By Matt Flegenheimer and Katie Glueck
Joe Biden marched into adulthood in Bass Weejuns penny loafers.
He was known around the University of Delaware campus as the teetotaling semi-jock with a sweater around his neck — the type who seemed more consumed with date nights than civil rights and expected a certain standard of decorum from his companions, once threatening to break off an evening with a woman who lit a cigarette in his borrowed convertible.
And when Biden and his friends from Syracuse University law school happened upon anti-war protesters at the chancellor’s office — the kind of Vietnam-era demonstration that galvanized so much of their generation — his group stepped past with disdain. They were going for pizza.
More than a half-century later, as Biden seeks the White House with a pledge to soothe the nation’s wounds and lower its collective temperature, he has been left to deflect a curious charge at the center of President Donald Trump’s reelection effort: Biden, the president insists, is eager to do the far-left bidding of violent agitators and other assorted radicals.
“They’ve got you wrapped around their finger, Joe,” Trump taunted at their first debate.
Biden, a 77-year-old moderate who cites John Wayne movies and long-dead Senate peers, has generally defaulted to a visceral defense: Look at me.
“Ask yourself,” he implored voters in a recent address. “Do I look like a radical socialist with a soft spot for rioters?”
He does not now, friends from his youth say, and he did not then — in spite of, and perhaps partly because of, the decade in which he came of age.
Amid simmering protests, generational division and defining disputes about the course of American life, Biden was a young man keen on bringing a bit of a 1950s sensibility into the 1960s — a nice-house-on-a-cul-de-sac kind of guy who spent his weekends as a 20-something husband scouting available real estate from his Corvette.
There is a version of these years that Biden prefers to share publicly: how he was captivated by the civil rights movement, coming to understand the racial divide as a teenage lifeguard in a Black neighborhood of Wilmington, Delaware; how he was brokenhearted by the murder of his heroes, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kennedy brothers; how he was motivated chiefly by an altruistic call to service.
If much of this accounting is plainly true in the abstract, those who knew him say, it also elides some finer points of Biden’s arc: his boundless personal ambition, his canny relationship-building as a political novice and, quite often, his conspicuous psychic distance from the activist fervor of the times as he plotted a path to office.
“He had other priorities,” Gilbert J. Sloan, a longtime supporter who was active in Delaware’s 1960s protest movements, said of Biden’s outlook then. “He was very young and ambitious.”
A review of how Biden navigated this period of national upheaval — drawn from interviews with more than a dozen friends, classmates and others who have known the Democratic nominee across the decades — at once lays bare the implausibility of Trump’s attack and supplies an enduring window into Biden’s own theories of social movements. Incremental progress is still progress, he has long believed, and within-the-system change is still change.
If today’s activists have at times viewed Biden skeptically through this season of unrest, questioning whether he can connect with the passion in the streets when he has rarely shown passion in the streets himself, his early history would appear to reinforce their doubts.
This is a man whose institutionalist instincts seemed to harden even before he belonged to any political institutions — and who has never shown much patience for protests that turn destructive or unruly.
“That’s the way he views activism,” said Bob Markel, a friend since the 1950s. “Occupying an office of a dean or something like that is not his style.”
It never has been. As the Vietnam War reshaped lives across many less-than-affluent families like his own, with casualties and moral outrage mounting especially among young adults a few years behind him, Biden eluded both the conflict and the attendant anger. He received five student draft deferments during the war and was kept from service after a physical exam in 1968 because he had asthma as a teenager, according to his campaign. (Trump, now 74, received five deferments in all, including a medical deferment for bone spurs.)
Biden has said he viewed the Vietnam War “in terms of stupidity, not morality,” doubting its wisdom but never feverishly enough to chant about it.
“I’m not big on flak jackets and tie-dye shirts,” he told reporters in 1987, distinguishing himself from some politically minded contemporaries. “Other people marched. I ran for office.”
‘Average Irish guy’
It can be almost impossible now to imagine Biden as a young man — or, at least, a younger man than he was when he first reached Washington, as a 30-year-old senator shattered by the car crash that killed his first wife, Neilia, and their baby daughter.
But to those who met him before his best-known trials and triumphs, the Joe Biden who wandered campus in a tasteful button-down and chinos remains an indelible character, settling into the identity that would become his self-styled political brand: polished but unpretentious, a natural leader with few obvious preternatural gifts.
“He was an average Irish guy. His father was a car salesman, for God’s sake,” said Fred Sears, a friend from the University of Delaware. “A good-looking guy with a gift of gab.”
The glad-handing started early.
An aspiring football running back and amiable freshman in 1961, Biden was elected president of his class, moving quickly to flatter his constituents.
“He came up to me, shook my hand,” recalled Brian Barrabee, a football player who lived in the same dorm, “and he said, ‘Brian, I’d like to thank you for not running for class president because if you had, you would have beaten me.’ It was his way of getting people to feel good.”
By his own account, Biden’s most resonant exposure to the dominant political issues of the day came well off campus. He has said he once walked out of a Wilmington restaurant that refused to serve a Black student from his high school, a recollection that Markel corroborated.
And at 19, Biden worked as a lifeguard in a largely Black section of Wilmington in 1962.
He has said he took the job after absorbing images of the civil rights fight on television and realizing he had few relationships with Black people, suggesting he came to understand injustice most acutely by speaking to swimmers about the prejudices they faced.
“What he learned from us is that we didn’t have what everybody else had,” said Richard Smith, a longtime civil rights activist who met Biden that summer as an adolescent. “He got his schooling at the swimming pool.”
Biden’s formal schooling, friends say, could feel less connected to the wider national tumult.
Barrabee said the campus was not a “hotbed of political activity,” describing much of the student body as “suburban kids from Wilmington, Delaware, southern Delaware area, who just wanted to go to college.”
Biden did not drink — “there are enough alcoholics in my family,” he has said — and he did not smoke. But he had a way of finding trouble.
He has said he was placed on probation for hosing down a resident adviser with a fire extinguisher. He once paid a covert visit to a romantic interest and left a friend, his lookout, to take the fall with the campus police, according to a transcript of Biden’s eulogy for the man in 2004.
Biden has said his worrisome grades sidelined his football career. Academic struggles kept him from sticking with student government as well, Sears said.
But Biden’s father perhaps inadvertently assisted in his distracting social agenda: Cars were not permitted on campus, Sears said, but the elder Biden’s job allowed his son easy access to loaner vehicles for weekend excursions.
“Every weekend, somehow, Joe ended up with a car,” Sears said of his friend’s advantages in courtship. “It was always a convertible. Besides being very cool and dressing right, showing up in a convertible he had us all beat eight ways from Sunday.”
‘I wore sport coats’
The tilt of Biden’s life changed for good with a last-minute flight to the Bahamas.
He had driven down to Fort Lauderdale, Florida, in the spring of 1964 for a couple of days with friends when boredom compelled them to consider a more daring beach destination. They booked a round trip to Nassau for about $25.
While there, Biden met Neilia Hunter poolside at an exclusive hotel he had sneaked into by wrapping a guest towel around his waist and walking past the guards with confidence.
“I’ve got the blonde,” he told his friends, beelining to Hunter, an attractive sunbather from a well-to-do family near Syracuse.
She liked him back. And when they returned stateside, the fresh clarity in Biden’s personal life seemed to sharpen his focus on other endeavors, coaxing him to fits of big-picture dreaming.
He would apply to law school at Syracuse to be near Hunter. He would make sure he was studying enough to get in.
They would get married, have kids (“she wanted five”), buy a house (“a big Tudor-style house with real trees, what the real estate professionals call ‘mature plantings’”). He would work as a trial lawyer, start his own practice, run for office.
“Once I had Neilia with me, it became more of a plan than a daydream,” Biden wrote in his 2007 memoir. “Now I could see the picture whole.”
The early goals in this timeline were accomplished apace: He got into Syracuse. He and Hunter were married in 1966.
Markel, one of Biden’s groomsmen, said Biden’s seriousness extended even to his own bachelor party. The group had rented a motel room around New Castle, Delaware, he recalled, growing rowdier by the hour, with the exception of the non-drinking groom.
“We got kind of sloppy drunk,” Markel said. “Toward the end of the evening, I remember him giving us a lecture: ‘You guys are a disgrace.’”
But Biden was still liable to lose interest in academics quickly, prizing football tailgates or social engagements with Hunter and often copying class notes from a friend. Sometimes, Hunter prepared Biden’s study sheets, inventing mnemonic devices for him to memorize.
In his most damaging bit of carelessness, Biden lifted chunks of a law review article without proper citation — a blemish that damaged his 1988 presidential campaign amid other accusations of plagiarism at the time. Biden has said he did nothing “malevolent” at Syracuse but simply did not understand citation standards because he had not been to class often enough.
“He found out it wasn’t that easy,” said Mike Gelacak, a friend who later worked as a Senate aide to Biden. “His wife explained to him that he had to knuckle down.”
And if the country’s volatility in those years seeped into campus life, classmates say that Biden never much grappled with it in their company.
“I was married,” Biden told reporters during the 1988 campaign, declaring himself “out of sync” with anti-war zeal. “I was in law school. I wore sport coats.”
‘The world had changed’
His wardrobe remained conservative upon graduation, befitting his new employer: a Wilmington law firm representing insurance companies, railroads and other well-resourced clients.
It was prestigious work, Biden told friends. He was making it. He was on schedule.
In public remarks through the years, Biden has tended to dwell more often on the broader historical record of this period than his own.
During a 2009 speech, he said the violence in Vietnam “pierced America’s consciousness,” recounting a student occupation of the Syracuse chancellor’s office. He did not tell his audience what he thought of those doing the occupying at the time.
In a 2016 address, Biden explained that once he graduated, “the world had changed.”
“Dr. King had been assassinated,” he said. “There were riots throughout America. A significant part of my hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, was burned to the ground.”
This localized distress had perhaps the most lasting effect on Biden. Wilmington was home to a notoriously lengthy National Guard occupation: Troops continued patrolling predominantly Black neighborhoods well after initial unrest following King’s death.
Biden has described the episode, combined with his lifeguard experience, as central to his early understanding of race relations.
He began working as a public defender part time and signed on with another practice that often represented the less prosperous.
“If you’re interested in a political career, you do what he did rather than take a job at a white-shoe law firm,” Markel said.
The less subtle giveaway came during a visit to the Biden residence around this time.
“We sat down in his living room, and two dogs pop out,” Markel remembered. “I said, ‘What are their names?’ He said, ‘Senator and Governor.’”
Steeped in the “Truman Democrat” leanings of his relatives from an early age and repulsed, he has said, by the politics of Richard Nixon, Biden joined a local Democratic group, implicitly (and, often enough, explicitly) announcing himself as a prospective force in the party.
Even then, “he was an institutionalist,” said Sloan, the veteran activist. “He was going to work within the system, which he did.”
When a seat on the New Castle County Council was coming open in 1970, local Democrats assumed that Biden would be eager to claim it.
John Daniello, a party official who would become the Democratic state chairman, approached Biden to feel him out.
“He just had no interest in local government, so county office didn’t turn him on even a little bit,” Daniello said. “I made the pitch that, you know, all politics is local and that you’ve got to start someplace to get name recognition.”
Biden was persuaded in time. He ran and won.
Soon after, he asked Daniello to lunch.
“I thought he wanted to talk about pending issues,” Daniello said.
But Biden had another gambit in mind: What about the U.S. Senate?