Joe Biden is tough enough without the tough talk

Joe Biden spoke last week at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.
Joe Biden spoke last week at Southern Connecticut State University in New Haven.Catherine Avalone/New Haven Register/AP

JOE BIDEN doesn’t have to prove his toughness. He wrote the book on it.

It’s called “Promise Me, Dad.” A moving memoir about the death of his son, Beau, 46, of brain cancer, the book showcases the best of Joe Biden — his grace, resilience, and tenacity in the face of heartbreak and loss. Biden’s an expert at that. As he writes in this book, “My story precedes me.” In 1972, he lost a wife and daughter to a car crash that left him raising two young sons as a single parent, until his remarriage in 1977. His perseverance over time and tragedy is woven into the narrative of his long political career as a US senator, unsuccessful presidential candidate, and two-term vice president under Barack Obama.


That’s the kind of toughness this country can use. What isn’t needed is more shallow macho boasting about beating up political opponents. But Biden took that low road last week, telling a group of college students that if he and President Trump “were in high school, I’d take him behind the gym and beat the hell out of him.” Naturally, his words triggered a typically repulsive Trump tweet that “Crazy Joe Biden is trying to act like a tough guy. Actually, he is weak, both mentally and physically, and yet he threatens me. . . . He doesn’t know me, but he would go down fast and hard, crying all the way.”

Biden, weak? Hardly, given what he has endured and triumphed over. As he writes in his book, while his beloved Beau was dying, Biden was juggling foreign crises involving Iraq, Ukraine, and Central America. He was also thinking about challenging Hillary Clinton, even though his boss, President Obama, was actively discouraging him. Biden saw it as one way to move himself and his family forward as they came to grips with Beau’s death in 2015. In the end, he chose not to do it, because he didn’t want anyone to think he was using his family’s crisis to promote a presidential run: “The idea that I would use my son’s death to political advantage was sickening,” he writes.


Trump’s christening of Biden as “Crazy Joe” is part of his usual MO to marginalize an opponent via insulting nickname. On one hand, Trump calling anyone “crazy” is crazy. But danger lurks in such name-calling. Just ask Senator Elizabeth Warren, a.k.a. “Pocahontas.” Biden is strong and resolute. But he also suffers from what The Washington Post defined back in 2016 as an “Uncle Joe” problem. It covers a gamut of behavior that runs from quirky to awkward to what dedicated Biden critics consider outright creepy.

Again, when it comes to creeps in the White House, there can be no bigger creep than Trump. But do Democrats really want their 2020 campaign slogan to be that their candidate is less crazy and creepy than the one with an “R” next to his name?

That’s why Biden needs to cut the crazy talk now. According to some recent polling, he leads the hypothetical Democratic field — and Trump. Of course, it’s early. But those numbers do reflect Biden’s standing with Democratic voters, which is largely shaped by a favorable view of his tenure as vice president and the type of character he shows in “Promise Me, Dad.”


That’s the view he should be nurturing. No need to take Trump on in locker room fashion — and give women a chance to remember how he squelched Anita Hill’s accusations of sexual harassment against Clarence Thomas, in 1991, when Biden was chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. No need to give his enemies a chance to recycle the gallery of photos of him hugging women a little too closely — as if that is equal to what Trump brags of grabbing.

Trapped in Trump’s muck, people are desperate for a leader who is tough enough to pull the country to a better place. That’s the kind of toughness Biden writes about and what he promised his son he would strive to achieve.

Joan Vennochi can be reached at vennochi@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @Joan_Vennochi.