Musing about Joe Biden’s complicated history and frustrating tendency to shoot himself in the foot

Last night, I watched as the news anchor breathlessly reported that some poll, somewhere, showed that Kamala Harris had ripped into Joe Biden's once-prodigious lead as front-runner for the Democratic nomination for President. I understand that the 24-hour news cycle constantly requires fresh meat on which to chew, but that announcement was equivalent to saying that Rocky IV was the best Rocky movie since Rocky III.

Harris has been universally lauded for her emotional recollection of her experience with busing to achieve desegregation in the 1970s, using it as a platform to point out that the young politician Joe Biden was on the wrong side of the issue. And then Joe Biden, who shoots himself in the foot on a ridiculously regular basis, made things worse for himself.

Biden is an incredibly frustrating political figure. He seems like a nice guy, he's been through hell in his personal life, and he is usually (but not always) on the right side of history. But he has this habit of impromptu self-damage. Pundits generously refer to his screw-ups as "gaffes," but they're flat-out self-inflicted wounds, like his using his willingness and ability to work with blatant racists back in the 1970s in a nostalgic look back at lost "civility" in the United States Senate.

In the "debate," Biden looked flustered after Harris' broadside and never really regained his footing. Now he's got to answer questions about votes he made nearly half a century ago and stand up to a whole lot of young firebrand neo-liberals over his stance on an issue that tore America apart years or even decades before they were born. It's one thing to honor the sacrifices of Congressman John Lewis, who marched across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama and received a fractured skull for his efforts. There's no "other side" to the battle for civil rights.

But people who take the time to delve deeply into the issue of busing are going to find that it was not all cut and dried, us against them. As Howard Blume recently put it in the Los Angeles Times, "The wave of anti-busing populism...included parents who were horrified by overt racism, but who opposed putting their children on buses..."

It was an ugly time and Joe Biden didn't do himself proud in the matter. But for others to chime in with, "If I had been there at that time, I would have done this, this and this..."

Yeah, maybe you would have and maybe you wouldn't have. It's human nature to mentally put yourself in a situation and imagine that you would have done the right thing, even in the face of scorn or even personal danger. We've all done it. I actually went shopping at the Safeway on Oracle and Ina a couple hours before Gabrielle Giffords got shot. I sometimes wonder what I would have done had I been there during the shooting. I would like to think that I would have grabbed a jar of spaghetti sauce out of my bag, thrown it with perfect accuracy at the coward and then tackled him. But the reality is that I would have probably ducked or run.

I have friends who are gun guys and they always tell me stories that begin with, "Aw man, if I had been there..." But there's that well-trained cop who's going to be put on trial because he froze outside that Florida high school while some little punk killed 17 people. And just today I read that a Las Vegas cop who froze one floor below the madman who slaughtered 58 people out the window of his hotel room got fired.

When I was growing up, the Los Angeles City School District was the ultimate example of de facto segregation. My high school was more than 90 percent minority. Yet, seven miles west (but on the other side of I-5) was Granada Hills High, which was over 98 percent white. The schools in East L.A. (Roosevelt, Garfield) were almost entirely Hispanic. The schools downtown (Manual Arts, Fremont) were almost all-black. There were huge Samoan populations at Narbonne and Gardena. That's just how it was.

I had already come to Arizona for college when the busing happened but I followed it closely. The anger in L.A. was equal to anything they had in Boston. I remember seeing an African-American woman on the news who said, "Why should my child have to endure a two-hour, round-trip bus ride every day just to get a better education? Why not just fix our (local) schools?"

Still, most of the people who were screaming the loudest were unabashed racists and so the inclination was to take the other side. But one of the hard things about being an adult is learning that not every issue has a clearly right side and a clearly wrong side.

Biden should have looked at the other people on the stage and said, "You like to think you know what you would have done 40-something years ago, but you don't. And to you, Senator Harris, yes, you were riding one of those buses, but if you had been a senator from California at that time, would you have voted for a federal law to force busing across the entire United States?

"Maybe you would have and maybe you wouldn't have..." ■

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