Joe and Me: Chicago, 2011

Sometimes you hear that there’s a lack of enthusiasm for the candidacy of Joe Biden. Not for me: I’ve been waiting for this opportunity since 2011. That’s the year we met.

To be fair, he probably doesn’t remember me: there were about 10,000 other people in the room, and I never got closer than a hundred feet or so. But it was a memorable experience,1 and I became a Biden fan that day.

Northeast Ohio friends Jim and Sarah wait patiently in line to see VP Biden in July 2011.

Like most Democrats, I admire Barack Obama personally and politically. But just as sometimes a beloved family member disappoints us, I was disappointed with his education policies.2 In 2011, he sent Joe Biden to the NEA Representative Assembly in Chicago on a fence-mending visit, and I thought Biden was terrific.3

You can see some of the reason why in the condensed YouTube video NEA published. I blogged about it at the time in my position at NEOEA. The passion we’ve seen on the campaign trail this year is evident there, along with the commitment to public education.

But what also comes through is this, and I recall it even more strongly from the speech as a whole: Biden spoke of policy issues as disagreements. It didn’t make the recording, but I recall him saying explicitly: the people on the other side believe what they believe. They’re not bad people, they’re just wrong. You can, and should, disagree strongly with your opponents without showing contempt for them. You need to win the argument, not give in or give up.

Most Americans would like to feel like one nation again, but we all know that won’t happen without conscious effort. Honest, passionate disagreement is legitimate, and American. I am enthusiastic for Joe Biden because he understands that. I know, because he told me so nine years ago.


  1. I’ve heard a few past, present, and future Presidents speak live, and it’s remarkable how much more powerful the in-person experience is from the mediated experiences we’re all exposed to from ads and news coverage. Maybe it’s the fact that you have to invest time and energy in hearing them speak live; maybe it’s the enthusiasm of the crowd; maybe it’s the feeling that the experience is something you can tell your children.
  2. We shouldn’t have been surprised: in Philadelphia in 2007, he told NEA delegates that he thought merit pay was worth considering. And although his education policies were better than the alternative, by 2011 a lot of educators I know were furious with his Race to the Top initiative.
  3. As I wrote at the time, it was the first time since 2000 that a sitting President or Vice President appeared at NEA in person.

Takeaways from Life in Both Parties

In a recent post I wrote about my curious political history, which incorporates a number of experiences collected in both parties over nearly sixty years.

It would be sad if I hadn’t learned something from those experiences. Fortunately, I have, and I think the lessons are real.

First: Your character is more important than your political beliefs. Everybody has the right to be wrong, at least sometimes. But people with character will take steps to get it right. They’ll acknowledge mistakes. They’ll do their best to correct them.

Second: Intellectual honesty is more important than intelligence. If you’re going to make excuses for the faults of your political allies, or rationalize your support for them, or make a Faustian bargain for a political advantage, acknowledge that you’re doing it. Don’t try to cloak your actions in principles you don’t believe in.

Third: Realism is more important than consistency. John Maynard Keynes is supposed to have said, “When the facts change, I change my mind. What do you do, sir?” There’s question as to whether he said it,1 but whether he did or not, we’ve all known people who disregarded facts to the contrary once they’ve made up their minds. Sometimes, we may have even done that ourselves.

Fourth: Principles are more important than ideology, labels, and parties.

  • I use “ideology” here differently from most dictionary definitions. By ideology I mean a codified set of beliefs that people hold so strongly that they adjust their perceptions to match them. “You saw this . . . and you got that?” Everybody needs to have principles, but in my experience, there’s no end to the damage caused by ideologies.
  • Labels are even less useful than belief systems. Often people lump groups together: you’re a liberal, you’re a conservative. People don’t lump so well in real life. Groups aren’t as monolithic as we make them out to be.
  • The loss of broad-based, “big tent” parties means that parties are in danger of becoming nothing more than tribes. Do you ever get the impression that members of one party wait until the other party’s leaders decide where they stand so that they can reflexively take the opposite position? Yeah, me too.

I suggest that we consider what our real principles are, and dedicate ourselves to making those principles come alive in public policy. How?

  • Vote. And help others to vote.
  • Recognize that running for office is hard, particularly if you’re doing it for the right reasons. Encourage candidates that you can believe in.
  • Find a candidate who represents your ideals, and help them–with time, money, and/or support.
  • Or be that candidate.

Over the years, I’ve met patriots, opportunists, crooks, and cowards. I’ve learned something from all of them. Here’s my takeaway.

Sometimes we hear that everything is different now: no one cares; no one is honest; no one does things the right way. I suggest that that’s not true. There have always been people ready to do public service the right way. They were never 100% of the politicians. But they were never 0% of them either. Maybe that percentage today is higher or lower than it once was. But it’s still somewhere between none and all. It will take effort to find out.

But it’s worth it.


  1. Nobel economics laureate Paul Samuelson (1915-2009) may have said instead, “When my information changes, I alter my conclusions.”

Both Sides Now

Our parents and grandparents on both sides were involved in community affairs, so perhaps volunteering and community service are just in the family DNA. Whatever the reason, I have been interested in politics for nearly sixty years now.

My earliest taste came at the end of seventh grade, when John Phillips beat me in the election for eighth-grade class president. Activism came in the eighth grade, when the teacher for some reason closed the classroom library. I circulated a petition to get it reopened, incurring the teacher’s wrath–a wrath that endured even beyond the eighth grade.1

Those who know me now won’t find that surprising. What they may find surprising is the circuitous path I’ve followed in politics–because I’ve seen partisan politics from both sides now, and the result affects my view of political ideology, parties, and the present Presidential race.

My high school had a Political Science Club2, and early on I became involved in conservative Republican politics.3 With a friend whose uncle was a Republican party official, I started attending ward meetings. Pretty soon I was recording speeches by Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan on my fancy new reel-to-reel tape recorder. I volunteered in Barry Goldwater’s campaign as a sophomore, and became a Republican precinct captain and credentialed poll-watcher years before I was eligible to vote.

Most of the adults I hung around with were cultural conservatives; some were classic economic conservatives, and a few were libertarians. Strongly anti-communist and pro-defense, I demonstrated in favor of the Vietnam war. Lacking the $24 annual dues to join the John Birch Society, I instead joined a chapter of Young Americans for Freedom and edited its newsletter. Eventually, my work brought me into contact with conspiracy theorists and militiamen; by the time I graduated, the crazier elements had scared me off.

I spent my college years pretty much without a political ideology or party affiliation. I recall favoring Nixon for President in 1968, while I was still too young to vote.4 (At John Carroll’s mock Republican convention, at the urging of a brother from Maryland, our fraternity nominated his governor, Spiro T. Agnew, who became Nixon’s first Vice President.)5

Many who know me now know some of the rest. As a newly-minted teacher after graduation, my work eventually led me into a leadership role in my teacher union. As a teacher union activist, I soon learned that Democrats were generally friendlier to workers and to public education than Republicans. Although I supported a fair number of reasonable Republican legislators, I found myself supporting Democrats most of the time, and registered as a Democrat.

Eventually, I became a precinct official once again–this time for the Democratic party. I held positions on Cuyahoga County’s Democratic Party Central Committee and Executive Committee, and my local Democratic club, until just a few years ago.

Hopefully I learned something from these varied political experiences. Next I’ll try to identify some lessons learned from my experiences as a foot soldier for both parties. This schizophrenic political history should be good for something!


  1. A couple of years later, I ran into her while I was distributing political literature near the church, and she expressed surprise that I wasn’t in jail.
  2. It was the sixties, after all.
  3. And recall that this was in Chicago, where I think they hunt Republicans with trained dogs.
  4. It wasn’t until the year I turned 21 that the 26th Amendment lowered the voting age to 18.
  5. Until Spiro’s conviction for felony tax evasion opened the way for Gerald Ford.