Joe Biden On War Story: Details 'Irrelevant,' Don't Undermine Judgment : The NPR Politics Podcast In an ongoing series, The NPR Politics Podcast is hitting the road and interviewing 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. In this episode, Asma Khalid and Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters sit down with former Vice President Joe Biden to ask why he's the best pick for voters. This series is produced in collaboration with Iowa Public Radio and NHPR.

'Details Are Irrelevant': Biden Says Verbal Slip-Ups Don't Undermine His Judgment

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Hey there. It's the NPR POLITICS PODCAST. I'm Asma Khalid. All summer long, we've been taking you on the road as we interview the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. This series is a collaboration with Iowa Public Radio and New Hampshire Public Radio, which is why on Labor Day I met up with Iowa Public Radio host Clay Masters in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, where former Vice President Joe Biden was campaigning.

Hey, Clay.


Asma, welcome back to Iowa again.

KHALID: (Laughter) I am back here yet again. We're reunited at a couple of Labor Day picnics here. And explain to us exactly where we are because I see a whole bunch of antique cars in that direction, a bouncy house - or a couple of bouncy houses right behind you.

MASTERS: There are hot dogs and bratwursts inside. We are at a Labor Day picnic in Cedar Rapids, Iowa, at Hawkeye Downs Speedway. This is a chance for Iowans to meet some presidential candidates while they're here checking out the antique cars and having a hot dog. And this is not one of those events where you're going to hear a lot of speeches from candidates.

KHALID: There's just folks - what? - shaking hands, meeting voters, it looks like. And everywhere you see Vice President Joe Biden, there's a whole bunch of reporters just tagging along to meet him. You have a whole bunch of people who just want to say hello to the former vice president. One woman even wanted him to sign her cast.


JODIE: Sign my cast, Joe. All right.

JOE BIDEN: What's your name?

JODIE: My name's Jodie (ph). These are my grandbabies. All right, thank you.

MASTERS: Joe Biden has been atop Iowa polls. The first Iowa poll that came out in December of 2018, he was atop that poll. A lot of that has to do with name ID, even, because he was vice president of the United States for eight years. So people are here enjoying the day, maybe meet somebody they might want to caucus for and also just meet a former vice president. And then I should note, too, that Joe Biden has run for president twice, and that, of course, means that he has spent a lot of time campaigning in Iowa.

KHALID: At a second Labor Day picnic in Iowa City, Clay and I sat down with the former vice president. We asked him about trade and foreign policy. You may have heard, The Washington Post recently reported, that a dramatic story Biden has been telling about the war in Afghanistan conflated and confused facts from multiple different incidents. We asked him about that, too.

MASTERS: First of all, Mr. Vice President, thanks for agreeing to be on the...

BIDEN: So happy to be.

MASTERS: ...The NPR POLITICS PODCAST. This certainly isn't your first time in Iowa. You've run for president in the past. Certainly, you've spent a lot of time in Iowa. What have you learned from the past times when you've run?

BIDEN: Well, I learned you hold the key to the kingdom. If you can't get out through Iowa, you can't go any further. And I've learned that the people of Iowa, you know, they're really informed, and they're really concerned about what's going on. And I've found very little distinction between Iowa, New Hampshire, South Carolina, Nevada and everywhere else because I've never seen the party as certain of the need to defeat the incumbent president. I mean, that's the overarching thing that everyone, no matter where I am, talks about.

KHALID: You know, you talk, Mr. Vice President, a lot about the Obama-Biden record, the Obama-Biden administration, and a lot of your agenda builds on that time in office as well. But voters had the chance to choose a third Obama term in 2016 with Hillary Clinton, and...

BIDEN: No, they didn't.

KHALID: What do you mean by that?

BIDEN: Well, Hillary was - I campaigned like the devil for Hillary. But Hillary had different positions than the president had, and she emphasized different aspects of what would have occurred had I been the nominee. Doesn't mean I would have won; I don't mean that. But it is not the same policy.

KHALID: If you don't feel like that was a continuation, what do you feel that you're offering voters now that's different than a continuation of the Obama-Biden time?

BIDEN: Look - the world has changed. There's that great phrase from the Irish poet - all's changed, changed utterly; a terrible beauty's been born. Everything has changed. Not a joke. We weren't facing anything that we're facing today with this president three years ago. Wasn't anywhere close. The world was still basically united. The United States was still looked up to. We had strong alliances. We knew who our enemies were. We knew who our friends were. We were in a position where we continued to support labor. We were in a position where we continued to support everything from this whole notion of the white supremacist taking ascendancy in this administration - a totally different set of circumstances, totally different.

And in the meantime, what the president has done is also eviscerated education and access to education and help (ph) for education. My dad used to have an expression. He'd say - when someone would come up and say - his name was Joe. And they'd say, Joe, let me tell you what I value. And it's not a joke - he'd look and say, no, don't tell me what you value; tell me what your budget is. I'll tell you what you value. So it's a fundamentally different set of circumstances.

The next president is going to have to be able to pull the world back together - not a joke. Literally, not figuratively - pull the world back together, reunite our allies. Bring us into a situation where, after World War II, we set up the most significant set of alliances in the world - the history of the world. And they've been decimated. Four more years of this president, there will be no NATO. Four more years of this president, we'll continue to have this God-awful relationship going on with the dictators of the world, between the president of the United States and Putin and Kim Jong Un and what's going on in China right now.

And so I just - I don't think there's anything remotely approaching - it's a continuation. It's a different set of - but the same values, Barack and I share the same value set. One of the things that I'm proudest of - we went through - he and I were talking about it about six, eight months ago - he was asked in a different forum than I was, but the same question on the same day - what are you proudest of? We went through an entire eight years without one single hint of scandal - not one.

MASTERS: You've said that you can work with Republicans and get things done. But at the same time, I've heard you on the stump talking about how this isn't your father's Republican Party. What makes you think that you can operate with the current Republican Party when many of the people that you worked with in the Senate are no longer there?

BIDEN: A lot of them are still there, though - that's No. 1. No. 2 - you can work on things that do not have this sort of ideological edge to them. For example, on health care, look what happened last time out. I was told that I went into 24 states or 68, 67 - whatever the number was - candidates, and we ran against them straight up on health care. We ran flat against them, and we won. We won back 41 seats in the House.

KHALID: You're talking about the 2018 elections.

BIDEN: In the 2018 cycle. So look - there are places where we can cooperate, and there are places where, in fact, we're going to have to just go out and campaign in the off year against the Republicans who, in fact, disagree with our approach.

KHALID: I want to ask you about foreign policy because this is something that you have a lot of experience on. You could say you have more experience than any one of your Democratic opponents in foreign policy. You...

BIDEN: I think all of them combined.

KHALID: But some of your critics, some of your rivals, have said that - they question your judgment on foreign policy.

BIDEN: (Laughter).

KHALID: And I will point specifically, Mr. Vice President, to some of the decisions you made in going to war with Iraq but also in terms of handling the withdrawal out of Iraq. I am curious how you respond to questions about your judgment in that space.

BIDEN: I let my record stand. I think my record has been good. I think the vast majority of the foreign policy community thinks it's been very good. For example, I got a commitment from President Bush he was not going to go to war in Iraq. He looked me in the eye in the Oval Office; he said he needed the vote to be able to get inspectors into Iraq to determine whether or not Saddam Hussein was engaged in dealing with a nuclear program. He got them in, and before we know it, we had a shock and awe. Immediately, the moment it started, I came out against the war at that moment.

Now, the judgment of my trusting the president to keep his word on something like that, that was a mistake. And I apologize for that. But look what happened. In the first meeting in the Oval Office after this occurred, when we won, when the president and I - President Obama and I won, we sat there and the entire national security team came in and said, well, we have a plan for Iraq. And the president turned and said, no, Joe will handle Iraq. Work with Joe. So from that point on, he gave me the objective of getting American combat troops out of Iraq, which we did. And it was the right decision.

And - but we also - I was asked to help put together a coalition of 65 countries to deal with al-Qaida, and I was able to do that. And so the point is that I'm not sure exactly what they're talking about. I know virtually every major world leader. I know them by their first names or have met with them, with notable exceptions - the new prime minister of England, I've never met. Look - the next president's going to have to, on Day 1, be able to rally the world to deal with climate change. I came back and told the president, after my long meetings with Xi Jinping in China, that he's ready to join the effort. Everybody thought I was crazy. Well, turns out I wasn't crazy at all.

But the fact of the matter is that we have over 180 nations or thereabouts - if you look at the final tally, 197 or whatever it is. But we have to up the ante because we learn - every day we learn more about the crisis. We don't have the time we thought we had. And so you have to be able to call those nations together. And the president has squandered his credibility with the vast majority of those nations. And so we have to have someone who knows how to bring nations together and begin to change the attitude about how we deal with climate change with much great urgency, for example, or reconstructing NATO, putting it back together.

The idea that I show up at the Munich conference and Angela Merkel stands up and says to her European colleagues, all the heads of state there, we got to go it alone. We can't count on the United States. Shortly after that, Pence gets up and says, I'm here for the president. Dead silence - not a single response. I get up to speak and talk about - I was asked by European leaders to talk about whether or not there's a different view on foreign policy in America. And I gave my view, and it got an overwhelming response. So, I mean, I've dealt with these people. I - you know, I know them. I've done this before. You know, it won't be the first time for me.

MASTERS: We're in Iowa right now.


MASTERS: There's some bipartisan anxiety right now about the trade war with China and tariffs. What would a Biden administration trade plan look like?

BIDEN: Well, No. 1 - the idea that we would have another trade agreement without environmentalists and labor sitting at the negotiating table with us will not happen in a Biden administration. They'll be required to be there - No. 1. No. 2 - we should make a distinction between those things which are markets that we need and we - and our folks have developed, like the Iowa farmers for years and years developing the Chinese market for grain and other things - for a long time. And China engaging in activities that are in violation of the WTO in terms of dealing with dumping steel, dumping products on the American market. And so you might very well conclude that you have to engage in a tariff for a - on steel but not a tariff on wheat and - you know, and agricultural products. But the bottom line is we're either going to write the rules for the international community on trade, or they're going to be written by China.

KHALID: I want to ask you about something that you have been criticized for lately.

BIDEN: Of course.

KHALID: And that is sometimes putting your foot in your mouth. You knew what I was going to say before I even asked the question (laughter).

BIDEN: I know you've never done that.

KHALID: And I was out with you last week in South Carolina speaking to a number of voters at your rallies. And I will say, most of your supporters that I talked to, they don't seem to mind. They say that it's just - you know, happens to all of us. We all put our foot in our mouth. Do you not feel that the details, not just the intentions, matter when you're making decisions as president?

BIDEN: Well, they're two fundamentally different questions you're asking me. When I stand - and you guys love to conflate these things. No. 1 is I stood up and talked about pinning a medal on a young man who did not want the medal and was a brave, brave young man. I also talked about, up in the upper Kunar Valley, of another young man who engaged in a very brave act. Turns out, I believe it was General Rodriguez was up on that - what they call a forward operating base with only six or eight people up there. And he pinned the Bronze Star on the young man up there. It wasn't the young man who got the Medal of Honor from president - who, in fact, was in a different place. That was in Afghanistan, but not where I was.

And so the fact that - the whole purpose of what I was saying did not in any way affect my point. There are incredibly brave, decent, honorable men and women in the military who, in fact, are - like any other generation, only even have done more. They've - and they've saddled up. They've gone out. They've wiped the blood off of these Humvees. They've gone back out. They get out again. They go out again and again and again. I was making a point about a generation. That has nothing to do with a judgment of whether or not you send troops to war, the judgment of whether you bring someone home, the judgment of whether or not you decide on a health care policy.

KHALID: Not judgment, Mister...

BIDEN: You understand that.

KHALID: No, no, not judgment but details.

BIDEN: Detail.

KHALID: Because that's something I've heard from some voters - maybe not at your events - but details.

BIDEN: Well, no. But the details are irrelevant in terms of decision-making if, in fact, I forget that it was Rodriguez of all the times. I've been in and out of Afghanistan and Iraq and Bosnia and Kosovo as much as anybody, except maybe my deceased friend John McCain and maybe Lindsey Graham. And so the fact that I would forget that it was Rodriguez who was pinning - I believe this is the case - pinning a Bronze Star on a young man was - it's irrelevant to the point. It's like saying, I had this very bright reporter, and I think her eyes were blue. What difference would it make about whether you were a bright reporter? Your eyes are brown. It's irrelevant, and you know it.

KHALID: OK, we're going to take a quick break. But, first, some context for those Iraq war comments. Biden told us that he opposed the war in Iraq from the moment it started, but the reality is murky. His campaign clarifies that he was critical of the Bush administration's strategy and intelligence failures early on. But Biden stood by his vote authorizing force in Iraq for a while after the war began. In public comments made months after the invasion, he said he would have voted the same way again. Biden publicly said his vote was a mistake as early as 2005, but not immediately when the war began in 2003.

Back soon with more from our interview with former Vice President Joe Biden.


KHALID: And we're back. And this is the point in the podcast when we generally ask candidates about their personal life. Here's the rest of our conversation with Joe Biden.

MASTERS: Personally, what is a time when you have realized you were wrong about something and then had to own up to it?

BIDEN: Well, I think maybe when - that's a good question. I think maybe when I met with all the parents and the survivors of Sandy Hook when that man took his mother's guns and gunned down those little babies and children. And they all came to Washington. I met with them then as well, and I was the vice president then. By the way, I did meet with the folks in Parkland, up in the Capitol, like I said. But I was a sitting - I wasn't the sitting vice president; I was the former vice president. And it was up in the Capitol. I said it (ph), so OK.

But the point is that they all came down, and I realized what courage it took for them to show up, just after having dealt with burying their children and how I didn't have the courage, after my wife and daughter were killed and my two boys were badly injured when a tractor-trailer broadsided them, to talk about highway safety. I was on a committee that had to do with highway safety - the size of trucks and so on and so forth. And I didn't have the courage. I could not bring myself - I've only twice in my life seen the vehicle and both accidentally. I didn't ever want to look and see what the vehicle looked like. And I realized that I made a mistake. I wish I'd had their courage. I wish I had stepped up at a time when maybe I could have done something to increase the safety on the highway. Because I remember it hitting me, how - just how much courage it takes because every time something terrible that's happened to you, every time you talk about it, you relive it as if it happened yesterday. And these parents are - they were just incredible. Anyway.

KHALID: Mr. Vice President, you were talking there about some of your family's tragedies. I know you're a man of faith, and you've spoken about your faith quite a bit over the years. Has your faith ever been tested by your family's tragedies?

BIDEN: Yes. I have to admit to you that right after it happened, when I got the phone call in Washington, that - and the poor person there on the line had to tell me that my wife and daughter were dead. And the poor kid didn't want to do it. She didn't mean to. Just - anyway, and I remember walking out. I was sitting in Ted Kennedy's office in the Capitol interviewing people. He was a whip in the Senate. And I had to walk out, and I walked through the rotunda, and I remember looking up at the rotunda saying, God, God, why - you know, I got really angry. I just - I shouted out.

And for the longest time, I had difficulty - you know, I had difficulty believing. I wrongly - in my view; everybody's different - wrongly thought that I didn't know how - why me? Why would he do this to me? How can there be a God who let this happen?

But I remember one day years later I was - I guess, that point my dad was over at my home, and I was talking about - I guess I sounded like I must have been - something must have reminded me of that moment. And I guess I was sounding like why me again. And my dad went up to - I think it was the Hallmark card store and bought this little frame, you know, a glass frame with sayings inside them or cartoons. There's a cartoon of Hagar the Horrible. I'm not a big reader of the, quote, "funny papers."

KHALID: (Laughter).

BIDEN: But Hagar was standing on a rock in the middle of the ocean with his Viking ship sinking and lightning from the sky and is been struck. And he looks up in that frame - he looks and he's looking. The guy says, why me, God? And then next frame - same exact picture. Voice from heaven says, why not? My father gave me that. I still have it on my desk. And it is, what's so special about me?

And Jill, when she wants me to make sure I get something that - get through to me, she wants to make a point, she'll take something on my mirror that - when I'm shaving. And years ago she put up on my mirror - I still have it there - Kirkegaard quote. Kierkegaard said, faith sees best in the dark. And for me, that's what I've determined. And so I'm not judging anyone else's religious beliefs or faith. But for me, I find solace.

And I look around at so many people - and you know people - who've gone through what I've gone through and more without any of the help I've had - without any of the help. Today there are millions of people who got up, went out and put one foot in front of the other - just pure raw courage, with no help at all. And I think to myself, my God, I had all these people who were there to help me. And the idea that somehow there's anything special about what happened to me compared to the people who have no help? And that's what I try to keep in mind. It's relative.

And lastly, I believe they're still with me; I really do believe it. And I believe I've learned from the first major loss, before we lost our son Beau, is that you've got to find purpose. The way to get through tragedy is to find purpose. And so I get up in the morning - shouldn't be saying this, probably.

I get up in the morning, and I hope my son Beau is proud of me because - one of the reasons I wrote the book, "Promise Me, Dad" - he knew my instinct would be to withdraw. Not that I wouldn't take care of the family, but I withdraw. And he insisted that that not be the case. It wasn't about running for president; it's that I would stay engaged in all the things that had mattered to me my whole life. And I still am, and I find purpose in that, and it connects me to him. But everybody has their own way to deal through tragedy. But so many people went through more than I've been through and get up every day and do it.

KHALID: That was our interview with former Vice President Joe Biden. It's part of our On the Trail series with the 2020 Democratic presidential candidates. You can check out all of our other candidate interviews by scrolling through your podcast feed. We also want to let you know about Caucus Land. It's a podcast produced by Iowa Public Radio that will tell you all about Iowa's role in shaping the field for presidential candidates. Clay Masters and Kate Payne, who you've heard in this series, will give you an in-depth look at the Iowa caucuses. You can find it at

And we'll be back in your feed soon. A big thank you to Clay Masters and everyone at Iowa Public Radio and New Hampshire Public Radio for their partnership in this series. And as always, thank you for listening to the NPR POLITICS PODCAST.


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