Return to Transcripts main page
CNN Special Reports
Fight for the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey. Aired 4:30-5p ET
Aired November 26, 2020 - 16:30 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
JOE BIDEN, PRESIDENT-ELECT: Was really my boys.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST (voice-over): On Capitol Hill, he found support he didn't expect from Senate elders of both parties.
SHAILAGH MURRAY, FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF FOR VICE PRESIDENT BIDEN: These old bulls all took him in and helped buffer him from that grief, helped him carve a path towards real meaning and value and that experience. He saw their humanity before he saw their politics in many respects.
BORGER: Biden's Senate was a much less polarized place and in a 1974 interview, he recoiled at being pigeonholed by special interest groups as either liberal or conservative. His political connections were always personal.
VAN JONES, CNN POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: He'll talk about a Republican opponent in private with a great deal of empathy and compassion.
CHRIS DODD (D-CT), FORMER U.S. SENATOR: Those relationships were built by a series of just quiet moments sitting down next to someone without any particularly point to it. Just to see how you are doing, what is going on?
BORGER: He kept the personal close and over the years became the unofficial eulogizer of the Senate, even delivering a final tribute for a conservative Republican segregationist.
JOE BIDEN: I tried to understand him. I learned from him and I watched him change oh so suddenly.
BORGER: He delivered Strom Thurmond's eulogy, too?
REP. JIM CLYBURN (D-SC), HOUSE MAJORITY WHIP FROM SOUTH CAROLINA: Yes, he did -- yes, he did, at Strom Thurmond's request. I think that when you can hold on to your own political beliefs and have the respect of people whose political belief is totally different, that says something.
BORGER: Over time, Biden developed an almost pastoral habit of consoling others. In public, on the campaign trail. JOE BIDEN: Someone who has been through it and says, I know how you feel. You kind of look and say, I guess I can make it. They made it.
BORGER: He did it privately, too.
RAHM EMANUEL (D), FORMER MAYOR, CHICAGO: In the middle of his campaign for presidency, my dad had passed away. Joe was the first one to call. He's running for office. You can leave a voice mail.
EMANUEL: Yes. He's a good man.
JAY CARNEY, FORMER PRESS SECRETARY UNDER PRESIDENT OBAMA: One evening I heard some crying and I went out to see what was going on. I heard the vice president's voice. And I heard him consoling somebody. He was still in the West Wing working and had bumped into a staffer who was giving a tour to a widow, who had recently lost her husband. He was walking down the hall and that was his instant reaction.
BORGER: People talk about your empathy and your pastoral nature when people are suffering. Did that begin after the accident?
JOE BIDEN: I think it really began in an earnest way from my stutter because it is the most humiliating thing in the world. For someone, how do you walk up to the girl to go to the 8th grade dance to go to the -- and there are a bunch of chumps out there who would make fun that's why I learned to kind of fight.
BORGER: He found himself in the middle of a political struggle in the 1970s and early '80s when he took a controversial stand against court- ordered bussing.
JOE BIDEN: I happen to be one of those so-called people who are labeled as a liberal and civil rights but oppose bussing.
JONES: If you're Biden, that's going to be a tough issue for you. Because that big empathy, that big heart. Is this good for kids? You know, is this the right way to get kids to get along, to get parents to get along? Is there another way?
SEN. KAMALA HARRIS (D-CA), VICE PRESIDENT-ELECT: And I'm going to now direct this to Vice President Biden.
BORGER: That decade's old decision became fodder in the Democratic debates, raised by his now running mate.
HARRIS: You also worked with them to oppose bussing. And you know there was a little girl in California who was a part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bussed to school every day and that little girl was me.
CLYBURN: If you go back and look at the polls, back then, the vast majority of black people were against bussing. I was against bussing.
BORGER: You were? CLYBURN: Yes. The first real serious discussion I ever had with my wife was over bussing. That is because I thought court-ordered bussing put too much of a burden on the students. I believe in neighborhood concept schools rather than being bussed and when I expressed that publicly, my wife took me to the woodshed in such a way that I would never forget it.
BORGER: While Biden's political life was tumultuous, back at home he was trying to get his personal life in order.
JOE BIDEN: I had a thousand entice, you know. Everybody had somebody for me, you know. And they were very nice about it.
BORGER: By 1977, he had found someone he wanted to marry, Jill Jacobs.
JOE BIDEN: I had to ask her five times to marry me, five, five times. She would say, no, every time I asked her.
JILL BIDEN, JOE BIDEN'S WIFE: I knew what the boys had been through. They lost their mother and they lost their sister. I had to be 100 percent sure that this marriage would last until death do us part because I loved the boys so much that I thought they can't lose another mother through a divorce.
VALERIE BIDEN OWENS, JOE BIDEN'S SISTER: Two years later, they have Ashley. She not only married Joe. She married the boys. She married the Biden family and she married the state of Delaware.
BORGER: And she may have saved his life.
JILL BIDEN: I said, what do you mean giving him last rites? He's not going to die.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The greatest senator of Delaware, Joseph R. Biden.
BORGER: By the mid-80s, Joe Biden was a senator going places.
JOE BIDEN: How are you, pal?
DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA'S FORMER CHIEF CAMPAIGN STRATEGIST AND SENIOR ADVISER: He was young. He was dynamic. And people said this is the next Kennedy. This is a guy who will be president of the United States someday.
BORGER: But was Biden really ready?
MARK GITENSTEIN, BIDEN'S FORMER CHIEF COUNSEL ON THE SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: You know, it's a funny thing about '88 I never said this to anybody. I wasn't sure how much he really wanted to run. BORGER: Was he conflicted?
BILL DALEY, FORMER KEY ADVISER IN BIDEN'S 1988 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: I think he was conflicted. It was a full-time commitment. And Joe really was, you know, Joe who took the train home at night to be with his kids. And you can't do that when you are running for president.
BORGER: But what senator can resist the presidential lure?
OWENS: He didn't get up in '88 and say I'm running for president. It was so many people came and said, you got to think about this. You got to do it.
BORGER: And so, Amtrak Joe moved onto the presidential track in a wide opened and competitive race, announcing his candidacy at the Wilmington train station.
JOE BIDEN: As today, I announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.
BORGER: Just a few weeks after his announcement, some unexpected news took him on a detour.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It was the surprise retirement this summer of a swing vote Justice Lewis Powell.
BORGER: Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee and would lead the confirmation hearings to replace Justice Lewis Powell, the crucial swing vote on the court key to major decisions like Roe versus Wade.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Abortion along with other women's and civil rights issues are what many Supreme Court watchers say. President Reagan's appointment will have a strong opportunity to influence.
BORGER: President Reagan took the opportunity to nominate an icon of the right.
RONALD REAGAN, FORMER PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: I today announce my intention to nominate the United States Court of Appeals Judge Robert H. Bork.
BORGER: Reaction from the left was swift.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Civil rights groups promised all out efforts to block Bork's confirmation.
GITENSTEIN: The campaign was pushing to us come out against Bork early. We knew if we did that, all we would end up with is the 45 liberals in the Senate. And we wouldn't win.
BORGER: So, Biden found himself running two campaigns, one against Robert Bork another for president. And they were pulling him in different directions.
JOE BIDEN: My name's Joe Biden. I'd like to be the Democratic nominee for president of the United States of America.
BORGER: In Iowa, an early caucus state that mattered most, Biden was bunched with others near the top of the polls, but his attention was split.
DALEY: There was a mishmash between the expectation of Joe and what was going on in the campaign. The sort of basics stuff wasn't getting done.
BORGER: But that was nothing compared to what unfolded next.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Live from the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, election '88.
BORGER: At the end of a key debate at the Iowa State Fair, Biden used some of his stump speech, which included quotes from British politician Neil Kinnock. A populous life story, politically compelling but it wasn't Biden's life and it was delivered without any attribution.
JOE BIDEN: Why is it that Joe Biden --
NEIL KINNOCK, MEMBER OF HOUSE OF LORDS: What am I, the first Kinnock in a thousand generations.
JOE BIDEN: The first in his family.
KINNOCK: To be able to get at the university.
JOE BIDEN: Ever to go to a university.
TED KAUFMAN, LONG TIME POLITICAL ADVISER: I mean, he had given that speech 25, 30 times and in every case he had attributed it to Kinnock. He didn't plagiarize.
RON KLAIN, STAFFER, BIDEN'S 1988 PRESIDENTIAL CAMPAIGN: I don't think anyone in the campaign saw it as a major thing when it happened.
BORGER: But it was. Especially after a staffer from a Michael Dukakis campaign leaked the story right on the eve of the Bork hearings.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Democratic Presidential candidate Joe Biden finds himself on trial charged with political plagiarism.
BORGER: How did it feel to have your integrity challenged in such a direct way?
JOE BIDEN: Other than losing my family, it was the worst thing that ever happened to me.
BORGER: The controversy fit the narrative that Biden was more show than substance all as the Bork hearings began.
JOE BIDEN: I honestly believe, Judge, I think I've read everything that you have written.
BORGER: Biden zeroed in on Bork's controversial opinion like his critique of the Supreme Court's decision to strike down a state law banning contraceptives.
JOE BIDEN: Does a state legislative body or any legislative body have a right to pass a law telling a married couple or anyone else, telling them they can or cannot use birth control?
ROBERT BORK, AMERICAN JUDGE: I don't know what rational the state would offer or what challenge the married couple would make.
GITENSTEIN: The problem with Bork is he would never admit there was a right to privacy under the Constitution.
BORGER: Biden may have been swaying public opinion on Bork, but his own presidential campaign was imploding with more charges.
UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: First, there came reports he had lifted the phrases of other speakers without identifying them. Then new charges that as a student of law at Syracuse University, he used five pages from a published law review article without quotation or attribution.
JOE BIDEN: I knew I had one or two choices, leave the Bork hearing and go out and save my campaign if I could by going out and making my case and I thought that what, I don't want to go down in history as the guy who just saved his political life let Bork get on the court.
BORGER: So, he was out.
JOE BIDEN: All of my energy and skill is required to deal with President Reagan's effort to reshape the Supreme Court. I concluded that I will stop being a candidate for president of the United States.
JILL BIDEN: I can remember how devastated I felt and how devastated Joe felt. I mean, no one had ever assailed his character before.
DALEY: It was a big blow to him. Some people, they'd never come back from that sort of ending of a campaign.
JOE BIDEN: And lest I say something that might be somewhat sarcastic, I should go to Bork hearings.
JILL BIDEN: He was about to go into the meeting room. And I said, Joe, you have to go in and win. You have to win this one.
BORK: If you look at the next paragraph of that talk.
BORGER: Bork was pummeled by Biden and others and left to fight largely on his own by President Reagan.
GITENSTEIN: He thought he was smarter than Biden and he thought he could beat Biden and he was wrong.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The yeas are 42, the nays are 58. The nomination is not confirmed. BORGER: In a 2008 interview, four years before his death, Bork told CNN that quote, as a whole, Biden wasn't fair.
BORK: The Democrats, including Biden, spent the time making the most scurrilous charges about me.
BORGER: Democrats praised Biden, but others blamed him for permanently politicizing judicial confirmations.
CARRIE SEVERINO, PRESIDENT, JUDICIAL CRISIS NETWORK: Well, he really presided over the inauguration of the politics of personal destruction in the judicial confirmation process.
RICK SANTORUM, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: Now the ideology of the judge is front and center. It's about how are you going to vote on these things.
BORGER: For some, Bork became a new verb, a shorthand for getting railroaded and destroyed and remains to this day.
BRETT KAVANAUGH, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT: It was just a good-old fashioned attempt at borking.
BORGER: What's your response to them when they say, well, it's just all about his ideology?
JOE BIDEN: Well, it was about his constitutional philosophy which is totally legitimate. Nothing I did went after Bork's character or anything in his background.
BORGER: So, Biden won one fight and left another. And his family now sees it as a life saver.
JILL BIDEN: Maybe this is rationalization, but his pulling out probably saved his life. You know he never would have stopped.
BORGER: Right as the campaign would have been in full gear, Biden collapsed after an event in New York. He made it home and Jill rushed him to the hospital.
JILL BIDEN: He looked so gray, and I thought, oh, my God.
OWENS: My brother had an aneurism, and an aneurism didn't have any calculation whether Joe was running or not running, aneurism was in his brain and it erupted.
BORGER: There were two aneurisms, both extremely dangerous.
JOE BIDEN: There was a better and even chance that I was not likely to make it through the first operation.
BORGER: The situation was so dire. A priest came to give the 45-year- old Biden his last rites but was interrupted.
[16:50:01] JILL BIDEN: I ran into the room, the priest was at the bedside, and I said, get out, because is he not going to die. And the priest, I think I just shocked the priest, and he just ran out of the room.
BORGER: Biden had two surgeries and a tough recovery. Seven months later, he returned to the Senate and more controversy.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Professor, do you swear to tell the whole truth?
BORGER: Coming up.
Would you be willing to work with him?
ANITA HILL, BRANDEIS UNIVERSITY PROFESSOR: It was terrifying.
JOE BIDEN: Professor, do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
HILL: I do.
JOE BIDEN: Thank you.
HILL: It was really scary because it was something that hadn't happened before, and the stakes were so high.
BORGER: At stake, a seat on the Supreme Court for Clarence Thomas, the man in charge, Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman, Joe Biden.
HILL: I expected for Joe Biden to have a fair hearing. Joe Biden's leadership was very weak.
BORGER: Almost 30 years later, Thomas sits on the Supreme Court. Biden is President-elect and even before the election, Anita Hill, had made a decision.
HILL: I think Joe Biden is the person who should be elected in November.
BORGER: So you're going to vote for Joe Biden?
BORGER: Would you be willing to work with him?
HILL: My commitment is to finding solutions. I am more than willing to work with him.
BORGER: Is it just about the fact that he's running against Donald Trump? Or is it more about Joe Biden?
HILL: Actually, it's more about the survivors of gender violence. That's really what it's about. BORGER: Hill, an attorney, is now a professor of gender politics. She was 35 when she testified before Biden's committee, accusing Thomas of sexually harassing her when she worked for him at the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. Her testimony was graphic.
HILL: He referred to the size of his own penis as being larger than normal.
BORGER: Her motives dissected.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you have a martyr complex?
HILL: No, I don't.
BORGER: And additional witnesses who may have corroborated her story were never called to publicly testify.
HILL: The idea that anyone who was saying what I had to say was going to be heard, was just sort of out the window, because the Republicans were in control, and Joe Biden lost control.
BORGER: Some say you let the Republicans take over.
JOE BIDEN: I don't think I did. But the point was, I wish I could have done it differently under the rules. There are certain rules. You cannot call people out of order if they're asking questions that are related to the issue. I wish I could have done better for her. The truth is, I believed her, and I believed he should not be on the court.
Sexual harassment is a serious matter, and in my view, any person guilty of this offense is unsuited to serve not only --
BORGER: Biden led the floor fight against Thomas and lost.
CLARENCE THOMAS, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE OF THE U.S. SUPREME COURT: As a black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high-tech lynching.
BORGER: Thomas denied the allegations and his supporters still seethe about the hearings.
CARRIE SEVERINO, FORMER CLERK FOR SUPREME COURT JUSTICE CLARENCE THOMAS: With the Hill allegations, he said you know if these come out in the public, I will be your biggest defender, quite the opposite. It really happened. So he repeatedly was saying one thing, you know, he was talking out of one side of his mouth to one group and one side to another.
BORGER: So, what does this tell you about Joe Biden?
SEVERINO: You know he is someone who I think is like wants to try to please everyone.
BORGER: And even when Hill received a call from Biden earlier last year, she remained unsatisfied. HILL: What I heard on the phone call was an apology that went something like, I'm very sorry if she felt she wasn't treated fairly. And, you know, an apology, to be real and sincere, has to take responsibility for harm. That was what I wanted to hear. That, if I had done better, and this is Joe Biden speaking, if I had done better, maybe there would be less harassment in the workplace today.
BORGER: But Hill has watched the vice president talk more about the hearings on TV, and she says it's encouraging.
JOE BIDEN: She did not get a fair hearing. She did not get treated well. That's my responsibility.
HILL: What it says to me is that maybe the next step is these are the things that I'm going to do to make it good.
BORGER: But the story of Biden and women's issues is not just about Hill. When the Thomas hearings ended --
JOE BIDEN: I was determined to do two things. One, make sure never again that there not be women on the committee. And so, that year I went out and campaigned for two women, Dianne Feinstein and Carol Moseley-Braun on condition they join the Judiciary Committee if they got elected. And they did. And I was determined to continue and finish writing and passing the Violence Against Women Act.
BORGER: It was an idea born one year before the Thomas hearings to beef up protections for women, including a provision allowing them to sue their attackers in federal court.
VICTORIA NOURSE, FORMER JUDICIARY COMMITTEE STAFFER UNDER BIDEN: Some in the legal Academy who decided that women in the 1950s were basically making up rape. They were fancy lawyers, liberal and conservative who would say domestic violence is, you know, as American as apple pie, prominent liberal lawyers.