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What made Biden stumble

By Godfrey Sperling Jr. / October 6, 1987



A LITTLE boy was said to have met Shoeless Joe Jackson, a member of the infamous Chicago Black Sox of 1919 and a central figure in that scandal, and tearfully pleaded, ``Say it ain't so, Joe.'' That utterance became one of the most famous leads a sportswriter ever used in writing an article.

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Now it's the Joseph Biden followers - a number who have been raising an impressive amount of money for his campaign - who, misty-eyed, have been lamenting: ``Say it ain't so, Joe.''

In the days since Senator Biden stepped down from his presidential quest, a number of observers have offered explanations for the Delaware senator's plagiarism and falsehoods: It was the overreaching of an overly ambitious politician. It was mediocrity seeking to pass for excellence. It was the expression of great insecurity.

Mr. Biden, while blaming himself for making mistakes, went on to put the chief responsibility for his problems on a system that placed its main focus on some isolated breaches in his deportment rather than on the whole man - what he was and what he stood for.

I have my own explanation for Biden's career-damaging excesses. Again, it has to do with a small boy - in this instance, me. I was only eight years old when my father took me into a locker room through whose door the then famous University of Illinois running back, Red Grange, had recently passed. Grange was minutes away from finishing a game when he once again became his marvelous, elusive self - the ``Galloping Ghost'' so named by Mike Tobin, the university's sports publicist and father of James Tobin, the famous economist.

Mr. Grange was my hero. It was thus a great thrill to see him up close, though he was still on the other side of the locker room. He was slumping on the bench, perhaps catching his breath. Someone handed me a spike that had fallen from one of the player's shoes. About then, my dad and I were ushered out.

At school I proudly showed that spike to all my little friends. But I never seemed to get the story right. At first I simply said that Grange had given the spike to me after the game. Then, emboldened by the admiration I was evoking, I told of how Red had spotted me across the room and beckoned for me to come over to where he was sitting - and how, when I did, Grange said, ``Here, kid, here's something for you,'' as he pulled a loose spike from one of his shoes.

Well, we all know that it isn't at all unusual for imaginative youngsters to fantasize - and exaggerate; then, as they mature, they learn to separate fancy from fact and become careful conveyers of fact.

But it was only a few months ago that Biden, 45 years old and heading for the presidency if he could make it, told of the full academic scholarship he had received when admitted to Syracuse University, and of the high standing he had in his graduating law class. These were untruths. And it was the same Biden who was caught in some shocking plagiarisms in which he lifted the visions of other public figures and portrayed them as his own.

Biden would have loved to become a top student in his college and in his law class - instead of being toward the bottom. So he did it the easy way, saying it was so. Over time, he may well have come to believe that such claims, including that of winning a full academic scholarship, were true.

If he were a little fellow, one might excuse Biden, knowing that he would, with the years, learn to discipline himself as he got a better grasp of the difference between reality and fantasy.

But Biden is a big man now, wanting us to elect him to the highest position in the land. His problem seems to be one of immaturity.

Biden, like Gary Hart, fails another important test: He simply doesn't understand - or if he does understand, he doesn't say it - that he has done wrong.

One cannot leave the sad Biden story without saying there are other parts of Biden that are most commendable. He is a dutiful and loving father. He has often shown his compassion to his fellowman. And he had demonstrated a great capacity for growth - as he learns quickly and works hard.

That's why Biden has drawn so many people to him and why his presidential prospects looked so good. A lot of people loved Joe Biden and wanted him in the White House. And these are the folks who are, in effect, saying: ``Say it ain't so, Joe.''

Godfrey Sperling Jr. is the Monitor's senior Washington columnist.