Politics & Government

Joe Biden says everyone deserves respect. Even Jesse Helms.

Former Vice President Joe Biden will bring his "American Promise Tour" to Charlotte and Durham in June after adding nine stops to a 30-city tour.
Former Vice President Joe Biden will bring his "American Promise Tour" to Charlotte and Durham in June after adding nine stops to a 30-city tour. Catherine Avalone/New Haven Register via AP

As political discourse continues to plummet, the former vice president has some advice for building relationships and good will.

Don't trash someone if you don't know them or haven't made any effort to understand their position, he said.

Joe Biden on Wednesday night copped to falling short of his own standard several decades ago when he spoke ill of the late North Carolina Sen. Jesse Helms.

Biden spoke at the Durham Performing Arts Center as part of his "American Promise" tour, during which he answers questions from moderators and talks about his recently-released memoir, "Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose."

The tour stops in Charlotte next week. He'll speak at 7 p.m. Wednesday, June 13, at Belk Theater.

In what Biden thought would just be a small final toast with some of the White House staff was actually a gathering to honor the vice president with the Presidential Medal of Freedom award.

Biden, a Democrat who's reported to be considering a run for president, made no mention of a potential campaign and rarely spoke about the Trump administration. Instead, he devoted a significant amount of time sharing anecdotes about how his late son, Beau, inspired him.

Beau, who died of cancer in 2015 at the age of 46, was the optimistic type who Biden said helped him through tragedy even at a young age. Biden's first wife Neilia and one-year-old daughter, Naomi, died in a car accident in 1972. Biden said he doesn't think anyone ever heard Beau complain.

As for politics, Biden said the rhetoric has become "crass , mean and vile" in part because "we don't make the effort to know one another anymore."

Biden recalled a time in the early 1970s when he was guilty of being mean.

Helms vs. Dole and Kennedy

"I was on the Senate floor one day. Jesse Helms was excoriating two friends of mine, Bob Dole, Republican leader, and Teddy Kennedy for introducing the precursor to the Americans with Disabilities Act," Biden recalled.

Helms was carrying on, Biden said. The conservative Republican "was saying it's confiscatory to make a businessman have a curb cut, or access for a wheelchair."

"I thought, 'What a heartless thing.' Fortunately, I didn't debate because I would've said something inappropriate," he said.

After Biden walked away from the scene, another senator asked him what was wrong. Biden said he then took the opportunity to "excoriate" Helms.

Don't applaud

"I said 'How could he do this? How could he do that?'" Biden recalled, to applause from the Durham crowd.

"No, hold on," he told the crowd, before finishing his story. The senator who stopped Biden asked him if he knew that Helms and his wife adopted a disabled, 9-year-old child after reading his quote to a newspaper about wanting a mother and father for Christmas.

Had Biden aired his private remarks on the Senate floor, "I'd feel like a fool," he said.

"Everyone is entitled to be treated with dignity," Biden concluded.

Before surprising his VP with the Medal of Freedom award, President Obama joked, reflected and praised Joe Biden for his service to the country.

'Phony populism'

Biden never mentioned Trump by name, but referred to white supremacists and noted that "our leaders" are encouraging people "to come out from under the rocks."

"Our children are listening," he said. "Silence is complicity."

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Specht: 919-829-4870 @AndySpecht