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This Is What Happened the First Time Joe Biden Ran for President

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The period of lengthy speculation over what Vice President Joe Biden will do in the 2016 Presidential race came to an end on Wednesday, when Biden announced in a speech from the Rose Garden that he would not seek the office. Dealing with his family’s grief over the loss of son Beau earlier this year took precedence, he said, and though the family was healing he said that the time had passed during which he could begin a campaign that would stand a chance of succeeding. That decision comes despite a wish from the late Beau Biden that his father run.

Biden’s choice comes nearly three decades after a wish from another Biden son first set the Vice President on the road to run for the highest office. Joe Biden was a young Delaware Senator when, leading up to the 1988 election, he first decided to give the White House a go. (He had considered the race in 1984, but he decided at the time that his young children—his daughter was 2 and his sons were in high school at the time—needed him to wait, for their benefit.) TIME had occasion to recount the story of how he had decided to finally declare his candidacy in 1987. In the anecdote, he asked his son Hunter for his opinion. “If you don’t do it now,” Hunter replied, “I couldn’t see you doing it some other time.”

“Yeah,” Biden answered, “that’s the thing.”

With that year’s relatively open field, Biden seemed well positioned to appeal to blue-collar voters. He was also the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee and had the opportunity to achieve great visibility in the last year of Reagan’s term, as the president sought to appoint a new Supreme Court justice. In the summer of of 1987, when he officially declared his candidacy, he positioned himself as an opponent of “materialist values, declining industries, drug abuse, inadequate schools and kids abandoned to poverty,” per TIME. The rap against him was one that’s continued to haunt him, but which he’s often shown doesn’t have to hold him back: the headline on that story wondered whether he talked too much.

His “occasional giddy lapses” into gaffe territory, however, would not prove to be the talking that would get him in trouble. Instead, before 1987 was up, he’d find himself embroiled in an odd plagiarism scandal: that fall, voters found out that some of his stump speeches included passages lifted from Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey and British politician Neil Kinnock. As TIME cheekily summed it up:

It should have been the best of times, but it was the worst of times for Joseph Biden. For months it had been a truth universally acknowledged: that the Senator in want of the presidency could revive his flagging candidacy as he presided over the Robert Bork confirmation hearings. But, oh, the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune. Before Bork even took the witness stand, Biden learned the hard way that 1988 presidential politics has become a school for scandal. Now many believe that Biden’s beleaguered candidacy has almost certainly shuffled off its mortal coil. But the defiant candidate still insists that the whole flap is ‘’much ado about nothing.’’

It was, the magazine pointed out, not exactly a new tactic for politicians. Some of the most famous political speeches in history, like Winston’s Churchill’s “blood, toil, tears and sweat” oration, have been heavily inspired by works of poetry, fiction and political thought. Nevertheless, the revelations jibed a little too neatly with the reservations that voters already had about the candidate, and a prior accusation of plagiarism (from his law school days) emerged at the same time. It didn’t help that once the issue made the news Biden failed to respond with an apology that voters found heartfelt enough.

Within weeks, he announced that he was no longer in the race. It was a conclusion that had been predicted, in a way, by an Iowa activist who’d spoken to TIME the year before: “He might just talk himself out of the nomination.”

Though his reputation as a talker has never left the Vice President, the plagiarism scandal has been largely eclipsed by the decades of political track he’s put between now and then—a point that’s underscored today, as he makes a decision that echoes the calculus of 1984, that his family must take priority.

Read more about Biden’s 1988 run, here in the TIME Vault: Biden’s Familiar Quotations

The Blooper Heard Round the World

As soon as the debates started back up, so, too, did the “gaffes,” beginning with President Gerald Ford declaring boldly that there was “no Soviet domination of Eastern Europe” at a time when every Eastern European country was securely locked behind the Iron Curtain.

TIME was as amazed as everyone else, calling Ford’s statement “The Blooper Heard Round the World.” Ford clearly knew that the Soviets dominated Eastern Europe, but he was trying to make a rhetorical point and simply blew it — and went on to blow the election.

The Age Issue

Some observers in 1984 worried that Ronald Reagan might have grown too old to continue in the presidency. His quip during a debate with Walter Mondale is widely seen as having defused this concern. “I will not make age an issue of this campaign,” he said. “I am not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience.” Even Mondale laughed.

All the Emotion

In 1988, CNN’s Bernard Shaw asked Democratic contender Michael Dukakis a bizarre question, and elicited a (politically) terrible answer. “Mr. Dukakis,” Shaw asked, “if Kitty Dukakis [the candidate’s wife] were raped and murdered, would you favor an irrevocable death penalty?” This could have been a great time for Dukakis to shed some of his image as a remote, passionless technocrat. He could have said that, of course, as a husband, his instinct would be for revenge, but that we live in a democratic society, and personal revenge has no place in our laws. Instead, he gave a passionless, technocratic answer: “No, I don’t, Bernard,” he said, “and I think you know that I’ve opposed the death penalty during all of my life. I don’t see any evidence that it’s a deterrent and I think there are better and more effective ways to deal with violent crime.”

TIME’s Walter Shapiro wrote: “Dukakis mustered all the emotion of a time-and- temperature recording.”

No Jack Kennedy

Sometimes, the vice-presidential debates have yielded the more memorable moments in a given election year. Such was the case when Dukakis’ running mate Lloyd Benson tore into Dan Quayle, who was George H.W. Bush’s running mate.

Quayle, young and fair-haired, was often compared to John Kennedy (usually by Republican operatives) despite his being widely considered to be a bit of a dim bulb (an assessment that was in fact quite unfair). Quayle made the mistake of invoking JFK during the debate, giving Bentson his opening. “I served with Jack Kennedy,” Bentson said. “I knew Jack Kennedy. Jack Kennedy was a friend of mine. Senator, you’re no Jack Kennedy.” The audience erupted, and in the next day’s papers, “deer in the headlights” was the most-often-used phrase to describe Quayle’s reaction.

The Humblebrag of ’92

In 1992, Ross Perot’s prickly demeanor (“Are you gonna let me finish?”) got a lot of attention during the debates. But it was his running mate, Adm. James Stockdale, whose performance has proven the most memorable. In trying to be self-deprecating about his lack of political experience (actually sort of a humblebrag), Stockdale blurted our, “Who am I? Why am I here?”

Since he already had a reputation (whether deserved or not) as a confused old man, this soundbite was set in concrete. And just as people sometimes confuse Tina Fey’s takeoffs on Sarah Palin for Palin herself (it was Fey, not Palin, who said “I can see Russia from my house!”), people tend to remember Phil Hartman’s portrayal of Stockdale on Saturday Night Live a lot better than they remember Stockdale himself.

The Nod

By 2000, it had been eight years since a national debate yielded any real drama (Clinton vs. Dole was a snooze of an election). Most of the best bits of 2000 came from Al Gore, who memorably sighed a lot at statements from his opponent, George W. Bush. But the best moment might have been when Gore at one point stood up, seemingly to intimidate Bush, and Bush simply nodded hello at him and continued what he was saying.

Getting Personal

In 2004, it was once again the vice presidential debate that yielded the most memorable moment, when Dick Cheney was asked about gay rights. His daughter, a lesbian, wasn’t mentioned — that is, until after Cheney was finished answering, and his opponent, John Edwards, brought her up. “I think the vice president and his wife love their daughter,” he said. “I think they love her very much. And you can’t have anything but respect for the fact that they’re willing to talk about the fact that they have a gay daughter, the fact that they embrace her. It’s a wonderful thing. And there are millions of parents like that who love their children, who want their children to be happy.” Cheney and his wife Lynne both later said they were furious at Edwards for mentioning their daughter.

Likable Enough

In 2008, a common political question was whether Hillary Clinton was “likable.” In a primary debate, Barack Obama answered that question: “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” This was widely interpreted (especially among Clinton supporters) as rude and condescending. But it also could have been a genuine response.

Joe Kidding

Before her debate with vice-presidential contender Joe Biden, Sarah Palin asked her opponent if she could call him Joe. Of course, he said. That set her up for a canned line later in the debate: “Say it ain’t so, Joe.” Palin did much better in the debate than many people were expecting, possibly in part due to Biden being very careful to not insult her or otherwise seem cruel.


In recent years, primary debates — or at least debate moments — have been getting as much if not more attention than general-election debates. Perhaps the most memorable moment of 2012 came when Republican candidate Rick Perry couldn’t remember the third government agency he wanted to eliminate. He paused, he stumbled, he finally said “oops.” Perry recently became the first GOP candidate to drop out of the 2016 race, and some pundits have said that his “oops” moment might have destroyed his political career.

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Write to Lily Rothman at lily.rothman@time.com