How I Gave Joe Biden the Idea of Running for President, 46 Years Ago

Joe Biden first sought the White House more in 1988 as a young Senator, and sought it again in 2008 as an old one, neither time coming even close. This November he (and millions of Americans) hope that three times will be the charm. But when did the idea first come to him that maybe a middle class guy from Delaware could aspire to the U.S. Presidency? I have more than five hundred witnesses who can tell you that he got that idea from me, on the stage my high school’s gymnasium 46 years ago. Here is how I gave Joe Biden the idea of running for president when I was 17.

My hometown of Whittier, an obscure suburb 12 miles southeast of Los Angeles, also works as a generational history exam. If you mention it to people over the age of sixty or so, many of them will pause a minute and offer up, “Right, Richard Nixon’s hometown.” I was born and raised there during his presidency. Our city library boasted a Nixon Room filled with campaign memorabilia. A brass plaque in the sidewalk marked the site of his uptown law office.

My junior high school math teacher, Mrs. Milhouse, was his cousin and proudly displayed her invitation to his first inaugural on her classroom wall. This may be the reason I became a poor math student. On the night Nixon was driven from office in disgrace, someone had the foresight to steal the metal signs at each major entrance to the city: “Welcome to Whittier, Hometown of President Nixon.” I wish I’d thought of it.

I did not fit into to this city of men in powder blue leisure suits who sold cars and voted the Republican line. And by the autumn of 1974, I was known among local Democrats as that precocious boy activist. I lost my political virginity two years earlier to Senator George McGovern when he was running against Nixon and spoke in the auditorium of the president’s old high school. “Nixon went to China,” he proclaimed as my friends and I cheered in the front row, “so I thought I’d come to Whittier!” I spent many afternoons and weekends knocking on many doors on McGovern’s behalf during that campaign. He lost anyway.

Another thing I did as a young activist in Whittier was invite politicians to come and speak at my high school (not the same one as Nixon’s). One of them was George Deukmejian, a conservative Republican who would later serve two terms as California’s governor. I met he and his driver at the school entrance and his first words to me were, “Where is the bathroom?” I realized later that dignitary protocol would have dictated that I steer him to the faculty restroom but that did not occur to me at the time. Instead I ushered him to the ‘boys room’ as it was called, where a few of my classmates were busy smoking a joint. I don’t think Deukmejian recognized the smell, which given his stern politics on criminal justice matters, was probably for the best.

But my really big score came in the fall of 1974 when local Democrats learned that a 32-year-old Senator from Delaware was going to be sent our way and they began trying to find places for him to speak.

Then and now, there is a hierarchy to where Democratic celebrities are sent to campaign around the country. In 1974, which promised to be (and was) a landslide Democratic year in the aftermath of Nixon’s August resignation, the big names like Teddy Kennedy were sent to states and districts with key races to win. In Republican Whittier we got the lesser knowns. One of those was a former governor of Georgia, a figure considered so obscure that in lieu of any public events he was assigned to simply walk door-to-door with the doomed local Democratic Congressional candidate. Two years later Jimmy Carter won the presidency.

Joe Biden was considered a bigger deal and because of his youth the priority was to get him in front of young people. He was slated at Whittier College, another Nixon alma mater, and in response to my relentless nagging he was also invited to speak before a special student assembly at Pioneer High School. I may have been the only student in the school who thought it was cool that an actual U.S. Senator was coming to speak to us. My enthusiasm was enough to convince the school principal that I should get to introduce him.

He arrived in a brown pinstriped suit and hair that was sufficiently long to make him look just a tad hip. As a teenage political activist stuck in the backwater of Nixon’s hometown, I was star struck by an actual member of the U.S. Senate and I introduced him imitating the language and style I had seen in political conventions.

“Students and teachers!” I screamed into the microphone fastened to the cheap wooden podium on the stage of our school gymnasium. “I present to you the Senator from the state of Delaware! Senator Joe Biden!!” My schoolmates responded with loud cheering, and from the far end of the stage Biden came strolling out and took the podium as I shook his hand and stepped aside.

Before he began to speak, Biden gave me a little sideways glance and a youthful version of that famous toothy smile.

“Gosh, you know, with an introduction like that — maybe I should run for president!”

Now it could be that the idea had already occurred to him at 32 years old and as a freshman Senator. Maybe people who run for president actually start thinking about it at about the same time they learn to walk, or ride a bike, or trick-or-treat for the first time. It’s hard to say. But I am going to just continue to believe that I gave Joe Biden that idea 46 years ago this fall on a high school stage in Whittier, California. And if he beats Donald Trump in November — as I really, really, really hope that he does — I intend to take full credit.

A political activist for more than 40 years, founder and executive director of the Democracy Center. Back in the US after 19 years in Bolivia. A dad, a grandpa.

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