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Biden Talks Trump, Faith And Fate In Front Of A Live 'Fresh Air' Audience

<em>Fresh Air </em>host Terry Gross interviewed former Vice President Joe Biden in front of a live audience at the WHYY studios in Philadelphia on Tuesday.
Daniel Burke
Fresh Air host Terry Gross interviewed former Vice President Joe Biden in front of a live audience at the WHYY studios in Philadelphia on Tuesday.

Former Vice President Joe Biden has figured something out: "I learned how to become one of the most popular politicians in America," he says. "Announce that you are not running for president, and be authentic."

Biden shared that secret with Fresh Air on Tuesday in front of a live audience at WHYY studios in Philadelphia, where he received WHYY's Lifelong Learning Award for his distinguished career in public service and commitment to education.

Biden became a senator when he was 30 years old, and this is the first time in 44 years that he hasn't been in office. "This is the first time in not just eight years, probably 15 years, I haven't gotten up and a CIA agent ... hasn't briefed me on what's going on in Ramadi or South Korea," he says.

Biden remarked on how, during his time in the Senate, he witnessed the decline of collegiality and bipartisanship. "We continued to dumb down American politics, and decided that the way to win was to denigrate the institutions and individuals," he says. "That became the pattern ... and I thought it was disastrous."

Toward the end of his time as vice president, Biden and former President Barack Obama learned that Russia was interfering in the election. "These guys are for real," he says. "I am desperately worried that we are not going to — this administration will not and [will] maybe even try to prevent — finding out the truth about the depth and the breadth of the Russian attempts to undermine our electoral process."

But on the issue of whether he is planning to get back into electoral politics and run for president in 2020, 74-year-old Biden remains elusive: "I have no intention of running for president but I'm a great respecter of fate. ... I don't have any plans to do it, but I'm not promising I wouldn't do it."

Interview Highlights

On the way Obama responded to racism

Barack Obama is the most self-aware man I've ever met in my life. He has a full, complete understanding of who he is, what he is and the realities he faces. I used to get very upset sometimes when the body language of people in the Oval [Office] would be disrespectful.

I remember one day going out after a congressman, literally walking out, and Barack grabbing me and pulling me back, and saying, "What are you doing?" I said, "I'm gonna teach that guy some lessons." ... He looked at me and he said, "Joe, you take the good with bad. Do you think I would have beaten you in 2008 if I had been a 43-year-old white boy?" ...

The fact is: There is racism; it does exist. He was the brunt of it many times, but because of his caliber, because of his integrity, because of his humanity, he was able to rise above what I would have found difficult to dismiss and go on and get a lot of business done.

On watching Donald Trump take the oath of office

I don't think Donald Trump ever expected to win. ... His [is] the only administration that won or lost that I'm aware of since 1972 that during the campaign did not have a transition team in place. And so I was hoping that he would know what he didn't know, and not let the bravado get in the way of acknowledging what he didn't know and reaching out to really talented people to fill the void for him. I was hoping he would step up in a way and I still hope that will happen, as reality sinks in.

On his hopes for President Trump

I give you my word as a Biden, I've been rooting for his success. It's desperately in all of our interest to do that, and if you've noticed, Barack and I have not gone after him personally, we've not gotten into that mosh pit. We have taken issue with him when we think he's wrong, which is — to be very blunt about it — most of the time.

But here's the thing: He is not ideological in my view. Barack and I talked about it, and the hope was that he would be able to find some common ground, he would reach out, but it seems as though his leadership style has gotten in the way of what, intellectually, I don't think he has a problem with.

On the current investigations into Russia's meddling in the 2016 election

I find it hard to believe how the Republican Party cannot be apoplectic about the impact of [Russian President Vladimir] Putin, in particular, and Russia generally in trying to fundamentally alter our democratic processes.

It's real and it's not going to stop. Mark my words. It is not going to stop until we respond as swiftly and as directly as Barack did, when it became clear to 17 agencies what was being done and so it just really baffles me. I just wonder when they'll gain the willingness to stand up and say, "Enough, man."

On knowing during the campaign that Russia was trying to interfere in the election but not saying anything about it publicly

People who had to know were informed. There was no direct evidence that we could find of them actually able to manipulate the actual machines and/or voter rolls. And, you know, in this environment, I think the president was right, we would have been accused of being engaged in trying to manipulate the election by using information that was not self-evident to the public, and required the release of classified information to prove. It would have been, I think, far worse.

On Trump's use of Twitter

Words matter. When presidents speak, the world listens, and look, the idea that somebody ... gets up at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning and tweets vitriol, what it does, [is] it fundamentally alters the view of the character of the presidency in the rest of the world.

On surviving an aneurysm

They told me I had somewhere between a 30 to 40 percent chance of living, and I thought: What the hell? That's three in 10, why not me? Because look, you know I don't talk about it, but I find great solace in my faith, I happen to be a Roman Catholic, a practicing Catholic ... I found that, for me, the externalities of my faith bring me a sense of peace. ... My son died, and he had this set of rosaries on and I've been wearing it since and I will wear it till I die. ... I'm not saying when I pray the rosary God's gonna help me — it's just solace.

Radio producers Amy Salit and Mooj Zadie and Web producers Heidi Saman, Beth Novey and Martina Stewart contributed to this story.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Combine an intelligent interviewer with a roster of guests that, according to the Chicago Tribune, would be prized by any talk-show host, and you're bound to get an interesting conversation. Fresh Air interviews, though, are in a category by themselves, distinguished by the unique approach of host and executive producer Terry Gross. "A remarkable blend of empathy and warmth, genuine curiosity and sharp intelligence," says the San Francisco Chronicle.