Joe Biden as Joe College

Historian John R. Thelin returns to the ’60s, when Biden -- along with the majority of his classmates -- was regular, not radical.

October 28, 2020
 
 
Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

When Joe Biden was in college from 1961 to 1965, he was not Radical Joe but Regular Joe. This finding in the front-page New York Times story on Oct. 18 was consistent with Biden’s explanation that “Other people marched. I ran for office.” As one college friend recalled, “occupying a dean’s office, or something like that, was not his style.”

There’s nothing shocking about Biden’s recollection, even though some GOP strategists now want to cast Biden as far left. That image does not square with the realities of his past or present. Joe Biden was “Joe College.”

Biden’s biography complicates the story of his own political path as well as upsets the popular image often associated with “going to college in the ’60s.” Slogans such as “days of rage” and “the campus in crisis” have emphasized violent protests by angry student demonstrators. But the calendar was crucial. Biden was in college at a quiet time on a quiet campus, the University of Delaware. Even at the most radical campuses, student protests did not become volatile until 1967 or even later.

Ironically, the most extreme cases of campus violence of the early 1960s involved traditional students, many of whom were members of fraternities and sororities. The violence included throwing bricks at federal marshals or burning parked cars to protest racial desegregation at some flagship state universities in the South. That was most evident in student opposition to James Meredith’s enrollment at the University of Mississippi in September 1962.

When Biden was an undergraduate, student activism dealt primarily with immediate concerns such as overcrowding in lecture halls and dormitories. Earnest students, regardless of political party, were upset by “the impersonality of the multiversity” -- which meant having to wait in long lines for course registration, meetings with an academic adviser or getting meals in the campus dining hall.

The most publicized political protest of 1963-64 was the Free Speech Movement (known as the FSA) at the University of California, Berkeley. When campus administrators banned student groups from setting up tables to hand out political brochures on campus, it was the one issue that united all students -- left, right and center. Young Republicans and Students for a Democratic Society put aside political differences. They channeled their collective anger into organized resistance against deans and campus staff. All student groups felt their rights to a campus forum had been violated.

Recollections about Biden’s political views in college frequently emphasize his dress. The point seems to be that since he wore Weejuns and a sport coat, he, of course, must have been conservative. In fact, his clothing provided no clue to his political orientation, then or now. To test out this claim, it’s useful to look at archival photographs from student protests at Berkeley in spring 1966. A delegation of students staged an antiwar demonstration at the university’s Charter Day ceremonies. The photograph shows that these antiwar student activists were overwhelmingly white. The young men had neatly trimmed hair and wore button-down-collar shirts, with many wearing neckties. The women who hoisted protest signs wore skirts, dresses and blouses, some with Peter Pan collars. And both men and women who were protesting the war did wear Weejuns.

Biden was mainstream and moderate, characteristics that put him in the heart of campus life in his era. Student protest was not always rebellious in clothing and appearance. Activists were usually well behaved in the mid-1960s. If Biden is designated as a collegiate figure of his era, then the images of violent student demonstrations need to be tempered by the reminder that most of the events associated with the '60s really did not take place until the '70s. For example, the shootings at Kent State University and later at Jackson State University took place in May 1970 -- six years after Biden graduated from college.

What, then, is a reasonable estimate of the legacy of the early 1960s on college students nationwide? Turning from Biden’s quiet University of Delaware to another moderate state university, the president of the student body at Penn State University in 1966 described his male classmates as:

… passive, conscientious, law abiding, responsible and [socially] ultraconservative. He is content to study, date, and perform the rituals of existence … The extensive attention captured by this rebellion often obscured the reality that at Penn State and most other institutions, most students took no part in protest marches, sit-ins, flag burnings, building occupations or other activities favored by campus dissidents. As administrators and students came to realize, the passive majority often embraced the goals, if not the methods, of the activist minority.

The fact that Biden was a regular Joe, not radical Joe, did not mean that he was not influenced by dramatic social and political events of the 1960s. It does suggest that he had the potential to shape these changing concerns into a political platform that can still have resiliency for mainstream Americans today. His perspective and platform can provide the balance between the far left and the far right in the 2020 presidential campaign.

Bio

John R. Thelin is University Research Professor at the University of Kentucky and author of Going to College in the Sixties, published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2018.

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