My 1989 interview with Joe Biden

I got to interview when I was a student journalist. As a reporter — then editor — for the University of Tennessee Daily Beacon, I interviewed a pretty diverse list of people, from soap opera actor Michael Swan to comics creator Mike Grell, who I would later follow on Iron Man.

There were also a number of politicians: Lamar Alexander, sometime presidential candidate and currently the senator from Tennessee, was a former governor and president of the university system while I was there — naturally, that resulted in several interviews. I didn’t interview George H.W. Bush when he came to town, but I took a position as a student aide during the presidential visit in order to get the chance to photograph his arrival at the airport for the paper.

Then there was Senator Joe Biden, who, when he came to Knoxville in early 1989, had had a hell of a year. In 1988, he had run for the Democratic nomination — only to hit the shoals after failing to cite quotations from Neil Kinnock. Later in the year, he suffered an embolism. Anyway, after he recovered, the university brought him in for some kind of lecture series, and there was a slot set aside for interviews before the lecture — for whatever reason, the two local papers (of which only one exists now) didn’t take part, so I wound up getting the full time-slot. It was a good thing I’d done some homework beforehand, as I actually had questions enough to get a couple of days’ worth of articles out of it on topics ranging from Eastern Europe to the balanced budget amendment.

I can’t speak to anyone’s political preference — I’m strictly non-partisan in this space — but I can say that he was very decent to a kid reporter scared out of his wits. A lot of politicians came through without paying much mind to the student press — OK, some of them completely ignored us. And in this case, he wasn’t our state’s senator and he wasn’t running for anything. But he was generous with his time, and I have a good memory about that experience. In particular, this was the time when I was beginning to think about international relations for grad school (which is eventually where I went), so getting to talk to the #2 guy (at the time) on the Foreign Relations committee probably helped point me in that direction.

Many years later, I located the audiotape of the interview; sadly, it has deteriorated and is hard to hear, but the articles in question are transcribed below. And in 2021, he became president, which makes him the most famous person I ever interviewed — except for maybe Stan Lee!

[These three articles of mine were published in The University of Tennessee newspaper, The Daily Beacon, Monday, Feb. 13 and Tuesday, Feb. 14, 1989. The first piece covered Sen. Joe Biden’s speech at the UT University Center; the second two came from a half-hour interview I conducted with him beforehand. This is unedited — except by me and the copy desk staff, eons ago — and is posted as a historical curiosity from a distant end of my career. The text is presumably ©1989 The Daily Beacon (or the Student Publications Board or some other construct).]

Biden speaks at UT for Academic Expo
Biden says U.S. foreign policy decisions made today could change world history

Daily Beacon Managing Editor

American foreign policy is at a watershed period, Sen. Joseph Biden said Friday.

Former presidential candidate Biden, D-Del., spoke to approximately 200 in the University Center Ballroom on Friday night as part of “Voices of Today, Issues of Tomorrow: America into the 1990s,” the Academic Expo sponsored by the Undergraduate Academic Council, the Tennessee Scholars and Issues Committee.

“I do not believe there have been but five, arguably six periods in our history when … we have either by choice, or because it has been forced upon us, made several fundamental decisions that have changed the course of history, and in turn, bound the next generation,” Biden said.

Biden said the last time the United States stood at such a turning point was at the end of World War II, when Americans emerged from the war with a different image of themselves and different ideas about their responsibilities beyond their own borders. American foreign policy is at a similar turning point because of “stunning changes” in the world over the past two years, Biden said.

“We have literally witnessed the acknowledgement of the collapse of communism as an economic model by those who, in fact, founded the model,” Biden said.

Biden said a second major change was “the ascendancy of economic power, and not military power, as the measure of a nation’s power, stability and ability to provide security for its people.

“Every industrialized nation in the world, in either bloc, is desperately trying to find a way to reduce their commitment to the military,” he said, “in order to generate greater economic ability and, wherewithal, to compete with a country they have concluded is essentially the model of competition and security — Japan.”

Biden said the third element making the world ripe for change was the rise of a “radical reformer” in the Soviet Union in Mikhail Gorbachev.

“What have we done this far in the United States after his ascendancy?” Biden said, “We have debated, to the extent any debate has taken place, two things. One: is he for real, and two: can he last, or how can we affect whether he lasts?”

Biden said the cautious U,S, policy was “understandable, though incredibly myopic,” as other nations which normally look to our leadership are embracing the Soviet regime through loans.

During the question-and-answer session, Biden was asked about his abortive run for president in 1987, scuttled by accusations he had plagiarized the speeches of British labor party leader Neil Kinnock.

“The reason why I got out of the race for president is that my campaign had reached the point that there was no way I could deal with and clarify everyone of the misstatements made by the press and the misstatements made by me in the context of the moment.”

President’s balanced budget amendment unlikely to get past Congress — Biden
Daily Beacon Managing Editor

Editor’s note: This is the first part of a two-part exclusive interview with Sen. Joseph Biden. In Tuesday’s edition, Biden discusses abortion reform and the future of U.S. relations with South Africa and the Soviet Union.

The honeymoon may be over for President Bush, as his budget faces many major hurdles before Congress, Sen. Joseph Biden, D-Del., said Friday.

Biden, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leader of the Subcommittee on European Affairs, said several of the ideas Bush presented along with his budget to Congress on Thursday were met with a mixed reception.

Biden said Bush’s proposal for a balanced budget amendment to the Constitution had little chance of being approved.

“I don’t think there’s any real prospect of a balanced budget amendment along the lines that President Reagan has suggested,” Biden said.

Biden said he had introduced his own balanced budget amendment, which was much broader in scope, five years ago in the Judiciary Committee.

“I think a balanced budget amendment is one that comes along and says, ‘Okay, next year’s budget must be balanced, period,’” he said. No if’s, and’s’, or but’s about it.

“There are means by which we could pass a balanced budget amendment that allowed for growth, did not in fact eliminate the possibility of generating additional revenues if people wanted additional programs, but did move along the lines of ‘pay as you go.’

“If you’re going to generate a program you must pay for the program, and if not, you must have slightly more than a supermajority to be able to continue to deficit spend.”

Biden said the chances of any balanced budget amendment passing the Congress with the requisite votes to he sent to the president were not “a reasonable prospect.”

“I think, by the way, it’s a little bit of a sham when … the new president calls for ‘a balanced budget amendment, and just like his predecessor, introduces a budget that is tens of billions of dollars out of budget. It’s kind of silly. This budget, if he’s lucky, if his rosy assumptions are correct, and they’re a little bit optimistic … will have a budget deficit of around $100 billion,” he said.

Biden said, in fairness to Bush. that nobody could balance the current budget without severe economic consequences such as a recession.

Biden said there was “a genuine prospect” that Congress would warmly receive Bush’s call for the inception of two-year budgeting.

“In the United States Senate, the Rules Committee has to spend for staff and for hearings and the like,” he said. “They recently instituted a two-year budget. It is a much more reasonable planning tool for agencies and for the government in general because things move so quickly, they are so big and there is so much uncertainty built in when it is only one year. The bureaucrats spend half the year trying to figure out the next year’s budget without implementing the year’s budget they just passed.”

Biden saw little hope of success for Bush’s call for a line-item veto, which would allow him to excise portions of appropriations bills and send them back to Congress.

“I don’t think it has much of a chance,” Biden said, “I happen to be a supporter of the line-item veto. I’m one of those renegade Democrats on that one issue.”

Biden said he supported a form of “limited line-item veto” similar to the one he had introduced with former Sen. Mack Mattingly, R-Ga.

“That piece of legislation … allowed the president to veto what we call a ‘function,’ that is, he could go in and veto a large portion of the defense budget, but he could not go in and veto one airplane or one aircraft carrier.

“So I am a supporter of, depending on how you define it, a line item veto,” Biden said. “But I don’t think he (Bush) has a real chance of getting that passed,”

Biden discusses abortion, foreign relations
The Daily Beacon, Tuesday, February 14, 1989 Page 2

Daily Beacon Managing Editor
Editor’s note: This is the second part of a two-part exclusive interview with Sen. Joseph Biden.

Supreme Court Justice Anthony Kennedy’s vote on the issue of abortion is “impossible to predict,” Biden said Friday.

Biden, D-Del., chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, second-ranking Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and leader of the Subcommittee on European Affairs, said in an interview Friday that he would not want to guess how Kennedy, whom Biden and the Judiciary Committee confirmed in 1987, would vote regarding abortion.

“I think Justice Kennedy is an honorable man who will vote his conscience, consistent with his view of the constitution,” Biden said. “I don’t think anyone can predict, at least· I can’t, what Justice Kennedy will do on the case before the court now that has the potential of having the effect of overturning Roe v. Wade.”

Biden said ‘Roe V. Wade established that a woman has an inalienable right of -privacy that extends to her body.

“The decision that may or may not come down relates to suggesting that (abortion) is not a matter for the federal government to decide; that is a matter for the states to decide,” he said. “The battleground would move from Washington to every state capital in the nation.

“If it were overturned … it would still establish the right of a woman to have an abortion. The question would be up to the state as to whether it would curtail that right or enhance that right.”

Biden said that, theoretically, some states might broaden the right beyond the second trimester while others might outlaw it completely.

“You might have the state of Tennessee taking one position and one of her several neighboring states taking another position, and you would find women put in the position, if they needed an abortion, of having to travel from Tennessee to another state or from another state to Tennessee. You may find that, in the effort to do away with abortion, you establish abortion mills in other states,” he said.

Biden, a longtime supporter of sanctions against South Africa, said he thought the Bush administration’s policies would be more acceptable than those of the Reagan administration, which he had once described as having “a lack of moral backbone.”

“I am a supporter of the notion of divestiture,” Biden said. “We have to take a moral stand as well as a practical stand in attempting to move the South African government toward some accommodation against apartheid.”

Biden said he could not pass judgment on UT’s holdings without knowing how extensive or far removed the holdings of the corporations doing business in South Africa were.

Biden said the global diplomatic playing field had been irrevocably altered by the ascendancy of a popular regime in the Soviet Union.

“Gorbachev is the most popular political figure in Europe, according to all the most recent polling data,” he said. “He has a favorable rating somewhere in the 80th percentile in the Federal Republic of Germany, whereas the American president is in the 50s. He is viewed as the harbinger of peace, not war, by many people around the world. He has become more popular as a consequence of all the initiatives he has taken. Those initiatives are ones that have in fact changed the playing field.”

Biden said he would be spending the weekend in Brussels meeting with the NATO committee he chairs to determine Western reaction to Gorbachev’s 500,000 troop withdrawal proposal.

“He’s changing the game plan,” he said. “Up until four years ago, we spent the previous 10 years on the Mutual Balanced Force Talks, and the Soviets wouldn’t acknowledge they should reduce any of their troop structure.

“Then here comes a guy who says, ‘Not only should we reduce, I acknowledge I have to reduce more than you do, and before we even make an agreement I’m going to take half a million troops and send them home.’ Whether that’s good, bad or indifferent, it changes the playing field.”

Biden said he would be running for a fourth term as senator.