Joe Biden is running on his record in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination and a shot at a vulnerable Donald Trump in 2020. Biden's largely positive record as a senator and Barack Obama's vice president is by far his greatest asset, which makes the decision by the University of Delaware to renege on its commitment to make Biden's senatorial papers public this year all the more confounding. And deeply troubling because that decision -- almost certainly made at the request of Biden himself -- will backfire hugely, turning a bad decision into a controversy that didn't have to happen, tarnishing both candidate and institution. The headline for that controversy might be What Is Joe Biden Hiding?
The answer is that Biden probably isn't hiding anything since much of his public record is available anecdotally in newspaper and other media accounts.
But Biden's senatorial papers, which he donated to his undergraduate alma mater in 2011 and consist of a mind-boggling 1,875 record center cartons and 415 gigabytes of electronic records, provide an intimate behind-the-scenes look at his 36-year Senate career and role in many of the biggest Washington, national and international stories of the era.
The papers, which include committee reports, drafts and mark-ups of legislation, accounts of meetings with world leaders and correspondence, are a treasure trove for academics and historians. And journalists fact-checking Biden's stump speech claims for misrepresentations and attendant controversies. These include his mid-1970s stand on forced busing to desegregate northern Delaware schools, the target of a recent attack by Kamala Harris, his controversial 1994 crime bill, 1982 and 2006 reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act, and his 1991 grilling of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings, and early support for the war in Iraq.
I knew Biden when we were teenaged beach volleyball combatants on the sands of Rehoboth Beach. His parents and mine were friends. We both attended the University of Delaware, and serendipitously I worked in the university's Special Collections Department with students and visiting scholars through most of the 2000s, including the period when Biden's immense collection began arriving by the truckload and was stored in newly-installed moveable stacks in a basement room of Morris Library (photo, right) as the enormous process of cataloging it got underway.
Secret Service marksmen were on the roofs of adjacent campus buildings in what was a celebratory if surreal day when Biden ceremonially presented his papers to then-university president Andrew Harker in a packed Mitchell Hall on September 16, 2011.
Harker thanked Biden for providing "an abundance of materials that will illuminate decades of U.S. policy and diplomacy and the vice president’s critical role in its development."
While Harker somewhat misspoke about Biden's tenure as vice president since a decision has not been made regarding what institution might get his vice presidential papers and that in all likelihood would be a Biden presidential library if he wins the nomination and defeats Trump, the terms of the release of his senatorial papers was unambiguous.
Beginning with that 2011 ceremony and for eight years thereafter, the university described the terms of the agreement on its website as keeping the papers sealed "for two years after Biden retires from public office."
But a funny thing happened on April 24, the day before Biden announced his presidential campaign.
The university suddenly changed the way that it described those terms and instead of citing Biden's departure from "public office" as the trigger to open the collection, it said the collection would not be made public until two years after Biden "retires from public life" or after December 31, 2019, whichever is later.
BIDEN (1987) THE WASHINGTON POST
It did not define what is considered "public life," but when contacted by The Washington Post, which published a lengthy story on the switcheroo on Thursday, university spokeswoman Andrea Boyle Tippett told reporter Matt Viser that “The entire collection is unavailable."
"Its contents will become available, as the website indicates, when Mr. Biden retires from public life. As he is currently running for office, he is in public life," Tippett explained. "Since retirement for anyone, not just public figures, takes different forms, I can't speculate beyond that."
The university has denied public records requests for copies of the initial agreement that Biden and Harker signed, as well as any changes to it, and Tippett says that "the gift agreement signed when the papers were donated is not a public document."
I attended (but did not graduate from) the University of Delaware in the late 1960s when it was pretty much a cow college with a highly-rated chemical engineering department, a product of the university's close affiliation with the Du Pont Company and family.
In the intervening years, the university has grown by leaps and bounds. Today it is a world-class institution with many fine academic departments, a national championship-caliber football team and perhaps the most beautiful college campus in America. Morris Library (photo, below) and Special Collections, a library within the library with hundreds of thousands of books, many of them very old and very rare, and millions of manuscript pages, have grown with the university.
Special Collections attracts scholars from around the world on the strength of some of its collections. These include Irish and pre-Raphaelite literature, Abraham Lincoln books and ephemera, Delawareana and early science and technology texts, as well as its reputation for public service, which is to say openness.
In my 11 years in Special Collections' Public Service Unit, many scholars told me that they had made the long trip to Newark not just because of the jewels in the collection, but the willingness of the staff to make available its holdings in contrast to many British and European libraries where the staffs make accessing and using materials excruciatingly difficult.
(My most memorable interaction in the service of openness involved a Catholic nun visiting from California for a civil rights conference on campus who asked to see Special Collections' exceeding rare copy of a signed broadside edition of Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation. When the priceless document was brought into the Reading Room for her to examine and the box in which it was stored was opened, she wept tears of joy.)
All of this makes the decision to keep the Biden collection closed, as well as the secrecy surrounding that decision, all the more galling.
The Biden campaign says no change has been made to the agreement since September 2016, although it would not say what change was made then. The campaign said it had nothing to do with the change announced by the university in April.
"They [institutions] aren't keen on opening a lot of information when someone is running for office," Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian, told The WaPo. "I wish they were wide open for the public, but alas when politicians start running for the president, they try to make sure there’s not that kind of transparency or documentation."
Biden's speech at the 2011 ceremony was inspiring.
"In giving my collection of papers and other materials from my service in the United States Senate to the university today, I hope two things: One, they will not regale in the fact I do not know how to spell. I never thought it a worthy undertaking," Biden joked before turning serious.
"I hope they will take from my papers a deeper understanding of how true and honest compromise can advance the great national goals, and how it is through resolving differences that we shape our society we live in and we shape it for the better."