“I may be resigning from the Senate today, but I will always be a Senate man. Except for the title father, there is no title, including Vice President, that I am more proud to wear than that of United States Senator,” said Delaware Senator and Vice President Elect Joseph R. Biden, Jr. in his farewell address to the United States Senate
on the morning of Thursday, January 15th. First elected in 1972, Biden leaves the Senate after 36 years of service, a term that only 19 Senators in history have exceeded.
Since 1991, Senator Biden has served as an adjunct professor at Widener Law’s Delaware campus
, teaching a seminar on issues in constitutional law that has annually been one of the most popular seminars offered. After watching the Senator’s farewell speech, Widener Law Professor Wesley Oliver
, who worked on Senator Biden’s 2008 Presidential campaign, said, “Today, Sen. Joseph R. Biden, Jr., resigned from the United States Senate as one of the most important figures ever to sit in its chamber and gave a farewell speech that reflected why he has had such an extraordinary impact on, and in, that institution.”The Institutional Power of the Senate
During his speech, Senator Biden shared a story about the conference table in his office that he had previously told to a group of Widener Law students who visited him in Washington on February 13th, 2008
. He inherited the table when he assumed the Russell Senate Office Building space from the late Senator John C. Stennis, a Mississippi Democrat. The table had served as a meeting place for southern lawmakers attempting to plot the demise of the civil rights movement. When he talked with Stennis about taking over the office space, Stennis recalled that the first time the men had met 18 years earlier, Biden had told him he was running for office out of a desire to support civil rights.
In the speech, Biden recalled Stennis telling him, “It’s time that this table passes from a man who was against civil rights into the hands of a man who is for civil rights.” Biden noted that he found Stennis’s words “genuinely – without exaggeration – moving.” Continuing the story, Biden said, “We talked a few more minutes, and I got up, and when I got to the door, he turned to me in that wheelchair and he said, ‘One more thing, Joe.’ He said, ‘The civil rights movement did more, more to free the white man than the black man’. I looked at him and I said Mr. Chairman, how is that?” Finishing the story, Biden noted that Stennis replied, “It freed my soul.”
“Ladies and gentlemen of the Senate, I can tell you that by his own account, John Stennis was personally enlarged by his service in the Senate. That’s the power of this institution,” concluded Biden.Living His Dream
The Vice President Elect also told a story about his first visit to the Senate chamber as a 21-year old college student. He ended the story with a comedic flourish, saying, “Next thing I know, I feel this hand on my shoulder and a guy – a capitol policeman – picks me up and spins me around. I said ‘What are you doing?’ And, after a few moments, he realized I was just a dumbstruck kid, and he didn’t arrest me or anything, but that was the first time I walked on the senate floor.” When he returned nine years later as a Senator, he encountered that same officer, who said, “I welcome you back to the Senate.”
Senator Biden spoke of his deep respect for his fellow Senators, and mentioned friendships he never imagined developing with ideologically opposed Senators such as Strom Thurmond and John C. Stennis. Professor Oliver found Biden’s account of his friendship with Thurmond particularly moving, saying, “On his death bed, Thurmond asked that Biden give his eulogy, something Biden described as one of the great honors of his life. Biden used his friendship with Strom Thurmond to demonstrate how people of widely different views can come together and make compromises in the interests of the country they all love. He also used his story about Thurmond to demonstrate how a lifetime of respectful interactions can change people – by the end of his career, Sen. Thurmond had voted for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act and came to employ more African Americans in his office than any other member of the Senate.”
He discussed all of the changes that occurred over his long career, mentioning arguments over whether or not taxpayer money should be “wasted” on putting computers in Senate offices. “I’m almost embarrassed to acknowledge that,” he cracked, adding, “That makes me a pretty old dude as the kids would say.”Saying Goodbye and Looking to the Future
Biden thanked a number of people as he neared the end of his speech, saying, “To the people of Delaware, who have given me the honor of serving them, there is no way that I can ever, ever express to them, how much this meant to me.” He also thanked all of his the Senators and staffers past and present, and concluded by saying, “To my children, Hunter and Ashley and Beau, if I was nothing else, I’d be content to be the father of such wonderful people. To my grandchildren, who constantly remind me why the decisions we make in this august body are so important. And to my Jill, who once saved my life, you are my life today. I thank all of you.”
He closed the speech by linking the past to the future, stating, “I came here to fight for civil rights,” before adding, “I leave here today to begin my service to our nation’s first African American President. The arch of the Universe is long, but it does indeed bend toward justice, and the United States Senate has been an incredible instrument in assuring that justice. So, although you’ve not seen the last of me, I say for the last time – and with confidence in all of you, optimism in our future, and a heart with more gratitude than I can express – I yield the floor.”
Summing up his thoughts on Biden’s speech, Professor Oliver said, “Biden’s time in the United States Senate will certainly be remembered for his expertise in foreign relations and constitutional law, for his tireless fight for ordinary working people, and for his simultaneously articulate and off-the-cuff speaking style which has been both a blessing and a curse. But he will also be remembered in the Senate as a man who was extremely well respected by his colleagues and who had enormous respect for them. Today, in a very eloquent and personal fashion, he demonstrated why.”
You can watch Senator Biden's speech, including introductory remarks from Harry Reid (D-NV) and Mitch McConnell (R-KY), at C-SPAN's website