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