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The Historical Amnesia of Joe Biden’s Candidacy

Baby Boomers are charmed by his rose-tinted revisionism. Younger Democrats see the past more clearly.

Olivier Douliery/Pool/Getty Images

Recently, two Baby Boomers born in the mid-’50s said things that worried me. One expressed surprise when I alluded to Richard Nixon’s underhanded dealings at the Paris peace talks in 1968; he didn’t know anything about the matter. Another, a filmmaker who kept radical company in his day, and who prides himself on being With It, assured me that civil rights protestors in the 1960s had been “completely nonviolent.” Both men are now positive-to-bullish on Joe Biden as the Democratic presidential candidate.

The former vice president’s whole campaign is premised on this sort of historical misremembering. President Trump, Biden tells us, is an “aberration” from Republican politics—rather than its fullest expression, the culmination of everything from the John Birch Society to Richard Nixon’s Southern strategy to Tea Party birthers. Once upon a time, Biden says, “there was some civility” in the U.S. Senate, where you “got things done” by compromising with segregationists—even though, as Sam Rosenfeld noted in The Washington Post, “it is impossible to separate the courtesies from the racist politics that made them possible.” During those alleged good old days, the Senate was all male and nearly all white.

Such hazy revisionism may help explain Biden’s deep popularity among Boomers, as well as among the Silent Generation of which he’s (just barely) a part: Polls show that roughly half of Democratic voters over age 50 support him. Younger Democrats, who also tend to lean further left, seem to have less interest in returning to a time when reaching across the aisle was easy because the Overton window was more like an arrow slit in a medieval castle: Biden’s support among Millennials is consistently in the teens and sometimes even single digits.

Yet, sure enough, the Forgetful Generation is trying to foist its own poisoned relationship with history onto the rest of the voters in the country to push Biden into office. Juan Williams (b. 1952) has castigated “today’s activists” (by which he means young people) for subjecting Biden to supposed “purity tests” (by which Williams means reviewing Biden’s legislative record). Enthusiastic millennial-basher Bill Maher (b. 1956) has scolded the youngs, whom he characterizes as “people who need cry rooms and trigger warnings and safe spaces,” for not falling in line behind Biden already.

These Boomers’ patronizing message: Just forget about Anita Hill. Forget about how Biden worked with Jesse Helms to end school bussing in northern cities. Forget about the 1994 crime bill, but also the 1984 crime bill and the 1990 crime bill. Forget that it was Biden who co-sponsored the 1986 bill levying harsher penalties for crack than for powder cocaine. Forget Biden’s atrocious display at the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito. Forget his simpering eulogy for the towering racist Strom Thurmond. Forget that he can’t keep his hands to himself. And most of all, forget that Biden keeps forgetting the name of his own website.

That young liberals and leftists are being encouraged to adopt this willful amnesia should give any self-respecting Democrat pause, not least because “Make America Great Again” derives its resonance from a similarly rosy, selective view of history. Trump’s slogan is presented as self-evident, and it demands wholesale acceptance rather than scrutiny or skepticism (since pinpointing when, precisely, America was last great would give the game away). Likewise, Biden’s fondness for the old Senate—when men formed bonds while naked in the locker room, and minor disagreements were dissolved over expensive whiskey—asks that we not look closely at how those senators actually exercised their power.

Still, Biden’s campaign rhetoric has as much to do with Barack Obama as with Trump. Obama sought to transcend the racial and economic contradictions of American history through inspiring optimism and persuasive rhetoric. Biden has tried to emulate his former boss, saying on the campaign trail, “We have to choose hope over fear, unity over divisions and maybe most importantly truth over lies.” But he lacks the talent necessary to convince young voters that rose-tinted glasses are the best way of viewing our present, let alone our past. Which brings us to the obvious but important detail that one of Biden’s main selling points is a gauzy nostalgia for the Obama era. As the former president’s record on health care, climate, and immigration faces increasing scrutiny among Democrats, the former veep has refused to acknowledge anything faulty in the tactics or ideology of the Obama administration. “I’m proud of having served with him, I’m proud of the job he did, I don’t think there’s anything he has to apologize for,” he said last month.

Biden’s pitch also depends on our forgetting what happened in 2016. His wife, Jill, recently told Democratic primary voters that they should be prepared to compromise: “You know you may like another candidate better but you have to look at who’s going to win.” At least a few of us remember how this same rhetoric propelled a certain Democratic candidate to the nomination in 2016. Hillary Clinton promised to win by walking a centrist line and bringing moderate Republicans into the Democratic fold. Others do not remember, or choose to forget, the failure of that gambit.

It’s clear that, for a certain kind of Boomer liberal, the closer you were in time to a given event, the less you remember about it. This sometimes applies even to one’s own life. At a campaign stop earlier this summer, Biden told an emotional story about pinning a Silver Star on a reluctant war hero during a trip to Afghanistan while he was vice president. But as the Post reported last week, “In the space of three minutes, Biden got the time period, the location, the heroic act, the type of medal, the military branch and the rank of the recipient wrong, as well as his own role in the ceremony.” Biden also recently claimed he opposed the Iraq war since it began, which is flatly untrue.

No doubt many Boomers today misremember having opposed the war from the start. Perhaps they trust Biden when he says, “The details are irrelevant in terms of decision-making,” and agree with him about Kids These Days. “The younger generation now tells me how tough things are—give me a break,” Biden said last year. “No, no, I have no empathy for it, give me a break.” He probably wishes he hadn’t said such things—if he even remembers that he did. But that younger generation, the one that will soon dominate the Democratic Party, will not forget.