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CNN Special Reports
Fight for the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey. Aired 9- 10p ET
Aired November 28, 2020 - 21:00 ET
THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.
BROOKE BALDWIN, CNN HOST: I'm sorry I can't be with you, but we will do it next year.
And thank you all for being with me. I'll see you tomorrow.
In the meantime, coming up next, a CNN special report, "Fight For the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey."
ANNOUNCER: The following is a CNN special report.
GLORIA BORGER, CNN HOST (voice-over): He's gone from a young politician with swagger...
JOE BIDEN (D), PRESIDENT-ELECT OF THE UNITED STATES: They said, "We think you should run for the Senate." I said, I'm not old enough.
BORGER: ... to a young father suffering great loss.
VALERIE BIDEN OWENS, SISTER OF JOE BIDEN: My brother looked at me and said, "She's dead, isn't she?"
BORGER: He's an Irishman with a life story that reads like a Greek tragedy.
SHAILAGH MURRAY, FORMER BIDEN DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF: How can you experience the worst thing imaginable twice in one lifetime?
BORGER: His career has been long and often controversial.
JOE BIDEN: Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?
ANITA HILL, FORMER CLARENCE THOMAS COLLEAGUE: I do.
BORGER: That now has a new twist.
HILL: I'm more than willing to work with him.
BORGER: A senator, a vice president, and finally president-elect on his third try. JOE BIDEN: I pledge to be a president who seeks not to divide but
(on camera): Do you see yourself as the polar opposite of Donald Trump?
JOE BIDEN: I hope so.
BORGER: A CNN special report: "Fight For the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey."
JOE BIDEN: It's a good night!
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
JOE BIDEN: It's a good night. And it seems to be getting even better.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE)
BORGER (voice-over): More than 30 years after his first run for the presidency...
JOHN KING, CNN CHIEF NATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Joe Biden with a lead tonight and a lead overall in the delegate race.
BORGER: ... on his third try for the White House...
JOE BIDEN: I'm here to report we are very much alive!
BORGER: ... it was the sweet Super Tuesday that Joe Biden had always dreamed of, setting a clear path to the nomination, finally, at age 77.
JOE BIDEN: It was like, OK, let's buckle up. We're going to go.
JILL BIDEN, WIFE OF JOE BIDEN: It was a really good feeling.
BIDEN OWENS: It was glorious.
BORGER: Glorious and unusual, to say the least.
JAKE TAPPER, CNN HOST: Fact, no one has ever come in fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire, and gone on to become the Democratic presidential nominee.
DAVID AXELROD, CNN SENIOR POLITICAL COMMENTATOR: To do as poorly as he did in the first two contests...
JOE BIDEN: Now, where I come from, that is the opening bell.
AXELROD: ... to have the day he had on Super Tuesday was highly, highly unusual, defied the laws of politics.
(CHEERING AND APPLAUSE) JOE BIDEN: Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.
BORGER: It's a day Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has been waiting for, for decades.
(on camera): How long has Joe Biden wanted to be president of the United States?
TED KAUFMAN, LONGTIME BIDEN POLITICAL ADVISER: I first met him in 1972, and, clearly, he was not ruling out the possibility. He was 29 years old.
BORGER: There's also a story of the nun holding up a paper that little Joey wrote when he was 12 years old saying that he wanted to be president.
BIDEN OWENS: Well, if a nun said it, it has to be true.
BORGER (voice-over): And still is. But the brass ring has some big strings attached.
RON KLAIN, INCOMING WHITE HOUSE CHIEF OF STAFF: A country facing the worst infectious disease crisis we have seen since 1919, the worst economic crisis we have seen since the Great Depression, the worst racism crisis we have seen since 1968.
UNIDENTIFIED PROTESTER: Revolution!
KLAIN: It's a triple threat of crises all at once, all combined.
BORGER: Biden has described himself as a transitional candidate, but a triple threat could require drastic, urgent action.
JOE BIDEN: The economy cannot survive if we don't get control of COVID. That's going to be the thing that's going to affect every single thing that gets done.
BORGER: From the beginning, when he was just Joey from Scranton, PA, Biden wanted to be the one to get things done.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe Biden was always the lead dog. He had to be number one. He was in the number one position.
BORGER: A natural leader, his friends say.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We always followed Joe.
BORGER: And a natural talker.
BOB MARKEL, FRIEND OF JOE BIDEN: It's an old joke about Joe that, if Joe Biden were standing next to an electric light pole, he'd strike up a conversation.
BORGER: His family was large, tight-knit, and Irish Catholic. MURRAY: Big, boisterous family, constantly playing pranks on each other.
BORGER: With at least nine of them in this modest home. Joey was the eldest of four. then came Valerie, Jimmy and Frankie.
The children's maternal grandparents lived there, too, along with an aunt, sometimes an uncle and their parents, Joseph R. Biden Sr. and Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden.
BIDEN OWENS: My mom was fierce in her commitment to family. She told us growing up that there's family, and there's family, and there's family.
JOE BIDEN: I remember going to my mother once -- I guess I was in fifth grade -- saying: "Mom, I love you more than anything."
And she said: "Joey, I know how much you love me, but you remember you're closer to your brother and sister than you are to me."
I said: "How's that mom?"
She said: "You are the same blood. You are closer to them. They're with you all the time. Never forget that."
BIDEN OWENS: Mom said that we were a gift to one another. And we believed her.
BORGER (on camera): Well, let me ask you about your sister, who's been incredibly supportive to you.
BORGER: What role has Val played in your life?
JOE BIDEN: She's been my best friend my whole life. She's been on the handlebars of my bicycle, I guess since -- excuse me -- since she was 3 years old. I never went a place I didn't take her. Taught her how to play ball, did everything with her. And...
BORGER: To this day?
JOE BIDEN: To this day, and all the way through.
BIDEN OWENS: There's all these sayings that Joe and I have for our mom and dad.
Dad said to us, it's not how many times that you get knocked down. It's how quickly you get up. And dad was all about resilience.
BORGER (voice-over): Especially after losing his job when Biden was young.
MURRAY: They were forced to move away from their childhood home to find opportunity in Wilmington. They had to reinvent themselves there. It made him very close to his family, as families often become much closer during adversity.
BORGER: Faith helped, too.
BIDEN OWENS: Family and faith were the bookends. And we were an Irish Catholic middle-class household. Our family values of taking care of one another, treating people with respect, being resilient, those values coincided with the Catholic social doctrine that we learned every single day at school.
There but for the grace of God go I. You are your brother's keeper. So, it was a seamless way of life.
BORGER: A seamless way of life for a determined young Joe Biden.
(on camera): Richard Ben Cramer writes about your brother as a child, and he said: "Joey was always quick, with a grace born of cocky self- possession. He didn't, like some kids his age, double-think himself. Once Joey set his mind, it wasn't like he didn't think at all. He just did."
BIDEN OWENS: The more serious version of what he set his mind to do is, he stuttered terribly. And he really couldn't string more than three or four words together at a time. And he determined that he was not going to be defined by a stutter.
MARKEL: Teenage boys can be pretty harsh, even cruel. And he used to get teased a lot. They would, "Hey, d-did y-you h-hear a-about B- Biden?"
They called him stutter head. For short, they called him stut. "Hey, stut."
BORGER (voice-over): So, the summer before Joe Biden's junior year, poetry helped him lose his stutter.
JOE BIDEN: I would do poetry to try to say, meek young men grow up in libraries.
BORGER (on camera): That's Emerson.
JOE BIDEN: Yes, that was Emerson.
And the reason I did it was to try to get a cadence to how you speak. When you're able to change the cadence of what you do and say, it seems how -- you will be able to overcome it somehow.
MARKEL: I think all of us were surprised in late August and September, when we went back to school, and he wasn't stuttering anymore.
BORGER: The high school was Archmere Academy, an elite Catholic school he worked hard to attend because he viewed it as a gateway to success. He was on the football team.
MARKEL: He was a halfback. He made some key plays in some of those games.
BORGER: Off the field, friends remember a time he stood up for a buddy. It happened when he went to a diner with some classmates, including the only black kid in the class.
MARKEL: The restaurant's policy that we don't serve, they didn't use word black at the time. He must have said Negroes.
Frank says, "Listen, I will leave."
Joe says: "No, sit down. If they're not going to serve you, they're not going to serve any of us."
And this is 1961. This is before the Civil Rights Act and before the Voting Rights Act, and before there was much sensitivity, I would say, at least for teenage boys, white boys, about civil rights issues.
BORGER: Biden says he learned about the reality of race relations here, while lifeguarding in a black neighborhood in the early 1960s, when Delaware was very divided racially and culturally.
RICHARD "MOUSE" SMITH, FORMER DELAWARE NAACP PRESIDENT: The Polish neighborhood, Irish neighborhood, the black neighborhood.
BORGER: He stood out, but worked hard to fit in.
SMITH: Once you come in the neighborhood and somebody like you, you become like brothers. You become deep friends and stuff. That's how Joe and I came.
DENNIS WILLIAMS, FORMER MAYOR OF WILMINGTON, DELAWARE: I was about probably 9 when I first met him. I was one of the ornery kids in this pool. They called me Dennis the Menace.
BORGER: He would grow up to become Dennis the mayor of Wilmington.
WILLIAMS: Joe saw an opportunity. The door was open. And he was going to get in. He was going to make friends and he was going to talk to people, and he was going to know this community and have this community trust him, because I know Joe had aspirations of going places.
BORGER: Long before Biden went into politics, he was already politicking and planning his surprising next moves.
Up next: success.
KAUFMAN: I will never, ever think anything's impossible again in my entire life.
BORGER: Followed by tragedy.
JOE BIDEN: I remember looking up and saying, "God." I was so angry, so angry. (END VIDEOTAPE)
BORGER (voice-over): By early 1964, Joe Biden was a student at the University of Delaware, still full of confidence, but low on cash, when he and two buddies decided to head to Fort Lauderdale for spring break.
FRED SEARS, BIDEN COLLEGE CLASSMATE: The first day, we went on the beach, and it was like 10,000 guys and 20 girls. The odds just did not look good for us. Lo and behold, a plane goes by with a sign saying, "Round-trips to Nassau 28 bucks."
"Joe, what do you think?"
"We got to go. Let's go."
BORGER: They arrive to discover the college women on private hotel beaches, which they couldn't afford.
SEARS: We found some of the hotel towels on the fence. We grabbed them and put them around our shoulders or our waist and walked in like we had been staying there all along.
BORGER: They were there just a few minutes when they spotted a young woman they all wanted to meet, Neilia Hunter, a 21-year-old senior at Syracuse University.
SEARS: I'm saying, well, let's do flip a coin or one potato, two potato. And while I'm trying to figure it out and talking to them, I'm looking at my hands and everything. He just takes off.
He's got a 50-yard dash on both of us. And by the time we get over there, he's already sitting there chatting her up.
JOE BIDEN: When I met Neilia, now, God's truth, I knew I was going to marry her. I really did. The second night, as I left, I said, "I think we're -- I'm going to marry you."
She said -- looked at me and, said, "I think so."
SEARS: So, we get on the plane coming home. And he said: "Fred, I have decided. I'm in love. And I'm going to Syracuse Law School."
BORGER: Just as planned, Biden made it to Syracuse Law School, and married Neilia Hunter a year later in the summer of 1966.
After graduation, he returned home with his wife to work at a law firm. National Guardsmen were still patrolling the streets of Wilmington in the wake of rioting that followed Martin Luther King's murder. WILLIAMS: It wasn't good at all. We looked like a city under siege by
SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): He saw a country torn apart by race, a city that was literally, literally on fire. The National Guard occupied Wilmington, Delaware longer than any city in America after the riots following King's assassination.
And it was in that moment that a young Joe Biden said, I can help.
BORGER: Biden was a believer in his own ability to convince anyone of anything. But no amount of self-confidence or ambition was big enough to deliver a Senate seat at age 27.
So, he ran for the county council. As usual, he enlisted his sister.
(on camera): So, how did you get involved in all the politics of it?
BIDEN OWENS: He always picked me first. It was just a natural thing to do. He was going to go be -- go into politics. I was going with him.
We asked everybody we knew to help us. And we asked them to ask 10 people to help us. And this is where we delivered -- we knocked on every door.
BORGER (voice-over): He won. And then, a year later, Biden found his real opening while attending a political convention in Delaware.
JOE BIDEN: I went back to the motel to shave for the evening. And I got a knock in my door, and in walks four people.
And they said, "We got to talk to you, Joe."
I had a towel around me. I was just shaving. And they said: "We think you should run for the Senate."
And I said: "Whoa." I said, "I'm not old enough."
BORGER: A judge in the group set him straight.
JOE BIDEN: He said: "Joe, you obviously didn't do very well on constitutional law. It says you have to be 30 to be sworn in, not 30 to be elected."
BORGER: It was audacious, if not arrogant, for Biden to run as a 29- year-old underdog candidate of change against a well-liked Republican senator named Cale Boggs.
QUESTION: What is your last name?
SEN. J. CALEB BOGGS (R-DE): Miller.
QUESTION: Miller. I know the Miller family.
KAUFMAN: He had been governor of the state for two terms. He had been a member of Congress for three terms, and he was running for a third term in the United States Senate. Cale Boggs was loved. I mean, he was loved.
BORGER: Once again, Biden asked Valerie to run the show.
BIDEN OWENS: I remember saying to him: "Joey, I don't -- I can't run a statewide campaign. I don't know how to do that."
Remember, he's 28, 27, I'm 25, 26. He said: "Don't worry about it, Valerie." He said, "We will figure it out."
She reached out to a local Democratic Party activist, Ted Kaufman.
KAUFMAN: So, I went down and talked to him. I said: "So you're running on civil rights. You're running on the environment. You're running on tax reform. And those are really good issues."
And then a silence, and then I said: "But I don't think you have a chance of winning."
BORGER (on camera): You said what?
KAUFMAN: "I don't think you have a chance of winning."
KAUFMAN: "You don't have a chance."
"Cale Boggs is like -- Cale Boggs incredible. You have been in this for two years. You look like you're 25 years old. This is a race to run in order to make these issues you care about. And I say you can do that, but there is no chance you can win."
BORGER: And his reaction to that was?
KAUFMAN: "Well, just come and help me. Just come and help me. We will see. We will see."
BORGER (voice-over): Biden was confident he could talk his way into voters' hearts. But what Kaufman saw was bleak.
KAUFMAN: On Labor Day, we did a big-time poll. You know what the number was? Forty-seven percent for Boggs, 19 percent for Biden.
BORGER: But it was also the first year 18-year-olds could vote, and young voters saw a candidate who was promising that he understands what's happening today.
Fifty years later, this time as a political elder trying to connect with young voters, it's still his mantra.
AUDIENCE: Let's go, Joe!
COONS: They had this funny feeling that Cale Boggs just -- his heart wasn't in it. He'd been talked into running one more time by Richard Nixon. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Joe wants to talk to you for a few minutes. Then
drink your beer, be merry, and vote that Democratic ticket November.
BORGER: And then:
BIDEN OWENS: We snuck up on him. Boggs -- this was the Nixon landslide year. Everybody expected no Democrat to win. And that was the truth.
JOE BIDEN: We won by a rousing 3,100 votes.
On election night, I remember it as if it was yesterday. I'm standing on the floor. I said: "I will never, ever think anything is impossible again in my entire life."
BORGER: He turned 30, the eligible age to serve, three weeks later. He and Neilia already had a picture-perfect young family, a baby named Naomi and two toddler boys, Joseph Biden III, or Beau, and Hunter. The quintessential young family was moving to the nation's capital.
BIDEN OWENS: For six weeks, we were on top of the world. I mean, he had -- was the dragon slayer. We were the bright young hope of the Democratic Party, and it was completely joyful.
BORGER: On December 18, Neilia was supposed to go with her husband to Washington, but decided to stay behind to buy a tree and Christmas gifts.
BIDEN OWENS: I went with Joe to Washington to interview staff. Senator Byrd told my brother -- offered the -- Joe to use his office, which we did.
BORGER: And then came the phone call.
BIDEN OWENS: It was Jimmy Biden. And I picked up the phone and Jimmy Biden said: "Come home now. There's a terrible accident with Neilia and the boys and the babies, all three."
BORGER (on camera): And you flew back and didn't...
BIDEN OWENS: We didn't say a word. I just -- we just -- it was a bumpy ride. I remember that. It was a tiny plane. And I remember he was on my right, and I just had my hand on his leg.
And we just -- I mean, we -- you know. You know.
BORGER (voice-over): One week before Christmas 1972, Joe Biden and his sister traveled to D.C. to hire staff. His wife, Neilia, stayed in Delaware with their three children to buy a tree.
BIDEN OWENS: The memory that I have that's most vivid is walking in the Russell Building with the echo of just our shoes.
JOE BIDEN: I remember looking up and just -- in the Rotunda, saying, "God." I was so angry.
I got a call from a first responder, and I said, "What happened?"
And he said: "Well, there was a tractor trailer, and your wife and daughter are dead."
BORGER: Neilia and the Bidens' baby Naomi were killed when a truck hit their station wagon.
JOE BIDEN: The boys were very badly injured. They were hospitalized, Hunter with a fractured skull and Beau with literally everything. He was in a body cast, both arms, both legs. You had to pick him up and carry him this way.
BORGER: Biden thought their bedside, not the Senate, was where he ought to be.
(on camera): Your brother is clearly considering not being sworn in.
BIDEN OWENS: Yes.
BORGER: He doesn't want to be a senator.
BIDEN OWENS: He spoke to the governor and -- to have the governor replace him.
BORGER (voice-over): But the Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, changed Biden's mind.
JOE BIDEN: He said: "Your wife worked really hard for you to get elected, cared a great deal about it. Get sworn in and just stay six months."
If, in six months or so, there is a conflict between my being a good father and being a good senator, I promise you that I will contact governor-elect Tribbitt, as I had earlier, and tell him that we can always get another senator, but they can't get another father.
JOE BIDEN: And they sent the secretary of the Senate to the hospital room to swear me in, so I couldn't change my mind.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: So help you God.
JOE BIDEN: I do.
UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, Senator.
JOE BIDEN: Thank you.
BIDEN OWENS: The family and a few close friends were there, Hunter holding on to Beau's hand. It was heartbreaking.
BORGER: The Biden family was devastated, but they had to move on. So, Valerie moved in.
BIDEN OWENS: They were such a gift to me. The whole family was brokenhearted. And we just -- you know, the big thing, take care of one another, not because it's a responsibility, but because it was a gift.
BORGER: And while Valerie subbed in for mom, her brother also changed his plans.
BIDEN OWENS: The reason that Joe started to commute, he said: "They have lost their mom and they lost their baby sister. I cannot take them away and lose mom-mom and dadda and uncle Jimmy and Frankie and aunt Val," so he will commute.
After the accident, I mean, the bond was like steel rods among the three of them.
BORGER: Steel bonds with his boys and molten anger over the loss of his wife and baby.
(on camera): You said you went around kind of looking for fights.
JOE BIDEN: I did.
BORGER: And you wrote that you even understand why people consider committing suicide.
JOE BIDEN: I thought about what -- what it would be like just to go to the Delaware Memorial Bridge and just jump off and end it all.
But I didn't ever get in a car and do it, or wasn't never even close.
What saved me 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.
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.