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Joe Biden On Bipartisanship, Gun Control And Regrets Over Inaction After A Tragedy


Joe Biden says he's running for president to, quote, "restore the soul of the nation." He's frustrated by President Trump's conduct at home and abroad. He's also frustrated by the state of politics. He insists bipartisan cooperation is still possible. The former vice president talked about why he's running in a new interview. While on the campaign trail in Iowa, he sat down with Iowa Public Radio's Clay Masters and NPR's Asma Khalid, co-host of the NPR Politics Podcast. Asma sent us this report.

ASMA KHALID: Labor Day in Iowa means picnics with labor unions.

JOE BIDEN: Today, for most Americans, is a day off, but labor remembers why we have this day.

KHALID: And it was at one of those picnics in Cedar Rapids where we first caught up with Joe Biden. As soon as he arrived, before he could even make his way to the hot dogs or the antique car show, he was bombarded by voters wanting to shake his hand. One man advised him not to let Trump call him Sleepy Joe. A woman leaned in for a selfie and said she would take a hug any day from the former vice president, and another with a bright pink cast on her arm asked for an autograph.

UNIDENTIFIED PERSON: Sign my cast, Joe. All right.

KHALID: Biden's visit to Iowa came on the heels of another mass shooting in Texas, and the former vice president told reporters the current situation is irrational.

BIDEN: The idea that we don't have elimination of assault-type weapons and magazines that can hold multiple bullets in them is absolutely mindless. It is no violation of the Second Amendment. It's just a bow to the special interests of the gun manufacturers and the NRA. It's got to stop.

KHALID: Biden has staked his candidacy on his ability to work across the aisle, but he sees no room for negotiation on guns.

BIDEN: I think there's no compromise. This is one we have to just push and push and push and push and push. The fact of the matter is, I think, it's going to result in seeing some of them defeated.

KHALID: At a second Labor Day picnic in Iowa City, after Biden had made his rounds taking photos and shaking hands, we sat down to interview the former vice president. At times, he has emphasized that he can work with Republicans and get things done, but at other times on the stump, he warns voters that the current GOP is not your father's Republican Party. We asked Biden about his conflicting feelings about the GOP.


BIDEN: You can work on things that do not have this sort of ideological edge to them. For example, on health care, look what happened last time. I was told that I went into 24 states or 68, 67 - whatever the number was - candidates, and we ran against them straight up on health care. We ran flat against them, and we won. We won back 41 seats in the House.

KHALID: You're talking about the 2018...

BIDEN: In the 2018 cycle. So look - there are places where we can cooperate, and there are places where, in fact, we're going to have to just go out and campaign in the off year against the Republicans who, in fact, disagree with our approach.

KHALID: Even though the gun issue is so intractable, Biden says he's impressed with the political activism he sees from the survivors of mass shootings. In Washington, he's met with kids from Parkland and parents from Sandy Hook.


BIDEN: They all came down, and I realized what courage it took for them to show up just after having dealt with burying their children...

KHALID: Biden says it reminded him of a time of grief in his own life.


BIDEN: ...And how I didn't have the courage, after my wife and daughter were killed and my two boys were badly injured when a tractor-trailer broadsided them, to talk about highway safety. I was on a committee that had to do with highway safety - the size of the trucks and so on and so forth - and I didn't have the courage.

KHALID: Biden was responding to a question we had asked about whether there was a time when he realized he had been wrong about something.


BIDEN: And I realized that I made a mistake. I wish I'd had their courage. I wish I had stepped up at a time when maybe I could have done something to increase the safety on the highway because I remember it hitting me how - just how much courage it takes because every time something terrible has happened to you, every time you talk about it, you relive it as if it happened yesterday. And these parents are - they're just incredible.

KHALID: As Biden talked about his own family's tragedies, we wondered about his faith. The former vice president is a practicing Catholic. He has said he relied on his faith when his wife and daughter were killed shortly after he was elected to the Senate and then, more recently, when his son Beau died of brain cancer in 2015.


KHALID: Has your faith ever been tested by your family's tragedies?

BIDEN: Yes. I have to admit to you that, right after it happened, when I got the phone call in Washington and the poor person on the other line had to tell me that my wife and daughter were dead, I remember walking out of - I was sitting in Ted Kennedy's office in the Capitol, interviewing people. He was a whip in the Senate. And I had to walk out, and I walked through the rotunda. And I remember looking up in the rotunda, saying, God, why? You know, I got really angry. I just had to shout it out. And for the longest time, I had difficulty - you know, I had difficulty believing. I wrongly - in my view; everybody's different - wrongly thought that I didn't know how - why me? Why would he do this to me? How can there be a God who let this happen?

KHALID: Years later, he said he must have been questioning this one day, wondering why a God would allow him to suffer so much.


BIDEN: My dad went up to - I think it was a Hallmark card store and bought this little frame. You know, they have glass frames with sayings inside them or cartoons. There's a cartoon of Hagar the Horrible. I'm not a big reader of the, quote, "funny papers," but Hagar was standing on a rock in the middle of the ocean with his Viking ship sinking and lightning from the sky. And it's being struck, and he looks up. In that frame, he looks - he's looking at God. He says, why me, God? And then next frame - same exact picture - a voice from heaven says, why not? My father gave me that. I still have it on my desk, and it is. What's so special about me?

KHALID: Biden says his wife Jill gave him a quote he keeps on the mirror to read when he's shaving. It says, faith sees best in the dark, and that's what he says he's found solace in. Faith has helped him heal. Plus, he says, he feels that the family he's lost is still with him.


BIDEN: I really do believe it, and I believe I've learned from the first major loss, before I lost our son Beau, is that you've got to find purpose. The way to get through tragedy is to find purpose. And so I get up in the morning - I shouldn't be saying this, probably. I get up in the morning, and I hope my son Beau is proud of me. He knew my instinct would be to withdraw. He insisted that that not be the case.

KHALID: Biden declined to run for president in 2015 but stayed engaged. He led a cancer initiative at the end of the Obama administration and then went on to campaign heavily for Hillary Clinton in 2016 and for Democrats across the country in the 2018 midterms. And now, compelled by President Trump's actions in office, Joe Biden is back at picnics in Iowa, trying to convince voters to support him for president.

Asma Khalid, NPR News, Cedar Rapids.

SHAPIRO: And you can hear the full interview with Joe Biden on the NPR Politics Podcast. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Asma Khalid is a White House correspondent for NPR. She also co-hosts The NPR Politics Podcast.