Published October 26, 2018
Leading off UB’s Distinguished Speakers Series, former Vice President Joe Biden told a sold-out audience yesterday that, “In the end, words matter. Our leaders need to lower the temperature of our public dialogue.
“We cannot allow America to be defined by race, religion or political beliefs.”
Biden, the Undergraduate Student Choice speaker, took the stage to a standing ovation from an audience of more than 6,000 in Alumni Arena on the North Campus.
Looking out at the packed house, Biden smiled and led off with a comment on the success of the UB Bulls football team: “Seven-and-one. Whoa. When I was growing up, my Walter Mitty dream was to play for the New York Giants.”
After telling the audience, “It’s an honor to be here,” Biden, in a more serious tone, directly addressed having been mailed two pipe bombs — among a spate of such mailings this week.
“Folks, we don’t have the facts yet, and we don’t know who’s behind this and why they’re doing it,” he said.
“As my mother used to say, out of something bad, something good will come of it.
“My hope is, this recent spate of pipe bombings might wake up people in my business,” Biden said. “And realize we have to put this country back together again.
“This division, this hatred, this ugliness has to end. Words matter,” he said to loud applause.
Driving his point home, Biden quoted a passage from Irish poet William Butler Yeats’ “The Second Coming.”
“Things fall apart; the center cannot hold,” he recited. “Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world, the blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere the ceremony of innocence is drowned. The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.”
Biden told the audience: “I’ve been doing this a long time. I never looked at a political opponent as an enemy.”
It is always appropriate to question another’s judgment, he said. “But once you question motive, it’s almost impossible to reach consensus. Today, almost all politics are assaults on motive, character or personal attacks.”
Biden went on, to sustained applause: “The press is not the enemy of the people. Immigrants are not animals.”
Stating that without consensus, nothing can happen, Biden noted the importance of teaching honorable citizenship.
“America is led by the power of our leaders’ example. Our most powerful communication is by example to others.
“We must resist this Hobbesian vision of the world, a war of all against all,” he said.
Citing the maxim “all politics is local,” as a common phrase in U.S. politics he found to be true, Biden shared his own political mantra with the audience.
“Throughout my years in the Senate and as vice president, I always followed my belief that ‘all politics is personal.’
“By that I mean that political parties must talk to each other again. It’s important to understand the other person’s perspective,” he said.
“The moral fabric of society is invisible. We are today seeing a half-baked political philosophy to dissolve the moral fabric of this country,” Biden told the audience.
“This invisible moral fabric is not complicated: It encompasses decency, honesty, hate gets no safe harbor, leave no one behind. We have time to weave those values back into our system.”
Biden cited the example, during his years in the U.S. Senate, of members practicing comity during debates, and also dining together.
“We would set aside two big tables in the Senate dining room during lunch each day, so that members — both Democrats and Republicans — could have a meal together,” he said. “It sounds like a simple thing, but it allowed us to understand each other as people … to learn about each other’s lives, problems, hopes. And we got to know each other better.”
Biden linked the story to a statement he frequently heard from his father.
“He would tell me, ‘I don’t expect the government to solve my problems. But I do expect the government to understand them,’” Biden told the audience.
“We have to rebuild the muscle memory that allows us to be collegial with one another,” he said. “People are uneasy. Apprehensive. And with good reason.
“We are no longer the wealthiest middle class in the world. People are worried about having peace-of-mind. They are concerned about caring for elderly parents, education, health care,” Biden said. “People believe these are difficult times. And they are.”
Citing the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr. and Robert F. Kennedy in 1968, and the shootings of four students on the campus of Kent State University by members of the Ohio National Guard in 1970, Biden told the UB audience: “We’ve been through much worse.”
However, Biden emphasized both strong and subtle reasons for optimism.
“There is reason for concern, but also reason for hope,” he said. “There are more women of both parties running for elected office — local, state and national — than at any time in our country’s history.
“We have the strongest and best system of higher education in the world. So many major changes and scientific advancements over the last few decades have come out of a research university, not a corporation. From a research university. People all over the world want to come here for that.”
Biden went on to say that, for too long, people have been motivated by fear. “We must choose hope over fear. Truth over lies. Hope and history rise, along with dignity and respect.
“We must remember who the hell we are. We are America and we own the finish line.”
During a question-and-answer period following his remarks, Biden was asked about the erosion of trust in the FBI and the news media.
“This is not Donald Trump,” he said. “It began long before that. The world has changed, and we have not adjusted well.
“We are told in order to gain power, you must appeal to the worst instincts, blame ‘the other.’ Nothing could be further from the truth. We lose the ability for debate and discussion because we lack basic elements of comity.”
Asked about campus assaults and the continuing role of Title IX, Biden noted the lack of any reduction over the past 21 years in the levels of violence toward women in their late teens and 20s.
“One out of four women drop out of college after being victimized. It’s unacceptable,” he said.
“Since the passage of the Violence Against Women Act in 1994, we still need to change the culture around domestic violence and sexual assault — especially on college campuses — and protect and strengthen victims’ rights,” Biden told the audience.
“I have a basic, fundamental disagreement with Secretary (education secretary Betsy) DeVos on this issue. We still have a lot of work to do to change the culture at many universities.”
After being asked what college students can do to heal the divides across the nation, Biden told UB students to reach out and get to know people with whom they disagree.
“Get engaged in your community, whether hometown, the university, or your adjoining neighborhoods,” Biden said.
“Try to figure out the other person’s perspective and be less judgmental. It’s about the way you treat people. By being more civil and open, you may learn something.”