New Hampshire 1987: Joe Biden Assailed Teacher’s IQ, Compared Himself to MLK

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.) talks to a reporter during an interview in his Capitol Hill office, Jan. 15, 1987. Biden is the new chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. (AP Photo/Lana Harris)
AP Photo/Lana Harris

Former Vice President Joe Biden lashed out at a teacher in the midst of his 1988 presidential run, attacking the man’s intelligence and comparing himself to Martin Luther King Jr. in the process.

The incident occurred during a New Hampshire meet and greet hosted by Biden’s campaign in April 1987. Joe Biden, then a 44-year-old U.S. senator waging his first bid for the White House, was asked by one the attendees, a local school teacher, to elaborate on his academic record in law school.

The question, which likely arose because of Biden’s frequent gaffes on the campaign trail and the yet-to-be-confirmed rumors of plagiarism, perturbed the candidate, as evidenced by a CSPAN video of the encounter.

“I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect,” Biden responded, wagging his finger at the questioner. “I went to law school on a full academic scholarship, the only one in my class to have a full academic scholarship.”

He then proceeded to cite an exhaustive list of his academic accomplishments — including having earned three bachelors degrees and being in the top half of his law school class — before suggesting that he and the other man “compare” their levels of intelligence.

“I’d be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours,” Biden said.

The educator clarified he only asked the question because the caliber of candidates elected to office in recent years had proved it was important to know a candidate’s “credentials very solidly.”

Biden claimed that he agreed but quickly turned the conversation into a broader attack on the media for the way it covered presidential candidates.

“You know what I find kind of interesting,” he said. “It seems to me if you can speak, you’re at a liability in the Democratic Party anymore. It seems to me, you’ve all become heartless technocrats … that you forget … we’ve never as a party moved this nation by 14-point position papers and nine-point programs.”

Biden further added that “nobody asked Martin Luther King what his legislative agenda was” during the civil rights movement.

“He marched to change attitudes,” he said, before mentioning a litany of other activists and social movements that “changed attitudes.”

“This country needs a leader, and leaders change attitudes,” Biden said.

Although Biden succeeded in deflecting questions away from his academic record, it was only a short term victory. In fact, a number of the statements he made in defense of his intelligence would be proved false, and disastrously so, a few short months later.

As the Washington Post reported in September 1987, Biden was not a star student by any means during either his undergraduate or law school years.

Biden’s “undergraduate academic records show that he graduated from [the University of] Delaware 506th in a class of 688 with a ‘C’ average,” the Post noted. Neither did he graduate with three bachelors degrees as claimed but rather a “dual major in history and political science.”

It also emerged that Biden had not only lied about receiving a full ride to law school, but he fell far short of being in the top half of his class — ranking 76 out of 85.

More troublingly, though, was that Biden had been caught plagiarizing in law school. For a legal methods course, Biden lifted five pages from a published law review article and submitted them “without quotation or citation” in his own 15-page paper.

“In the marketplace of ideas in the political realm, the notion that for every thought or idea you have to go back and find and attribute to someone is frankly ludicrous,” Biden said when admitting the plagiarism. “I’ve done some dumb things, and I’ll do some dumb things again.”

Despite the mea culpa, Biden’s credibility was too damaged for the electorate in 1988, especially since he had already been accused of plagiarizing the campaign speeches of other politicians and inflating his civil rights activism. Shortly after the Post’s exposé, Biden dropped out of the presidential race.

“I’m angry at myself for having been put in the position — put myself in the position — of having to make this choice,” Biden said when announcing his exit from the race.

The self-blame, however, lasted only a few sentences before Biden harked back to the same rhetoric he used to steer the topic away from his academic record in New Hampshire.

“I am no less frustrated for the environment of presidential politics that makes it so difficult to let the American people measure the whole Joe Biden and not just misstatements I have made,” he added.


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