Sen. Joe Biden's name was bandied about as a possible presidential candidate for the 1984 election—the same year that 20-year-old Sarah Palin was crowned Miss Wasilla and named a runner-up in the Miss Alaska pageant.
In some respects, it could be argued that Palin has had more career accomplishments in the 24 years since—working her way up from the pageant circuit to vice presidential candidate. She has climbed the ladder, while Biden has dug in. It's clear they both have worked tirelessly.
Tonight, the two will face off in a vice presidential debate. Many have questioned how the seasoned senator will treat the newcomer—whether he can keep his expressions of knowledge from ringing with condescension. Everyone who has ever worked in a place or position for a long time faces a similar challenge when working with a newbie—how to establish your pre-eminent authority without seeming like a jerk.
For some insight, we might look to 1981, when Biden sat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and was charged with confirming President Reagan's pick for deputy secretary of state, William P. Clark. Clark (who was eventually confirmed), a California Supreme Court judge, answered Biden's "slew" of questions with the "same three words: 'I don't know,' " Toronto's Globe and Mail reported then. Clark could not identify the prime ministers of South Africa and Zimbabwe and claimed not to have any knowledge of the British Labor Party, according to the newspaper.
Biden reportedly apologized to Clark as he proceeded, saying: "I really hate to do this. I'm really sorry." He defended his role as a questioner, noting that the committee was obligated to look at Clark's competency, but he noted that he hoped the experience "is not taken as a reflection of [Clark's] mental capacity."
Paul Kengor, the author of a Clark biography, wrote about the incident recently in an editorial printed in an Arizona newspaper, the White Mountain Independent:
Clark then explained, as he had in his opening statement, that President Reagan did not bring him on board as a policy expert, particularly on individual issue areas.
"Regarding making policy," Clark said, "I have discussed this with both the president and the secretary [Alexander Haig, the secretary of state]. Perhaps I did not make that clear, or maybe you came in a little after my description of what we consider to be the role. My position will not be involved in making policy, but rather in coordinating and implementing in the position as deputy secretary of state."
Kengor, who says he believes Palin is in for similar treatment tonight, added:
And his humility was such that he never publicly shared Biden's off-camera, quasi-apology to him, which he told to me over 20 years later. Biden casually pulled Clark aside in the hallway, away from reporters, and said, "Hey, Judge, no hard feelings... And don't worry: I didn't know the answers to those questions either."