Biden, a Bystander to ’60s Protests, Is Now a Target

Biden, a Bystander to ’60s Protests, Is Now a Target

When students took over Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in April 1968, the young Joe Biden was studying law 250 miles away just weeks before graduating. Protests, chants and tie-dye shirts were not his style. “I studied law,” he later recalled. “I wore jackets.”

Now, 56 years to the day after police stormed Hamilton Hall to disperse demonstrators in one of the most iconic moments of the 1960s protest movement, Mr. Biden no longer has any affinity with his modern-day successors who occupy the same university building their outrage over Israel’s war in Gaza.

But after switching from sport coats in the library at Syracuse University Law School to suit coats in the Oval Office, Mr. Biden cannot easily shrug off the turmoil on American college campuses the way he once could. This time, he’s not just a contemptuous bystander, but one of the targets of discontent, challenging him to navigate the treacherous waters of campus politics better than Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1968.

Mr. Biden has tried to take a cautious line in recent days as protests mushroomed, in some cases leading to suspensions and arrests. While he expresses his support for students’ right to freedom of expression to oppose his support for Israel, he condemns anti-Semitism directed against Jewish students. But with the political left calling him “Genocide Joe” and Republicans blaming him for chaos on campus, the president has tried to personally stay out of the fray as much as possible.

He had no immediate comment on the Tuesday following the recent takeover of the Columbia Building, leaving a spokesman to condemn the move as an “unacceptable” move that crossed the line from dissent to unrest. “The president believes that a violent takeover of a building on campus is absolutely the wrong approach,” spokesman John F. Kirby told reporters. “This is not an example of peaceful protest.”

He added: “A small percentage of students should not be able to interfere with the academic experience and legitimate study for the rest of the student body. Students who pay to attend school and seek an education should be able to do so without interruption, and they should be able to do so and feel safe doing so.”

Later in the day, the president issued a Jewish American Heritage Month proclamation denouncing what he called “the violent wave of anti-Semitism” on social media and in public places such as college campuses.

“These acts are despicable and reflect the worst chapters of human history,” Mr. Biden said in the proclamation. “They remind us that hate never goes away – it just hides until it is given oxygen. It is our shared moral responsibility to vigorously confront anti-Semitism and make clear that hate cannot have a safe harbor in America.”

The protests pose two political dangers for Mr. Biden. They could deepen his alienation from the left wing of his party, particularly among young people who are crucial to his re-election chances. And they could feed into Republicans’ narrative that Mr. Biden, not fugitive former President Donald J. Trump, caused unrest at home and abroad, which could turn off middle-class swing voters.

Mr Biden’s standing among voters under 30 has deteriorated dramatically compared to four years ago. According to a Harvard youth poll released in April, Mr. Biden is leading in that age group at 45 percent, ahead of Mr. Trump at 37 percent, an eight-point lead compared to the 23 points he had in that age group around the same time in 2020. Mr. Biden needs to gain a big advantage among young voters who don’t vote as often to make up for the shortfall among older voters.

Democratic strategists say they are confident that young voters will continue to rally for Mr. Biden, pointing to data that shows that outside the klieg lights of campus protests, young voters are more concerned about other issues such as abortion rights and the interested in economics. With the academic year soon to end, the situation on campuses is expected to calm down by the summer and could continue to do so in the fall if the president can call a truce by then. And the president’s lead in the Harvard youth poll grows to 19 points among likely voters.

Still, Mr. Biden is struggling to find a message that meets his political needs. When he responded to reporters’ questions about campus demonstrations last week, he tried to appeal to both sides. “I condemn the anti-Semitic protests; So I developed a program to deal with it,” he said. Then he quickly added: “I also condemn those who do not understand what is going on with the Palestinians.”

Some Democrats winced at the ambivalence, and Republicans pounced, comparing his comments to Mr. Trump’s “very fine people on both sides” comment after an ultra-right-wing rally in Charlottesville, Virginia, in 2017 that turned deadly – the same comments Mr Biden has long said it motivated him to run in 2020.

Mr. Biden “refuses to fully reject campus anti-Semitism,” Senator Mitch McConnell of Kentucky, the Republican leader, said on Tuesday. “In fact, when asked about it, he seemed to say, ‘Well, there are good people on both sides.’ It’s hard not to see this base equivocation for what it is: a president who puts the feelings of his political supporters above moral clarity.”

Republicans have rushed to use the protests to their partisan advantage, positioning themselves as defenders of harassed Jewish students and blaming Mr. Biden for not doing more to suppress them.

Some Republicans have even gone so far as to call for the deployment of the National Guard, although there is no indication that local police forces cannot handle unarmed protesters. The history of military troops sent to campus demonstrations is rich and marked by the burning memory of Kent State University, where guardsmen opened fire in 1970, killing four students.

While Republicans hope to make the issue their own, many Democratic politicians have just as quickly denounced protests that targeted Jewish students or resorted to violence. “Breaking windows with hammers and taking over university buildings is not free speech – it is lawlessness, and those who did it should face immediate consequences that are not just a slap on the wrist,” said Sen. Chuck Schumer, R-N York, the Democratic leader, said Tuesday.

Some Democrats want Mr. Biden to speak more openly. “I appreciate what his spokesmen have said,” Rep. Josh Gottheimer, Democrat of New Jersey, said in an interview, “but it is also critical that the president take strong action against the violence and hate speech of many of our citizens .” Campuses.”

Mr. Biden’s history with his youth’s protest movement shapes his current position. He graduated from the University of Delaware in 1965, before major campus unrest fueled by the Vietnam War and civil rights. In 1968, when many universities like Columbia were embroiled in demonstrations, Mr. Biden was already married and thinking about the career he wanted to pursue as a lawyer.

Even as a young man, he was an institutionalist and focused more on creating change within the system than on the streets. In his 2007 memoir, “Promises to Keep,” Mr. Biden described leaving school one day along Genesee Street in Syracuse to go to Varsity Pizza Shop for lunch with some friends.

“We walked past the administration building and when we looked up there were people with SDS banners hanging out of the windows – from the Chancellery –,” he wrote, referring to the Students for a Democratic Society, one of the era’s most important activist groups. “They took over the building. And we looked up and said, ‘Look at these assholes.’ That’s how far I was from the anti-war movement.”

By his own description, Mr. Biden “never viewed the war as a great moral issue,” but rather as “a tragic mistake based on a flawed premise.” In other words, he said, “I saw the Vietnam War as stupidity, not morality.”

More than half a century later, Mr. Biden is once again far removed from an antiwar movement infected by dark forms of anti-Semitism that have complicated the problem. But he doesn’t have the luxury of throwing on a jacket and continuing on his way.

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2024-04-30 21:06:13