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Biography Traces Political Mistakes And Personal Scars That Shaped Joe Biden

As a young man, Joe Biden was fixated on a singular goal: "On his first date with his future wife, he told her mother that he wanted to grow up to be president," New Yorker writer Evan Osnos says. Osnos writes about the Democratic presidential candidate in his new book, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now.




This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. My guest Evan Osnos has written a new book about Joe Biden called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. He was The New Yorker's China correspondent from 2008 to '13. His book, "Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China," won a National Book Award. In his new book, Osnos writes that Biden became an area of accidental expertise because Osnos was covering foreign affairs and he knew Biden had insights into foreign affairs and American political cultures.

Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Many voters are so disturbed by President Trump's handling of the pandemic, his lack of knowledge and lack of focus about policy and foreign policy, his demonization of immigrants, his demonization of the press and of the facts that the press reports. Many people who served in his administration, people who served in previous administrations - many of them also want Trump to lose this election because they feel like, you know, democracy is at stake. So many people have stated that.

As a journalist, I'm sure you are very sorry about - you know, very appalled at his demonization of the press and the facts that they report. So in writing this book about Joe Biden, how did you handle his flaws, his failures? It's something I think a lot of people who oppose Trump have not really wanted to focus on.

EVAN OSNOS: I think you've identified something quite specific and challenging from a reporter's perspective about the 2020 race, which is that we're dealing with, on the one hand, a president who declares the press the enemy of the people and is quite hostile to the nature of scrutiny and any kind of investigation. And then we also have this large field of Democratic candidates who had, you know, varying degrees of depth in their career. Some had very short careers. Some had very long careers. Some were open to the press. Some were harder to access. And from the very beginning, actually, Joe Biden was, I think, treated with some skepticism by a lot of the press because they looked at his - some of his mistakes on the trail. They would say he seems out of touch. He may not be aware of what it is that voters are really looking for in 2020. He would say things like - he would bungle the address for his fundraising text message campaign, things like that.

And actually, I think that, from a reporter's perspective, the challenge was that our responsibility has to be to hold Joe Biden and the other Democratic candidates to the same level of scrutiny that we have subjected Donald Trump to over the last 3 1/2 years because if we're not doing that, we're not going to generate trust from our readers and from voters and we're not really doing the job.

GROSS: Biden was elected in October of '72 to the Senate. And in December, just a few weeks before he was supposed to be sworn in, his wife was driving her station wagon with her two sons and baby daughter in the car when they were hit by a tractor trailer. And as most people know, his wife and baby daughter were killed. His two sons were badly injured. It's a famous life-changing story in Joe Biden's biography. What did you learn that you didn't already know and that you think the public might not know about the impact of that tragedy on his life and his political career?

OSNOS: Well, when it happened, the reality is that Joe Biden did not expect to take his seat in the Senate. He thought that period of his life was over. He didn't see practically or spiritually how he could go on. I mean, the reality was he considered suicide. And some older members of the Senate said to him, you need to do this, not only because it's the right thing to do for your voters, but it's also the right thing to do for you personally because if you don't do something, you will cave in. And his sister Valerie told me that one of the ways that they were able to get him off the floor, in effect, was by telling him, you have two boys at home now who have no mother. And if you collapse, then they have nobody.

And Biden struggled in that period with what it meant to become this kind of public symbol of grieving. And what surprised me was he really bridled against it. He didn't like that that was the public image that people were imagining for him, that they were thrusting upon him, the sort of grieving widower and father. And it was only later in his life - really, it was after the death of his son Beau in 2015, when Biden kind of came to accept more fully that that's something that people wanted from him as a political person. They wanted actually somebody in politics to talk to them about something like suffering and like vulnerability. And he kind of embraced it, but he didn't come to it quickly. It took a long time for him to acknowledge that.

GROSS: What did he stand for in his early years as a senator?

OSNOS: Interestingly, in his very early years as a senator, he was kind of a moving target politically. I mean, to be blunt about it, he was sort of - he was more concerned about being reelected than he was about specific policy items. And there's a - the most acute example of that is that he had run for office as a progressive candidate on the side of civil rights. And he had played a sort of bit part in some desegregation efforts in Wilmington, Del. And he got to the Senate, and he was occupying a district. He was representing a district that was - that had a large white, suburban contingent who were very wary of court-ordered busing. And they told him so. And he - there was a famous meeting that he went to in which parents in the suburbs - most of them white, of course - attacked him for being in favor of integration and civil rights efforts. And he turned on that issue and became the Senate's most forceful Democrat against court-ordered busing. And for a long time, I think that made other members of the Senate say, well, what does this guy believe in? Is he an opportunist? And what does he really care about?

And I think it's useful these days if you speak to people who have really studied Wilmington and Delaware politics, which, after all, is the district that he represented. They will say, you have to remember that Delaware was very much suspended between North and South. It was a - you know, in some ways, it had elements of Jim Crow. There were still segregationist policies in places. African diplomats, for instance, who drove between Washington and New York, when they passed through Delaware, would find themselves unable to get served at rest stops. And yet, at the same time, it was sort of closer to New York City than to Raleigh, N.C. So it had this very strange composite identity. And that's what Joe Biden, this first-term senator, was trying to represent and was trying to figure out a way how to inhabit that role. And so he sort of became a little bit of something for everyone.

GROSS: You know, in talking about his early years, you write that the ADA, Americans for Democratic Action, which was a liberal progressive group, gave Biden a high rating. And he was very concerned about that. He thought that might be a political negative for him. So what did he do in response to that? Did he do anything?

OSNOS: Yeah, he had a funny reaction to that rating. It was, after all, supposed to be a great compliment to him. He had run against the war in Vietnam. He'd been active on civil rights. And so he'd received this high mark from a progressive organization and then he said, this is a problem for me. It makes it hard for me to operate politically. It's hard for me to get elected. He said it in interviews at the time. And so that's one of the reasons why you began to see him try to announce his conservative credentials. He started telling people, look, I'm one of the more socially conservative people I know. My wife always used to tell me so. And so he was trying to, on legislative matters, be progressive in some respects but at the same time not lose the constituency that he needed, which was in many ways still a conservative Democratic working-class district.

GROSS: If he was so driven by getting reelected and getting votes, do you think that his reaction changed over the years and that he became more concerned about policy and his positions that he really believed in, as opposed to just playing to voters?

OSNOS: He did. I think you begin to see that he was developing a political identity and sort of a personal identity. I mean, he - when he got to Congress, partly because of his youth, partly because people sensed that he was so determined to get reelected, people didn't take him all that seriously. And there was a moment in which he gave a speech in the Senate in which he talked about a subject that he knew really very little about - oil wells. And he was challenged on it. Somebody said, you know, Senator Biden, do you know anything about oil wells? And he was embarrassed. And inside his staff, they began to see a slightly different person where he became kind of fanatical about being prepared for things. He would demand all kinds of notes and preparation before he would go out and speak. And there was another member of Congress who once turned up in the Senate late at night, and it was almost empty. There was almost nobody in the chamber. And there was Joe Biden speaking, as this person put it later, as if he was holding forth in the Roman Coliseum, that he was kind of speaking with great gusto, and he was kind of practicing. I mean, as this person put it, he was working it like a tennis pro. He was trying to learn what it meant to be a senator and how to be taken seriously.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run And What Matters Now." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about Joe Biden with Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he covers politics and foreign affairs. His new book is called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now."

One of the important things about Joe Biden's career in the Senate is that he served as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In that role, he helped stop Robert Bork, who was very conservative and was an originalist, stopped him from being confirmed. But a few years later, when Clarence Thomas was facing his confirmation hearings, Biden prevented women from coming forward to testify before the committee who would have supported Anita Hill and who would have offered their own similar allegations that they were sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. What's your understanding of why Biden did not allow those women to testify to the committee?

OSNOS: Yeah. I think you're right to bring up both of those two confirmation hearings, because they were sort of, in his mind, related. I mean, Joe Biden - the important fact was that Biden imagined himself in that period as being somebody who was a Democrat but who treated Republicans seriously, tried to maintain the standards of the Senate, which was that you give the other side credence and allow them to have a serious hearing for their ideas. And in the Bork nomination, Biden wouldn't describe it as him successfully preventing Bork from getting on the court so much as he would say that he conducted the process fairly enough that in the end, Bork was not successful in reaching the court. So then he gets into 1991 and the Clarence Thomas hearings, and Biden was dealing with this very complicated set of pressures on him. On the one hand, he is a Democrat who came to office partly on his support for civil rights, who is contending with the candidacy - the nomination of what would be the next African American member of the Supreme Court. And he felt some weight of history in making sure that that was a serious process. And then at the same time, of course, Clarence Thomas was facing very serious accusations of sexual harassment. And Biden tried to have it both ways.

In some ways, what he tried to do was give - was to try to pay respect to the Republican side of the process by allowing Republican senators to question Anita Hill very intensively, harshly in some cases. And then he also did not allow these other accusers to testify in person. They were allowed to testify in written form, which ultimately meant it didn't really have any impact on the proceedings. And Biden came to regret that. He said later that the mistake was that he gave Clarence Thomas more credence than he deserved. And I think there was running through his mind at that time this sense that in the interests of trying to give a full hearing to the accusations against Thomas, he was afraid that he was going to be seen as somebody who was not allowing an African American nominee to receive a full and fair hearing, and that led him into trouble. And it's a mistake that he has expressed remorse about. But to be precise, he doesn't say that he made an error. What he says is that he wished Anita Hill had been treated better. And I think that's a key distinction because, you know, if we're trying to understand the ways in which Joe Biden is capable of self-reflection and what are the issues on which he has expressed his clear regret and not, he has not gone as far as Anita Hill wants him to in saying that he was wrong about handling that case.

GROSS: She's kind of reluctantly endorsed him.

OSNOS: She has. I mean, they spoke before he was a candidate, and he expressed his, you know, his regret to her that she had not had a more decent appearance in Congress in which people had treated her more fairly. And she does not think that his handling of that case should be disqualifying for a president. But she also wishes that he was more clear and emphatic in his apology to her.

GROSS: I expected the Trump campaign to try to make more of the unsubstantiated allegations involving Joe Biden's involvement in his son Hunter Biden's business dealings in Ukraine and, you know, Giuliani's accusation that Biden fired Ukraine's prosecutor, the prosecutor general, to try to stop investigations into Hunter Biden and his involvement with the Ukrainian gas company Burisma. And then there's the whole story that The New York Post printed, totally unsubstantiated, that Hunter Biden had dropped off his computer for repairs at a place in Wilmington and it had incriminating information on it. And that was turned in to the FBI and then to The New York Post. And even the person who wrote the story wanted their name taken off the story. So I don't know. What do you think? Do you think - did you expect the Trump campaign to try to make more of it? And do you think the story just didn't stick for whatever reason? I mean, one reason would be that it doesn't appear to be true, but that doesn't mean - there are plenty of untrue stories that stick.

OSNOS: I think they've tried desperately to make it an issue. Remember, that was the issue that got Donald Trump impeached. I mean, going back to even before this campaign was sort of in full flourish, Donald Trump was on the phone with Ukraine's leader, seeking an attempt to try to get them to produce damaging information about the Biden family. And it didn't work partly because Ukraine didn't produce it, couldn't produce it as far as we know. And on top of it, it was the kind of abuse of his office that qualified as high crimes and misdemeanors and got him impeached. Then he tried again, and his allies have tried again. I mean, there have now been two Senate committees run by Republicans who have tried to find evidence that Hunter Biden's business activities in Ukraine were affecting Joe Biden's conduct as vice president or that Biden was using his position to try to help his son's business. And they have found no evidence of that. So I would characterize it as they have tried constantly throughout this process to try to make that the central issue. And the evidence has not cooperated because they just haven't been able to find things that stick.

GROSS: How did you decide to deal with the Giuliani conspiracy theory about the Bidens and Ukraine in your book? Because on the one hand, you could write it all out and describe, like, here's the unsubstantiated story that Rudy Giuliani was circulating. Or you could just - since it's totally unsubstantiated, you could just, like, not address it.

OSNOS: When I was thinking about how much space and attention to devote to the question of Hunter Biden and his father, it came down to what do we know? And what is simply an allegation in the heat of a very intense presidential campaign? What we know, of course, is that Hunter Biden has - had his business dealings in Ukraine. He was on the board of a gas company. There's no dispute about that. But that's a very different thing from saying, well, did that have an impact on Joe Biden as vice president? Did it have an impact on the policy of the United States? Did Joe Biden use his office to benefit Hunter Biden? And none of that has been shown to be true. In fact, Republican-led investigations have proven that there is no evidence of that. And so I was not going to simply amplify the allegations for the sake of amplifying them. I'm going to stick to what we know to be true.

GROSS: So you decided basically to avoid that story in the book.

OSNOS: Well, I mention the story - I mean, at the time, actually, as a technical matter, by the time the book was done, the Giuliani conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden had not yet come out, or at least it was not as detailed as it is now. So it was not a particularly hard call. I mean, what I talked about in the book was Hunter Biden's involvement in Ukraine as a board member of the gas company. I talked about the impact that that had on Joe Biden in the sense that Hunter Biden apologized to his father for creating an issue in the campaign and has promised not to have any business with foreign sources of income if his father is elected. As far as I was concerned, those are the known facts. It's not a known fact that anything Giuliani is talking about is real, and therefore I was not going to give it the credence of reality.

GROSS: Let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker covering politics and foreign affairs. His new book is called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." We'll talk more after a break. I'm Terry Gross. And this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to my interview with Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he covers politics and foreign affairs. His new book is about Joe Biden. It's called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now."

The first time that Biden ran for president in the Democratic primary was in 1987. He didn't do very well. He dropped out pretty early. What was the perception of why he didn't do well?

OSNOS: At the time, he was regarded as a bit of an arrogant guy - I mean, a bit of a blowhard in a town, after all, that is known for blowhards. I mean, that's the reality. The young Joe Biden - he was still, at that point, relatively young for a senator - was the person who would speak longer and louder than anybody else. And there was something about him that was a little too raw, a little too ambitious - nakedly ambitious.

And he failed in that campaign partly because he stole the words of a British politician named Neil Kinnock. He had been - Biden had been quoting Neil Kinnock in his speeches for a long time, but he gave a speech in which he dropped Kinnock's name and kind of absorbed Kinnock's biography as his own. And he said that he had coal miners in his ancestors and so on. Of course, it wasn't true. And when reporters began to look at some of the details of his speeches, they discovered that he'd also taken a quote from Bobby Kennedy. And so the joke became that Joe Biden was not an authentic person, was kind of trying to be something he wasn't. That - people used to joke that the Kennedys quote the Greeks, and Biden quotes the Kennedys.

And his race was finished. And I think it took him a while to acknowledge that it was - as he later put it - it was his own arrogance that cost him that race. But he was not a person who was able to - had the capacity for that sort of self-reflection at that point. He was running too hard and too fast to be responsible.

GROSS: Dropping out of the race may have saved his life because after he dropped out, he had a cranial aneurysm, and he'd been basically ignoring the symptoms that he was having.

OSNOS: Yeah. It's one of these amazing episodes that doesn't really get talked about that much because it's overwhelmed by some of the big milestones in his political biography. But within a few months of dropping out of that race, Joe Biden nearly died. He found himself lying on the floor of a hotel room with this searing pain in his head. And it turned out that he had two aneurysms. And they were able to get him to a hospital, and doctors called in a priest to deliver last rites even before his wife could be there because the situation was so grave. And he had surgery, and he ended up being out of the Congress for seven months before he came back. And there is this curious bit of fate, which is that had he been on the campaign trail, he might not have survived because he would not have gone to see a doctor about the symptoms. He might have, in fact, ignored them and it could have become more serious.

And that experience of having been through that and surviving that is a bit of a pattern that you see in his life. And it's one that his friend Ted Kaufman, one of his advisers, described to me once. And he said, if you ask me who the luckiest person I know is, it's Joe Biden. If you ask me who the unluckiest person I know is, it's also Joe Biden. And there's a kind of deep truth to that.

GROSS: He came so close to death last rites were read to him. A surgeon warned him that after surgery, he might not ever be able to speak again. What impact do you think that had on his life and his approach to politics?

OSNOS: I think it confirmed this growing sense, which became a big part of his self-narrative, that in the end, political problems - none of them - are going to be as serious and as grave as the sheer matter of life and death. And the death of his wife and his daughter began to form that idea for him, then the fact that he almost died. And then, of course, later, when his son Beau died of a brain tumor, it began to form this sense that you hear from him occasionally in private that, look; if I don't become president of the United States, it's not the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and I'll be OK.

I think that idea became much more evolved in his mind as he grew older and as he kind of was weathered by these experiences because the young Joe Biden, after all, wanted nothing more than being president of the United States. I mean, on his first date with his future wife, he told her mother that he wanted to grow up to be president of the United States. He was barely out of his teens. But if you talk to the 77-year-old Joe Biden now, he's a man who is at peace. And he's at peace from a series of hard-won scars. And it's a very different mindset than he had back then.

GROSS: As you point out in your book about Biden, nothing in his record has dogged him more than his role in drafting the 1994 crime bill, which contributed to mass incarceration. It created the federal three strikes law, so it led to longer, more serious jail terms. And it gave billions of dollars to states to build more prisons. Put that in context for us. Take us back to 1994 and what the bill meant then and who supported it along with Biden.

OSNOS: The crime bill of 1994 was inspired most of all by the crack epidemic, which was - at that point, it was raging through American cities. And there was this surge of political activity and demands to try to do something about it by raising the consequences, by imposing steeper sentences and making policing tougher.

And interestingly, it wasn't just coming from Joe Biden and other white politicians, but it was coming from the Congressional Black Caucus. Many Black members of Congress were in favor of the crime bill. In particular, if you talk to James Clyburn today, who, after all, is the highest-ranking African American in Congress - represents South Carolina - he was one of the advocates for that bill. And he told me that at the time, he had been wary initially because he thought - he didn't know how the consequences of this bill would impact his community. Jim Clyburn remembers going to a community meeting in which his constituents, as he put it, handed his head to him because they didn't think he was doing enough to try to control the crack epidemic. And he said that's the experience that a lot of Black members of Congress had. As he put it to me, he said, look; we were not trying to lock up our own. What we were trying to do was to address this crisis. And it's one of the reasons why Bernie Sanders, who was then in the House of Representatives, also supported the crime bill, something he now regrets supporting.

If you talk to Joe Biden about it today, Biden says the mistake we made - and it was a serious mistake - was that we believed this idea that crack was somehow different, that it was an order of risk that was unlike other things that we'd seen in the drug war or in the world of law enforcement and it had to be treated with extraordinary force. And that was the reason why they undertook these in what we turned out to be very punitive and damaging steps.

GROSS: One of the things that Clyburn told you was that after the crime bill was passed, Republicans won in Congress, and they kept the bad parts of the bill and got rid of the good parts. What did he mean?

OSNOS: Yeah, that's a crucial piece of the history we don't often talk about, which is that there were elements of the crime bill that were designed with an interest in rehabilitation, in trying to help people avoid long-term prison sentences and get back into life, things like drug courts, which were designed specifically to address drug crimes and treat them differently than violent crimes. And in the fall of 1994, of course, Newt Gingrich came in as the new speaker of the House, and there was a sea change in the approach that Congress took to many issues. And one of them was crime. And as Jim Clyburn puts it, they stripped away the good stuff, meaning the pathways to rehabilitation, the attempts to try to use alternative means than policing to try to help people. And instead, what they were left with were the - was the hardest core of the bill, the most punitive and ultimately damaging elements of that very intensive law enforcement posture.

GROSS: Well, I think it's time for another break here. Let me reintroduce you. If you're just joining us, my guest is New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos, who covers politics and foreign affairs. His new book is called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos, a staff writer for The New Yorker and author of the new book "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run And What Matters Now." When I interviewed Joe Biden, and this was early in the Trump presidency, I asked him what went through his mind when he watched Trump getting sworn in. And one of the things that Biden said was that he was just really shocked that Trump didn't have a transition team in place when he was a candidate. He said, since 1972, every winning and losing candidate had a transition team lined up for when they took office, assuming they got to take office. And so I'm wondering what you know about the transition team that Biden has planned.

OSNOS: Yeah, it's a pretty earnest effort. I mean, they have been working quietly because they don't want to talk about it very much publicly, but it has been actively underway thinking about what is the legislative plan, what can they begin to get done right away? And also who are the people who are going to be in those jobs? So, you know, they are emphatically denying any assertion that they have a Cabinet picked out. But the reality is, of course, they're beginning to reach some of those decisions. The question that they have to - I think there's two things that are interesting. One is Biden was appalled by the Trump administration's lack of a transition, partly because Biden is very much a student of the nature of the federal government. He actually believes that these processes work if you give them the people and the resources to do it. And so he would find it just kind of baffling that you would set yourself up at a disadvantage by coming into office without any of the prior plans of the previous president, without any of the help and the documents that they give you, which, of course, we know the Trump administration rejected.

The Biden campaign looks at it very differently. They don't expect that they're going to get very much help and cooperation from an outgoing Trump administration, if that happens. They are more or less imagining that this is a process of beginning to rebuild the government. And that starts on day one with things like executive orders that could begin the process of returning the United States to the Paris Climate Agreement. It could return the United States on day one to the World Health Organization. When I say day one, that's a little bit symbolic, but it indicates essentially the ways that they have already decided what can they do with executive action and what do they need the Congress for?

GROSS: Do you know and, if you do, can you say who are some of the people being looked at as Cabinet members?

OSNOS: I have a strong sense of some names, and I can't say definitively that these will be the final choices, but some of the people who are being considered include Susan Rice, for instance, who was former national security adviser in the Obama administration as a potential secretary of state. Michele Flournoy, who was a defense official in the Obama administration, is also somebody who's being considered as secretary of defense in the Biden administration. And then there are people from other places. We know that Bernie Sanders has publicly put his hand up to say he wants to be secretary of labor. I haven't received a sense from the Biden campaign that that's something that they are necessarily going to do. There are also people who may not have been Obama administration figures who might have a role, somebody like Andrew Yang, after all, who was a presidential candidate who kind of came out of nowhere and impressed Joe Biden with his understandings of the future of technology and labor and how these pieces interact.

He's close to Cory Booker, the senator from New Jersey. And Pete Buttigieg, of course, the former mayor of South Bend who won the Iowa caucus is also somebody that Joe Biden has said I see in Pete Buttigieg an example of the kind of future leadership of the Democratic Party. And I wouldn't be surprised if we saw somebody like him in the Cabinet as well. But I think running through this, Terry, there's an interesting dynamic, which is how much is Joe Biden going to bring the more progressive end of the party into his close circle of advisers? And how much is he going to try to keep himself closed off from that? And I think what you're likely to see is perhaps more, shall we say, more racial diversity than ideological diversity at the very top of the administration because he's already indicated he wants his government, as he said to me, to look like the country. That's important to him.

GROSS: If Trump loses, he's going to leave office with a lot of legal and ethical questions surrounding him. He has been immune to a lot of lawsuits because his attorney general believes that you can't prosecute a sitting president, you know, because of an Office of Legal Counsel memo from a few years ago. But when he leaves office, he can be sued. And I'm wondering what, if any, Biden's plans are to work to hold Trump accountable for legal violations and for ethical violations from the period that Trump was in office?

OSNOS: Well, I think there's already pressure on Biden to make sure that there's accountability for Trump and the Trump administration more broadly. And part of the history that's hanging over him is that there are Democrats who believe that the Obama administration did not do enough to hold either the Bush administration accountable for things like CIA torture or the finance industry for the wrongdoing that contributed to the financial crisis. And so Biden has to be aware of that. And yet, at the same time, he's determined not to be politicizing the process of justice in the way that he believes the Trump administration has. So, for instance, Biden does not want to be directing prosecutors or directing his attorney general to go after specific individuals. He thinks that is actually doing violence to democracy and to the way the Constitution imagines it should be run.

So what he's come up with is a half step, which is to say the first thing we're going to do is have an inspector general's office that examines the stimulus program that the Trump administration has created. And if we find evidence of wrongdoing in there, we refer that to prosecution and that begins to hold people responsible. More broadly, he says if there are people who are stealing from the U.S. public using the tools of the Trump administration, they should know - be on notice that they will be held accountable. But I think there is some temperamental wariness in Joe Biden about being too zealous to try to prosecute Trump or to try to achieve a kind of political revenge because he's afraid that that will not only make it difficult to try to pull this country together - and in the end, that's the core of his candidacy is the idea, whether real or imagined, of unity. But also I think he's afraid that if you do that, then you begin a cycle of retribution from which it's very hard to recover.

So, look, there is going to be an intense pressure on Biden to do something about Trump from both sides. There's going to be pressure on him, perhaps, to pardon the president. There's going to be pressure on him to prosecute the president. And what you see from him so far and from the people around him who I talked to is this very clear determination not to be subject to that political pressure but to try to make it as much as possible a recognizable example of American jurisprudence, stick to the institutions we have that we know work and try to give them the power to do their job.

GROSS: Well, let's take a short break here, and then we'll talk some more. If you're just joining us, my guest is Evan Osnos. He's a New Yorker staff writer and author of the new book "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR, and if you're just joining us, we're talking about Joe Biden. My guest is Evan Osnos. He's a staff writer for The New Yorker, where he covers politics and foreign affairs. His new book is called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." There's a lot of concern that if Trump loses, he's going to find some way of challenging the results and may even say the results were invalid, this is - it's fake news, I'm staying in office and that he will just refuse to leave. There's another scenario in which he leaves but people who - you know, some of his ardent supporters on the far right decide it's time to take up arms over, you know, an unjustly elected government. So what are your concerns having been focusing so much on this campaign about what might happen if Biden wins?

OSNOS: I'm very concerned about the way in which political violence has become something that's edging its way towards reality in this country. I mean, this is not fantasy. The data proves it. You know, we've had a - we've seen in survey data this steady uptick in the degree to which Americans say that they think that violence could be justified in pursuit of political aims. That number has grown over the last three years on both the left and the right. The overwhelming majority of acts of political violence in this country have come from right-wing and far-right actors. But there is a growing sense of desperation in politics, and I think there is a very serious concern among security experts who I'm talking to now about the possibility that if Trump loses, that he will become a rallying cry to groups who will say that the Constitution has been violated, that Donald Trump's loss is invalid, and that they feel an almost apocalyptic need to take up arms and defend themselves.

I was talking to a scholar of the history of political violence who said to me, look, we've had political violence going back to the very beginning of the country. You've had violence against immigrants at polling places in the 19th century. We, of course, had a civil war, which was about one of these core cleavages in our values. And the difference today, of course, is that we're living in an era in which there are so many guns that we have more guns than people in this country. And that changes things. And it does put us into a very precarious position.

And, you know, it's a bizarre circumstance that we're contending with, which is that if Biden loses, there's very likely to be enormous outrage on the left because it will feel that the polls were clear. Biden had the support of the people. And if he doesn't win, it will be an assault on democracy - is how many people will feel it. And it's very likely that we would see them come out in protest of that and perhaps violent protest. But then on the right, we have this very clear risk that the groups that have been energized by Donald Trump's presidency and the ones that he has, in many ways, stoked over his years in office, they will be ready to avenge his loss. And this is a very precarious moment in the history of American political violence.

GROSS: The Trump administration has dismantled parts of government. A key department in handling pandemics was shut down. The State Department was kind of dismantled - so many empty offices there, even before the pandemic emptied out a lot of offices. But, I mean, there's just so many positions not filled. What would it take for the Biden administration to rebuild some of the parts of government that were dismantled by the Trump administration? How hard is it to rebuild a government?

OSNOS: Well, they face this very hard problem, and it's two things. One is there are parts of the government that have just been starved of resources, offices that have been closed, experts that have been sidelined. And they have to - not only do they have to begin to reopen them, they have to inventory all of those areas in which damage has been done, and that's going to take some time. And then you have to begin to draw people back into government. I mean, one of the things is at the State Department, they - the Trump administration got rid of so many jobs and closed down the pipeline for recruiting to such degree that people often feel as if they have lost a generation of growth and development in the foreign service.

I think the encouraging thing is that actually some of that can spring back faster than we might imagine at its worst moments, that there are people who still want to go into government, who believe it is a noble profession. They believe they have something to provide. And this is where the voice from the top matters so much, that if you have a president who says, I believe in what this government can do to protect people's lives in this pandemic, I believe in what a foreign service can do and beginning to project American values and begin to rebuild our relationships around the world, that could have a greater effect. We saw it in some ways with the arrival of Barack Obama, who - you know, at the time, there were parts of the U.S. government that were demoralized. And when Obama came in, he did provide some sense of inspiration. Joe Biden is not Barack Obama, but he does stand for a belief that government can make your lives better if it's being conducted in the right ways. And I think that's one of the spirits that he would - that's one of the ideas that he would try to bring in to an administration at the beginning.

GROSS: Evan Osnos, it's always a pleasure to have you on our show. Thank you so much for returning.

OSNOS: Thanks very much, Terry.

GROSS: Evan Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker and author of the new book "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run And What Matters Now." Tomorrow, we'll talk about a pro-Trump militia group that's recruited thousands of police, soldiers and veterans and what they might do on Election Day. My guest will be Mike Giglio, who writes about this group, the Oath Keepers, in The Atlantic. He's also covered ISIS, Syria and Ukraine, where he was kidnapped by pro-Russian militants at a checkpoint. I hope you'll join us.


GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

(SOUNDBITE OF LENYLLSON MOURA'S "AO UNICO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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