The Ir­ish roots of Joe Bi­den’s work­ing-man ap­peal

Chicago Sun-Times - - OPINION -

It’s al­ways tempt­ing to write about pol­i­tics in por­ten­tous terms: Joe Bi­den as the last Ir­ish Catholic Demo­crat, pass­ing the torch to a new mul­ti­eth­nic coali­tion, some­thing like that. In­deed, Bi­den him­self has de­scribed his can­di­dacy as tran­si­tional — speak­ing mainly in gen­er­a­tional terms, a 77-year-old politi­cian em­bark­ing on what could be his fi­nal cam­paign.

“I view my­self as a bridge, not as any­thing else,” he said among younger Demo­cratic can­di­dates last March. “There is an en­tire gen­er­a­tion of lead­ers that you saw stand­ing be­hind me. They are the fu­ture of this coun­try.”

In­deed, Bi­den’s choice of Ka­mala Har­ris, a racially mixed daugh­ter of im­mi­grants 22 years his ju­nior, has cer­tainly em­pha­sized the torch-pass­ing as­pect of his can­di­dacy.

But my own re­ac­tion is more per­sonal and sub­jec­tive, mainly be­cause Joe Bi­den re­minds me so much of my late fa­ther — an Ir­ish Catholic work­ing man from New Jer­sey. There’s even a phys­i­cal re­sem­blance. When Bi­den smiles, I see my fa­ther as I re­mem­ber him: warm, strong, for­mi­da­ble. Even their ac­cents are sim­i­lar. When Bi­den talks, I hear the old man.

My dad was a real men­sch, as our el­derly Jewish neigh­bors of­ten de­scribed him. A guy who would lift heavy items, fix leaky faucets, help you jump-start your car, drive you to the train sta­tion, what­ever you needed.

Not en­tirely with­out his prej­u­dices, my fa­ther had been a first sergeant in the U.S. Army and played ball around North Jer­sey with guys of ev­ery eth­nic­ity. He spoke proudly of his days play­ing semi-pro base­ball against Monte Irvin, the Ne­gro League star who went on to be­come a Hall of Fame out­fielder for the New York Giants. The old man was a born catcher.

Do­ing those things had done much to ame­lio­rate the clan­nish­ness that’s a be­set­ting Ir­ish vice on both sides of the At­lantic. A man of strong opin­ions, my fa­ther had a per­sonal slo­gan he’d of­ten re­peat. He came by it hon­estly, a bedrock state­ment of Ir­ish Amer­i­can pa­tri­o­tism as he saw it. “You’re no bet­ter than any­body else,” he’d tell me. “And no­body’s bet­ter than you.”

What with Ir­ish-sur­named talk­ing heads help­ing Boss Trump broad­cast his big­otry far and wide these days, it seems ap­pro­pri­ate to re­mind peo­ple that the Ir­ish not only never ex­ploited Third World colonies, they were one — land­less peas­ants ex­ploited for their la­bor.

From the 17th Cen­tury on­ward, ev­ery racial stereo­type that was ever used to de­scribe slaves was first ap­plied to the na­tive Ir­ish by their English op­pres­sors. Celts were rou­tinely de­scribed as don­key-strong, but stupid. They were good at mu­sic, danc­ing and prize­fight­ing, but lazy and un­re­li­able. The Ir­ish were stereo­typed as sex­u­ally pro­mis­cu­ous, dirty, foul-smelling drunks.

Dur­ing the Ir­ish Potato Famine from 1845 to 1849, Eng­land sent sol­diers to guard ships ex­port­ing food from Ir­ish farms while the na­tive pop­u­la­tion starved or em­i­grated. More than a mil­lion died.

Feed­ing them, it was be­lieved, would com­pro­mise their work ethic.

Amer­i­cans back then re­acted to the Ir­ish di­as­pora pretty much the same way hard­core Trump­ists have re­acted to Span­ish­s­peak­ing mi­grants along the Mex­i­can bor­der: with con­tempt and fear. The an­ti­im­mi­grant party of the 1850s called it­self the “Know-Noth­ings.”

I can’t think why Boss Trump hasn’t adopted it for his own fol­low­ers.

Any­way, my fa­ther didn’t know a whole lot of his­tory. He wouldn’t have known 18th Cen­tury Ir­ish pa­triot Wolfe Tone from Wolf Bl­itzer. If he’d ever heard of Michael Collins, Wil­liam But­ler Yeats or James Joyce, he never men­tioned it. But he car­ried all that eth­nic mem­ory, all that “Ir­ish Need Not Ap­ply” stuff at his core, an FDR/JFK Demo­crat in his pol­i­tics — for the work­ing stiff all the way.

It’s pos­si­ble that Ron­ald Rea­gan se­duced him late in life, but I can’t be sure. It wasn’t any­thing we talked about. But his fun­da­men­tal outlook never changed.

And I sus­pect that for all Bi­den’s per­sonal am­bi­tion — no mod­est, unas­sum­ing per­son ever runs for the U.S. Se­nate, much less the pres­i­dency — he car­ries it, too. That’s what Bi­den means when he tells crowds, as he did last year cam­paign­ing for a Demo­cratic con­gres­sional can­di­date in Pitts­burgh: “I don’t know all of you per­son­ally, but I know you ... I know this state. I know this re­gion. I know what it’s made up of. I know the val­ues that un­der­pin all of what you be­lieve in — fam­ily, com­mu­nity, again, not leav­ing any­body be­hind.”

He means that he’s one of them, and that we’re all in this thing to­gether. Come to think of it, my fa­ther’s slo­gan would work for the Bi­den cam­paign as well: “You’re no bet­ter than any­body else, and no­body’s bet­ter than you.”

Bedrock Amer­i­can­ism.

Also, here’s an­other way Joe Bi­den re­sem­bles my late fa­ther: There’s no such thing as a 77-year-old tough guy. But if Trump tries to bully Bi­den the way he did Hil­lary Clin­ton, he’ll get an un­pleas­ant sur­prise.

Demo­cratic pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Joe Bi­den stands on stage af­ter Demo­cratic vice pres­i­den­tial nom­i­nee Sen. Ka­mala Har­ris spoke dur­ing the third day of the Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion. CAROLYN KASTER/AP

GENE LYONS eu­gene­lyons2@ya­

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