Return to Transcripts main page

CNN Special Reports

CNN Special Report, "Fight For The White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey." Aired 10-11p ET

Aired December 19, 2020 - 22:00   ET






GLORIA BORGER, CNN CHIEF POLITICAL ANALYST (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 (voice-over): To a young father suffering great loss.

VALERIE BIDEN OWENS, SISTER: My brother looked at me and said "She's dead, isn't she?"

BORGER (voice-over): He's an Irishman with a life story that reads like a Greek tragedy.

SHAILAGH MURRAY, FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF FOR VP BIDEN: How can you experience the worst thing imaginable twice in one lifetime?

BORGER (voice-over): His career has been long and often controversial.

BIDEN: Do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?


BORGER (voice-over): That now has a new twist.

HILL: I am more than willing to work with him.

BORGER (voice-over): A senator, a vice president. And finally President-Elect on his third try.

BIDEN: I pledged to be a president who seeks not to divide. But unify.

BORGER (voice-over): Tonight...

BORGER (on camera): Do you see yourself as the polar opposite of Donald Trump? BIDEN: I hope so.

BORGER (voice-over): A CNN SPECIAL REPORT "Fight for the White House: Joe Biden's Long Journey."



BIDEN: It's a good night. It's a good night and it seems to be getting even better.

BORGER (voice-over): More than 30 years after his first run for the presidency...

JOHN KING, CNN ANCHOR: Joe Biden with a lead tonight and a lead overall in the delegate race.

BORGER (voice-over): On his third try for the White House.

BIDEN: I'm here to report, we are very much alive!

BORGER (voice-over): It was the sweet Super Tuesday that Joe Biden had always dreamed of, setting a clear path to the nomination, finally, at age 77.

BIDEN: It was like OK, let's buckle up. We're going to go,

JILL BIDEN, JOE BIDEN'S WIFE: It was a really good feeling.

OWENS: It was glorious.

BORGER (voice-over): Glorious, and unusual to say the least.

JAKE TAPPER, CNN ANCHOR: Fact, no one has ever come in fourth and Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire and gone on to become the Democratic presidential nominee

DAVID AXELROD, OBAMA'S FORMER CHIEF CAMPAIGN STRATEGIC AND SENIOR ADVISER: To do as poorly as he did in the first two contests.

BIDEN: Where I come from that's the opening bell.

AXELROD: --to have the day he had on Super Tuesday was highly, highly unusual, defied the laws of politics.

BIDEN: Thank you, thank you, thank you.

BORGER (voice-over): It's a day Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. has been waiting for, for decades.

BORGER (on camera): How long has Joe Biden wanted to be president of the United States?

TED KAUFMAN, LONGTIME POLITICAL ADVISER: I first met him in 1972, and clearly he was not ruling out the possibility. He was 29 years old. BORGER (on camera): There's also a story about the non-holding up of

paper that little Joey wrote when he was 12 years old saying that he wanted to be president.

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 CHIEF OF STAFF FOR PRESIDENT-ELECT BIDEN: A country facing the worst infectious disease crisis we've seen since 1919, the worst economic crisis we've seen since the Great Depression, the worst racism crisis we've seen since 1968. It's a triple threat of crises all at once, all combined.

BORGER (voice-over): Biden has described himself as a transitional candidate.

BIDEN: We're going to speak to that now.

BORGER (voice-over): But a triple threat could require drastic urgent action.

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 (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): A natural leader, his friends say.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We always followed Joe.

BORGER (voice-over): And a natural talker.

BOB MARKEL, FRIEND OF PRESIDENT-ELECT JOE BIDEN: 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: A big, boisterous family, constantly playing pranks on each other.


BORGER (voice-over): 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.

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.

BIDEN: I remember going up 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 remember you're closer to your brothers and sisters than you are to me. I said, how is that, mom? She said, you're the same blood. You're closer to them. They're with you all the time. Never forget that.

OWENS: Mom said that we were a gift to one another and, we believed her.

BORGER (on camera): Let me ask you about your sister, who has been incredibly supportive to you. What role has Val played in your life?

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. I taught her how to play ball, I did everything with her.

BORGER (on camera): To this day?

BIDEN: To this day and all the way through.

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.

SHAILAGH MURRAY, FORMER DEPUTY CHIEF OF STAFF FOR VP BIDEN: They were forced to move away from their childhood home to find opportunity in Wilmington. They had to reinvent themselves there.

MURRAY: It made him very close to his family, as families often become much closer during adversity.

BORGER (voice-over): Faith helped, too.

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 (voice-over): A seamless way of life for a determined young Joe Biden.

BORGER (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 was like he didn't think at all, he just did."

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 get teased a lot. They would - hey, J-J-J-Joe B-B-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.

BIDEN: I would do poetry to try to say "meek young men grow up in libraries."

BORGER (on camera): That's Emerson.

BIDEN: Yes, that was Emerson. And the reason I did it was to try to get a cadence to how you speak. When you are 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 that he wasn't stuttering anymore.

BORGER (voice-over): 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.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: He was a halfback. He made some key plays in some of those games.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 the word Black at the time, he must have said Negroes. Frank says, "Listen, I'll 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 was 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 (voice-over): 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, FRIEND AND FORMER PRESIDENT OF DELAWARE NAACP: The polish neighborhood, the Irish neighborhood, they had Black neighborhood.

BORGER (voice-over): 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, DC: I was about probably 9 when I first met him. I was one of the honorary kids in this pool. They called me Dennis The Menace.

BORGER (voice-over): 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, he was going to know this community and have this community trust him, because I know Joe had aspirations of going places.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 is impossible again in my entire life.

BORGER (voice-over): Followed by tragedy.

BIDEN: I remember looking up and saying, "God!" I was so angry. So angry."





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, UNIVERSITY OF DELAWARE CLASSMATE: The first day we went on the beach, 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. Joe, what do you think? Got to go. Let's go."

BORGER (voice-over): They arrived to discover college women on private hotel beaches which they couldn't afford.

SEARS: We found some hotel towels on the fence. We grabbed them and put them around our shoulders, our waist and walked in like we had been staying there all along.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 flip a coin or one potato, two potato.

And while I'm trying to figure it out and talking to him, I'm looking at my hands and everything, he takes off. He has a 50-yard dash on both of us. And by the time we get over there, he's already sitting there chatting her up.

BIDEN: When I met Neilia, god's truth, I knew I was going to marry her. I really did. The second night as I left, I said, I think I'm going to marry you. She looked at me and said, I think so.

SEARS: We get on the plane coming home and he said Fred, I've decided. I'm in love and I'm going to Syracuse Law School.

BORGER (voice-over): Just as planned, Biden made it to Syracuse Law School and he 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 the military.

SEN. CHRIS COONS (D-DE): He saw a country torn apart over 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 (voice-over): 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.

So how did you get involved in all of the politics of it?

OWENS: He always picked me first. It was just a natural thing to do. He was going to be - go into politics, I was going with him. We asked everyone we knew to help us, and we asked them to ask ten 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.

BIDEN: I went back to the motel to shave for the evening, and I got a knock on my door, and in walks four people. And they said, we've 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. I said, oh, I'm not old enough.

BORGER (voice-over): A judge in the group set him straight.

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 (voice-over): 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 Caleb Boggs.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What is your last name?


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Miller. I know the Miller family.

KAUFMAN: He'd been governor of the state for two terms. He had been a member of Congress for three terms and was running for his third term in the U.S. Senate. Caleb Boggs was loved. I mean, he was loved.

BORGER (voice-over): Once again, Biden asked Valerie to run the show.

OWENS: I remember saying to him, Joey, 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, we'll figure it out.

BORGER (voice-over): She reached out to a local Democratic Party activist, Ted Kaufman.

KAUFMAN: So I went down and talked to him and said, so you're running on civil rights, you're running on environment, you're running on tax reform, and those are really good issues. And then silence. 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. You don't have a chance. Caleb Boggs is like - Caleb Boggs is incredible. You've 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 that you care about, I say you can do that, but there's no chance you can win.

BORGER (on camera): And his reaction to that was?

KAUFMAN: Well, just come and help me. Just come and help me. We'll see. We'll 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? 47 percent for Boggs, 19 percent for Biden.

BORGER (voice-over): But it was also the first year 18 year olds could vote, and young voters saw a candidate that was promising that he understands what's happening today. 50 years later, this time as a political elder trying to connect with young voters, it's still his mantra.

CROWD: Let's go, Joe! let's go, Joe! COONS: They had this funny feeling that Caleb 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 and then be merry and vote that Democratic ticket in November.

BORGER (voice-over): And then--

OWENS: We snuck up on him. Boggs, this was the Nixon landslide year. Everybody expected no Democrat to win, and that was the truth.

BIDEN: We won by a rousing 3,100 votes.

KAUFMAN: On election night, I remember it as if it was yesterday. I stood on the floor and I said, I will never, ever think anything is impossible again in my entire life.

CROWD: Happy birthday

BORGER (voice-over): 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.

OWENS: For six weeks we were on top of the world. I mean, he was the dragon slayer. We were the bright young hope of the Democratic Party, and it was completely joyful.

BORGER (voice-over): On December 18th, Neilia was supposed to go with her husband to Washington, but decided to stay behind to buy a tree and Christmas gifts.

OWENS: I went with Joe to Washington to interview staff. Senator Byrd told my brother - offered Joe to use his office, which we did.

BORGER (voice-over): And then came the phone call.

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--

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 - you know. you know.



[22:25:00] BORGER (voice-over): 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.

OWENS: The memory that i have that is most vivid is walking in the Russell Building with the echo of just our shoes.

BIDEN: I remember looking up and just - and saying, "God, I was so angry." I got a call from a first responder. And I said, what happened? They said, well, there was a tractor-trailer and your wife and daughter are dead.

BORGER (voice-over): Neilia and the Bidens' baby Naomi were killed when a truck hit their station wagon.

BIDEN: And the boys were very badly injured. They were hospitalized. Hunter with a fractured skull and Beau with literally every - he was in a body cast, both arms, both legs. You had to pick him up, you know, carry him this way.

BORGER (voice-over): Biden thought their bedside, not the senate, was where he ought to be.

BORGER (on camera): Your brother is clearly considering not being sworn in.


BORGER (on camera): He doesn't want to be a senator.

OWENS: He spoke to the governor and to have the governor replace him.

BORGER (on camera): But the Senate Majority Leader, Mike Mansfield, changed Biden's mind.

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's 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.

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?

BIDEN: I do.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Congratulations, senator.

BIDEN: Thank you. Thank you.

OWENS: The family and a few close friends were there, Hunter holding on to Beau's hand. It was heartbreaking. BIDEN: The Biden family was devastated, but they had to move on. So

Valerie moved in.

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 (voice-over): And while Valerie subbed in for mom, her brother also changed his plans.

OWENS: The reason that Joe started to commute, he said, they've lost their mom and they lost their baby sister, I cannot take them away and lose mom and dada and uncle Jimmy and Frankie and aunt Val, so he will commute.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: After the accident, I mean the bond was like steel rods among the three of them.


BORGER (voice-over): Steel bonds with his boys and molten anger over the loss of his wife and baby.

BORGER (on camera): You said you went around kind of looking for fights.

BIDEN: I did.

BORGER (on camera): And you wrote you even understand why people consider committing suicide.

BIDEN: I thought about what would it 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 - would never get close. What saved me was really my boys.

BORGER (voice-over): On Capitol Hill he found support he didn't expect from senate elders of both parties.

MURRAY: These old bulls all took him in and helped buffer him from that grief, helped him carve a path towards real meaning and value in that experience. He saw their humanity before he saw their politics in many respects.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 particular point to it, just to see how you're doing, what's going on. BORGER (voice-over): 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.

BIDEN: I tried to understand him. I learned from him, and I watched him change, oh, so subtly.

BORGER (voice-over): He delivered Strom Thurmond's eulogy, too.

REP. JAMES CLYBURN (D-SC): 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 (voice-over): Over time, Biden developed an almost pastoral habit of consoling others. In public on the campaign trail--

BIDEN: Someone who has been through it and says, "I know how you feel," You kind of look and you say, "I guess i can make it. They made it."

BORGER (voice-over): He did it privately, too.

RAHM EMANUEL (D), FORMER MAYOR, CHICAGO: In the middle of his campaign for the presidency, my dad had passed away. Joe was the first one to call me. He's running for office. You can leave a voicemail.

BORGER (on camera): Right.

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 (on camera): People talk about your empathy and your pastoral nature when people are suffering. Did that begin after the accident?

BIDEN: I think it really began in an earnest way with 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 eighth grade dance and say, would you go to th-th-th-th-th-the - and there are always a bunch of chumps out there who would make fun. That's how I kind of learned to fight.

BORGER (voice-over): 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.

BIDEN: I happen to be one of those so-called people or labeled as a liberal on civil rights, but opposed busing.

JONES: If you're a Biden, that's going to be a tough issue for you, because of that big empathy, that big heart, is this good for kids? 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 OF THE UNITED STATES: And I'm going to now direct this at vice president Biden--

BORGER (voice-over): That decades-old decision became fodder in the Democratic debates.

HARRIS: You also worked with him to oppose busing. And you know, there was a little girl in California who was part of the second class to integrate her public schools and she was bused 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 busing. I was against busing.

BORGER (on camera): You were?


CLYBURN: Yes. The first real serious discussion I ever had with my wife was over busing. That is because I thought court-ordered busing put too much of a burden on the students. I believed in neighborhood concept schools rather than being bused. And when I expressed that publicly, my wife took me to the woodshed in such a way that I would never forget it.

BORGER (voice-over): While Biden's political life was tumultuous, back at home he was trying to get his personal life in order.

BIDEN: I had 1,000 yentas, everybody had somebody for me. And they were very nice about it.

BORGER (voice-over): By 1977 he had found someone he wanted to marry, Jill Jacobs.

BIDEN: I had to ask her five times to marry me. Five. Five times. She would say no every time I asked her.

J. BIDEN: I knew what the boys had been through. They had 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.

OWENS: 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 (voice-over): And she may have saved his life.

J. BIDEN: I said, what do you mean giving him last rites? He's not going to die.




UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The greatest senator from Delaware, Joseph R. Biden!

BORGER (voice-over): By the mid '80s Joe Biden was a Senator going places.

BIDEN: How are you, pal?

AXELROD: 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 (voice-over): But was Biden really ready?

MARK GITENSTEIN, BIDEN'S FORMER CHIEF COUNSEL ON THE SENATE JUDICIARY COMMITTEE: You know the funny thing about '88, I never said this to anybody, I wasn't sure how much he really wanted to run.

BORGER (on camera): 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, Joe who took the train home at night to be with his kids, and you can't do that when you're running for president.

BORGER (voice-over): 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've got to think about this, you've got to do it.

BORGER (voice-over): And so Amtrak Joe moved on to the presidential track in a wide open and competitive race, announcing his candidacy at the Wilmington train station.

BIDEN: As today I announce my candidacy for president of the United States of America.

BORGER (voice-over): Just a few weeks after his announcement, some unexpected news took him on a detour.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: It is the surprise retirement this summer of swing vote Justice Lewis Powell.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 v. 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 (voice-over): President Reagan took the opportunity to nominate an icon of the right.

RONALD REAGAN, 40TH U.S. PRESIDENT: I today announce my intention to nominate United States Court of Appeals Judge Robert H. Bork.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 us to 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 (voice-over): So Biden found himself running two campaigns, one against Robert Bork and another for President, and they were pulling him in different directions.

BIDEN: My name's Joe Biden. I would like to be the democratic nominee for president of the United States of America.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 mismatch between the expectation of Joe and what was going on in the campaign, the sort of basic stuff wasn't getting done.

BORGER (voice-over): But that was nothing compared to what unfolded next.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Live from the Iowa State Fairgrounds in Des Moines, Election '88.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 populist life story, politically compelling. But it wasn't Biden's life and it was delivered without any attribution.

BIDEN: Why is it that Joe Biden--

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: What am I, the first Kinnock in a thousand generations--

BIDEN: The first in his family.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: To be able to get to university.

BIDEN: ever to go to a university. KAUFMAN: I mean he had given that speech 25, 30 times, and in every

case he had attributed it to Kinnock. He didn't plagiarize.

KLAIN: I don't think anyone in the campaign saw it as a major thing when it happened.

BORGER (voice-over): But it was, especially after a staffer from the Michael Dukakis campaign leaked the story on the eve of the Bork hearings.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Democratic Presidential Candidate Joe Biden finds himself on trial charged with political plagiarism.

BORGER (on camera): How did it feel to have your integrity challenged in such a--


BIDEN: Other than losing my family it was the worst thing that had ever happened to me.

BORGER (voice-over): The controversy fit the narrative Biden was more show than substance, all as the Bork hearings began.

BIDEN: I honestly believe, judge, I think I read everything that you have written.

BORGER (voice-over): Biden zeroed in on Bork's controversial opinions like his critique of a Supreme Court's decision to strike down a state law banning contraceptives.

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, FORMER SOLICITOR GENERAL OF THE UNITED STATES: I don't know what - what rationale 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 (voice-over): 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.

BIDEN: I knew I had one of 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 i don't want to go down in history as the guy who to save his political life let Bork get in the court.

BORGER (voice-over): So he was out.

BIDEN: All of my energy and skill is required to deal with President Reagan's effort to reshape the Supreme Court. I have concluded that i will stop being a candidate for president of the United States.

J. 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.

BIDEN: And lest I say something that might be somewhat sarcastic, I should go to the Bork hearing.

J. 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 (voice-over): Bork was pommelled 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 (voice-over): In a 2008 interview four years before his death, Bork told CNN that, "As a whole Biden wasn't fair."

BORK: The Democrats, including Biden, spent the time making the most scurrilous charges about me.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): For some, Bork became a new verb, a shorthand for getting railroaded and destroyed, and remains to this day.


BORGER (on camera): What is your response to them when they say, well, it was all about his ideology?

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 (voice-over): So Biden won one fight and left another, and his family now sees it as a life saver.

J. BIDEN: Maybe this is rationalization, but his pulling out probably saved his life. You know, he never would have stopped.

BORGER (voice-over): 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.

J. 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. The aneurism was in his brain and it erupted.

BORGER (voice-over): There were two aneurisms, both extremely dangerous.

BIDEN: There was a better than every chance that i was not likely to make it through the first operation.

BORGER (voice-over): The situation was so dire a priest came to give the 45-year-old Biden his last rites, but was interrupted.


J. BIDEN: I ran into the room. The priest was at the bedside, and I said "Get out, because he is not going to die." and the priest - I think I just shocked the priest, and he just ran out of the room.

BORGER (voice-over): Biden had two surgeries and a tough recovery. Seven months later he returned to the senate and more controversy.

BIDEN: Do you swear to tell the whole truth?

BORGER (voice-over): Coming up.

BORGER (on camera): Would you be willing to work with him?




HILL: It was terrifying.

BIDEN: Professor, do you swear to tell the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you god?

HILL: I do.

BIDEN: Thank you.

HILL: It was really scary, because it was something that hadn't happened before, and the stakes were so high.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): 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 (on camera): So you're going to vote for Joe Biden?

HILL: Yes.

BORGER (on camera): 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 (on camera): 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 (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): Her motives dissected.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Do you have a martyr complex?

HILL: No, I don't.

BORGER (voice-over): 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 (voice-over): Some say you let the Republicans take over. 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 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.

BIDEN: Sexual harassment is a serious matter, and in my view, any person guilty of this offense is unsuited to serve not only--

BORGER (voice-over): Biden led the floor fight against Thomas and lost.

CLARENCE THOMAS, ASSOCIATE JUSTICE OF THE SUPREME COURT OF THE UNITED STATES: As a Black American, as far as I'm concerned, it is a high- tech lynching--

BORGER (voice-over): Thomas denied the allegations and his supporters still seethe about the hearing.

SEVERINO: With the Hill allegations he said, if these come out in public I will be your biggest defender. Quite the opposite it really happened. So he repeatedly was saying one thing, talking out of one side of his mouth to one group and one side to the other.

BORGER (on camera): So what does this tell you about Joe Biden?

SEVERINO: He's someone who I think is - like wants to try to please everyone.

BORGER (on camera): 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, 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 (voice-over): But Hill has watched the vice president talk more about the hearings on TV, and she says it's encouraging.

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 (voice-over): But the story of Biden and women's issues is not just about Hill. When the Thomas hearings ended--

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 (voice-over): 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. There were fancy lawyers, liberal and conservative, who would say domestic violence is, you know, as American as apple pie. Prominent liberal lawyers.

BIDEN: Overall, the toll on women's lives and health is devastating.

BORGER (voice-over): Biden held senate hearings to share their stories.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: In 1983, my husband stabbed me 13 times and broke my neck while the police were on the scene.