact it used to have, when it was still fresh? For Miller, time ceased to have any meaning at all, tragically and senselessly. His final act may or may not have been to fling a tear gas canister at those who would thereafter kill him. For Vecchio, it was the start of a troubled life. She wasn’t a student, as most who see the picture assume, but a 14-year old runaway from Miami. Her father recognized her from the photo once it went nationwide, and had her returned to the family thereafter, but in her own words “It really destroyed my life, and I don’t want to talk about it.” That was quoted in 1990, and she has since seemingly made peace with the events and her role in them, having appeared at memorial gatherings since.
For Vecchio what is nostalgia brought very real pain. The events Joe Biden talked about probably brought similar emotions for many that remember them. But they also have the potential to elicit a “not this story again” reaction from people who have heard it so many times and seen the image enough that they are just numb to it. Such is the effect of time, regardless of politics. All that anger eventual turns into something else, whether it be acceptance, bitterness, or something else. It raises the question, how will these turbulent days of our nation be remembered? Joe Biden is running to “restore the soul of America.” President Trump ran on “Make America Great Again.” Both are nostalgic pitches, from very different angles. Trump’s pitch, combined with his force of personality worked, and worked so well as to render to his supporters all failings, issues, gaffes, and scandals mute.
The nostalgia Joe Biden is pitching and the personality he shows, along with his own gaffes and scandals that sunk his first two presidential bids, are now in the dock to be judged. Whether the pitch of two generations ago can pull the numbers Joe Biden needs to unseat Donald Trump, or even survive his own party’s primary, remains to be seen. Even his nostalgia for the Barack Obama days, a mere three years ago, seem to some to be too much of a throwback for someone pitching to be the future. If the gaffes continue to pile up — and they will if history has taught us anything with Joe Biden — will his “been there, done that” reaches to the ’60s pair with his constant reminders of being Barack Obama’s VP to form a winning combination. Will it be enough to overlook his shortcomings in a primary where the younger wing is loudest but the older wing still, for now, isn’t ready to full cede the moment?
As always, time will be the judge of that. Wonder what folks will think and remember of this election 50 years from now? That is, if they do remember it at all.