The summer treated Joe Biden well. He wasn’t quite the center of attention, but bouncing among D.C., Delaware, and whatever states would have him, he was making progress with weary Americans. The year was 1987, and Biden — 44 years old but already in his third term in the Senate — was running for president for the first time. He’d briefly considered running twice before, but now, pitching himself as a pragmatic but energetic new leader with Ronald Reagan soon to be a retiree, he had a shot.
It was never a clear shot, though, and it famously didn’t last long. Derailed by his own misdeed of plagiarizing a British politician’s speech, Biden dropped out of the race that September, furious at both his opponents and the media and eager to pivot back to his work in the Senate, including running hearings for Reagan Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Biden’s exit from the race was yet another convulsion in an already chaotic campaign season: Governor Mario Cuomo of New York had opted against running, and the favorite, former Colorado senator Gary Hart, had just exited the race after a disaster of his own — getting caught in what would later be remembered as the first modern political sex scandal. (Hart was spotted in a presumed affair.) Leaving the race, Biden hinted heavily he’d run again, though it wasn’t clear when he would. The following February, he suffered two brain aneurysms and spent months recovering at Walter Reed. He later said he may not have survived had he still been a candidate. By the time Massachusetts governor Michael Dukakis won the nomination and then lost the election by a wide margin to George H.W. Bush, the year had already been one of the most formative of Biden’s life.
Three and a half decades later, the president rarely talks about his first real dip into national politics, though friends and longtime colleagues universally say the experience is rarely far from his mind. So six months into Biden’s tenure in the White House and countless political eons since that race, I was curious to hear from the people who experienced it alongside him — his rivals for the 1988 Democratic nomination.
Three of them agreed to talk briefly about their memories and lessons from that campaign, what’s changed, assessments of their old competitor, the 2020 primary, the shadow of Donald Trump, and — because of two of them brought it up themselves — Infrastructure Week. Over recent weeks, New York checked in with Dukakis, Hart, and former Missouri representative Dick Gephardt. Dukakis, 87, and Hart, 84, are both retired. Gephardt, who became the House majority leader after running, is now 80 and remains a prominent lobbyist in D.C. As far as the other Democratic candidates go, the Reverend Jesse Jackson did not respond to a request for comment, and Al Gore, who was a first-term senator in 1988, declined a request to participate. Former Arizona governor Bruce Babbitt couldn’t be reached, and former Illinois senator Paul Simon died in 2003.
Let’s start with 1987. What did you think of Joe Biden then?
Dick Gephardt: He was a terrific public speaker. I hated to follow him when we were in front of state party groups or whatever. Because he just set the place on fire; he was really good. He’s toned down since then, but when this whole thing about his stutter came up during this campaign, it was just amazing to me. I didn’t know that!
Gary Hart: In the mid- and late-’80s, when I was a candidate in ’84 and began to be in ’88, I talked about four revolutions. The first was globalization. That sounds pretty obvious now, but back in those days, the early ’80s particularly, it was a new phenomenon that no one — or very few people — understood. I drew from that that trade was going to change and that the base of the American economy was going to shift — which was the second revolution — from manufacturing to technology and information. The third was the changing nature of warfare. We were beginning to understand, because of the friendship I had formed with Mikhail Gorbachev, that the Cold War was beginning to come to an end. That’s all a backdrop: It’s what the younger generation of Democrats was beginning to look at and think about 33 years ago. And to a degree, then-Senator Biden, I think, had a foot or a leg in the traditional Democratic camp, which a few of us in the younger generation didn’t believe in but respected — and had moved beyond. He also had his membership in the new generation, so had an understanding of these revolutions that were going to transform our nation and the world. So he was a transitional figure in those days.
Michael Dukakis: I always liked him. I tried very hard to keep the campaign as positive as possible. I’m not sure I succeeded entirely. [Ed.’s note: The tape exposing Biden’s plagiarism was circulated by Dukakis aides. Dukakis fired his campaign manager when he found out but later rehired him.] I made some serious mistakes during the campaign itself. Some of which obviously contributed to my defeat. But he was lucky, as it turned out, that he withdrew because of what happened to him physically later. He’s alive and well today because of it.
So how has he changed?
Gephardt: We all change with experience, and he’s had a lot of experience since then. We were both pretty young then, and you learn. You learn! That’s the only way I can put it. If you don’t, there’s something wrong with you.
Hart: I knew the early Biden better than I know the later Biden, but I can’t discern, even at a great distance of 1,500 miles, that he has become a different person. Clearly, we all age and time does take its toll, but it also brings wisdom. From a personal point of view, it seems to me that President Biden is less inclined in his recent years, the last 15 to 20 years, to be quick on the trigger rhetorically and argumentatively. In the early days, he was known as a talker. And in the Democratic conferences he had an opinion on a whole variety of things. My first reflection when Senator Obama picked him to the vice-presidency was, “Cabinet meetings are going to be interesting!” Because he had opinions on almost everything. But I sense that, like almost all the rest of us, age has tempered him. And caused him not to be so quick on the draw.
Dukakis: Joe was obviously a decent and capable guy from early on, and he started when he was very young. Always was a solid guy, a guy who invited people to work with him, a consensus builder. He continues to be that, though he’s obviously dealing with a set of circumstances now that are very different from what we were dealing with back then.
Gephardt: We’ve had this kind of bias against people who’ve been in public service. It’s just crazy. I used to say to people, “If you’re going to get your brain operated on, you’d probably ask if they’d done this kind of thing before. If you’re going to get on a plane, you want to know the pilot has flown before.” Being president is harder.
If someone had told you that summer that Biden would be president, but that it would be in 2021, what would you have said?
Dukakis: Wouldn’t be surprised. Good values. Good political skills.
Gephardt: It was always believable to me that he could be president.
Hart: I wouldn’t have been surprised. Because unlike me, and a few others, he was a career public servant. He wanted to be in office his whole life, and that shapes you and channels you in ways that those of us who kind of came and went in public service without seeking to be in elected office our whole lives did not have.
When Biden dropped out in 1987, he said, “I’m angry with myself for having been put in the position — put myself in the position — of having to make this choice. And I am no less frustrated at the environment of presidential politics that makes it so difficult to let the American people measure the whole Joe Biden and not just misstatements that I have made.” So how does today’s environment compare? And how did he manage to survive all this for 35 years?
Gephardt: The atmosphere today is much worse. I mean not just a little worse. I’ve never seen polarization like this, which is really crippling to democracy. The only way to deal with it is to fight back against it and pull people together and get things done.
Hart: We see the world through our own experiences. Joe became president because he was persistent. And he certainly offered things to Barack Obama that Obama needed, that positioned him for eight years on the national and international stage. In the case of a personality like myself? For me, it was up or out. I did not want to stay in the Senate hoping quadrennially that I could become the Democratic nominee and president. But that’s a different strategy. I had the advantage of the ’84 breakthrough and a contested nomination race through 50 states, and a political base across the country as I was preparing for a second try. I wasn’t going to hang around and try for a third time.
Dukakis: I don’t think it’s changed dramatically. It’s basically politics. We still have an issue among progressives — it’s not a huge issue — within the party, in terms of a range of views on subjects. For example, I’m a progressive guy, but I’m also somebody who believes deeply in community policing. Bill Bratton worked for me and taught me a lot. The idea that we defund the police, in my experience, is crazy. You need very, very effective community policing, mutual respect between the community and their police. It’s working here, and in fact we don’t talk enough about it, in my opinion. It’s a combination of community policing and strict gun control.
Fast-forward to last year: did you support Biden in the primary?
Dukakis: I supported Senator Warren in the primary. I was certainly very happy with Joe [after Warren lost].
Hart: Up until he had to drop out, I supported Michael Bennet. He’s a very, very good friend. I went to New Hampshire on his behalf. And then, of course, he had to come home and not pursue it. [Ed.’s note: Bennet got fewer than 1,000 votes in New Hampshire, then dropped out.] Then, to the degree that I had anything to offer, I supported Joe Biden.
Gephardt: I did.
Have you talked with him since he won?
Dukakis: I haven’t talked to him since he’s been in office. He doesn’t need advice from me.
Hart: I have not. My wife of 63 years tragically passed away recently, and I was told he was going to try to contact me, but I have not yet heard from him.
Gephardt: I haven’t. I’ve talked to his people. I’m always ready to be helpful and do anything I can do.
What do you think is the best thing he’s done as president?
Gephardt: In general, I’d say shooting straight with the American people. The first huge issue he’s had to face has been the vaccine, and he’s still grappling with it. He’s made tremendous progress, but he’s not done. It’s a classic leadership challenge, and he’s met it.
Hart: He’s had to juggle an awful lot of hot potatoes, obviously. I like the boldness of his economic proposals. I think they’re overdue in terms of infrastructure. Not only in terms of bridges and highways but also technology and education.
Dukakis: He’s done his job extremely well, I just wish he was getting some help from the other side on at least some issues. Well, okay, the infrastructure thing looks as if it may be coming around, but that’s not a difficult thing, my God! If you’re not concerned about the nation’s infrastructure at this point, you’re not conscious. We have serious, serious problems. The rest of the world is flying by us on this stuff. Fortunately, Joe’s Mr. Railroad when it comes to high-speed-rail passenger service, and I applaud him for it and am very supportive of it.
Hart: Given the thin, if not nonexistent, majorities in the Senate and the House, he’s a pragmatist. He has to take what he can get. He has a very difficult situation in the Senate particularly. He’s got to be bold with his vision, with his agenda. But at the same time, understand that there are an awful lot of marginal Democrats in both the House and the Senate.
Dukakis: We better get very serious about the [midterm] elections.
And what’s his biggest mistake so far?
Gephardt: You can argue around the edges of things, but none of it really matters.
Hart: Has he made mistakes? Of course, but I’m not here to critique him.
Dukakis: I don’t see any mistakes, I think he’s done a first-rate job. [Pause.] He’s obviously dealing with terrible Senate leadership, McConnell is just a guy who, for whatever reason, doesn’t seem to want to be a constructive factor in the country’s recovery. I don’t know why! He was a young aide to John Sherman Cooper, a very, very fine, moderately progressive Republican senator from Kentucky. Whatever happened to McConnell is beyond me. I think he’s just reprehensible, what he’s doing — or not doing, as the case may be — and doing absolutely no effort to help Biden bring this country together. And he could be doing so much, but he’s not interested. And apparently the rest of the congressional folks on the Republican side, with very few exceptions, are so scared of Trump and Trumpism that they can’t get out of their own way. The senior senator from Maine [Susan Collins] just endorsed that crazy guy [Paul LePage] who was governor and wants to come back. Can you believe this? Why is she doing this? So who’s left? The senator from Alaska [Lisa Murkowski] is running third in the polls or something, at this point, despite a very gutsy performance, in my opinion. It doesn’t make you awfully optimistic.
Has anything about the Biden administration surprised you?
Dukakis: No. He’s dealing with this strange collection of political forces here, including this seriously unbalanced guy who was the president for four years. And who is still at it.
Hart: I’ve been marginally surprised at the boldness of his economic proposals. But not swept off my feet. At his age, you reach a certain point in your life — which I have reached some years ago — where you say, “I’m only going to do this once, so I might as well do my best and take my chances.” I think that’s where he is. He’s not looking at being president forever. He’s like me in this sense. When Barack Obama said, “I would rather be a bold one-term president than a cautious or moderate two-term president,” that’s exactly the way I felt. Had I won in 1988 — and I thought I had a pretty good chance — I would have offered some bold initiatives myself.
Gephardt: The speech he gave [on voting rights in mid-July] — I saw some of it on TV. I thought it was a well-given speech. It kinda reminded me of 1987, when I hated following him. He was speaking from his heart.
If he called you tomorrow for advice, what would you tell him to do?
Gephardt: Just keep doing what you’re doing.
Dukakis: We have to start getting ready for next year’s elections. Stay at it, but get very serious about precinct-based grassroots organization all over the country. We haven’t done it, and we gotta get better about it. Everywhere, no exceptions. That’s the advice I gave Elizabeth Warren when she first came to see me before her 2012 Senate run. I had never met her; she was a professor at Harvard Law School. I gave her the three-minute Dukakis speech on this. And she did it and got elected. And we’re just not doing enough of that. I didn’t do enough of that in ’88, to tell you the truth. The only reason I won the primary was I had these fabulous grassroots organizations on the precinct basis. Then I spent all my time talking to people with other ideas about how to win the presidency.
Hart: I’d just say to him I want to be helpful any way I can. He does, on top of everything else, have to be bolder on climate change. The best thing he did at the outset was pick John Kerry at that position, and he has to feature John more. He has to not just talk about climate change but make some decisions on things like the auto industry and heavy industry, as well. [Pause.] But he knows all that.
*Interviews have been condensed and edited from three separate extended conversations.