The presidential campaign of 1972 was a landslide victory for Richard Nixon that garnered him 61% of the popular vote (and 97% of the electoral vote). Yet the coattails didn't reach all the way to the US Senate.
Many Democrats feared the Nixon re-election sweep could give the Senate over to GOP control but that didn't occur and the Democrats kept their majority with a net-win of two seats. One of those wins came from an upset in Delaware by a New Castle County Councilman named Joe Biden.
Re-elected that year from Mississippi was President Pro Tempore and Judiciary Committee Chairman Senator James O. "Big Jim" Eastland. This was Eastland's last re-election since first coming to the Senate in 1941. He served as chairman of the judiciary committee from 1956 until his retirement in 1978, a position that Biden would hold in 1987.
There was plenty to divide Eastland and Biden. Biden was a liberal, Eastland a decided conservative. They often voted differently: Vietnam, civil rights, healthcare, "change".
Eastland was the president pro tempore, or pro tem as they are called, which meant he was the longest-serving Democrat in the Senate in 1972. Senator George Aiken of Vermont was actually number one in seniority but as a Republican he was in the minority which meant the pro tem honor went to Eastland.
Biden was number 100 in seniority - dead last. And in those days seniority wasn't just something it was everything.
Senate Judiciary Committee Activity
Eastland ran his Judiciary Committee as he saw fit. His management of the committee was recalled by his immediate successor as chairman Edward Kennedy (D-MA):
"He had, of course, absolute control of the Committee...for the most part, made judgements who'd be on the Committee and not, and he made that clear to the Steering Committee, and so he always had the absolute control over every aspect of the Committee. And with absolute control, he's obviously going to have an influence that far exceeded a particular vote. He understood that point."
In 1976 the Senate undertook a restructuring effort and eliminated many committees and merged others. The judiciary committee added three members for the new 95th Congress that began in January of 1977 and Biden earned a spot.
In November of 1977, the senior senator from Arkansas and chairman of the powerful Appropriations Committee, John McClellan, died. McClellan also chaired the Judiciary Committee's now defunct subcommittee on Criminal Laws and Procedures. Biden wanted the vacant subcommittee chairmanship as did several others, including Kennedy.
Biden approached Chairman Eastland to ask about the appointment and Eastland asked him, "Did you count, boy? Count your votes?" Biden then polled his colleagues and determined it looked like a tie with that senior GOP committee member Strom Thurmond from South Carolina would break the tie. He reported his homework to Eastland.
"You don't worry about him. He'll do what I tell him...You want to be the chairman?" Eastland asked.
"Yes, sir, Mr. Chairman," Biden answered enthusiastically.
"O.K.," Eastland said.
"O.K. what, Mr. Chairman?"
"I said O.K."
"That was it. I was chairman," Biden recalled with a big smile.
There may have been more to Eastland's appointment of Biden than just giving a very junior member in his first term a subcommittee chairmanship. Biden continued:
"That's how he kept the liberals in line, sorta. The other thing he did is he always gave them staff. That's why everyone wanted to get on the Committee. I shouldn't tell you this. The Committee with largest budget and staff? The Judiciary Committee. More than Armed Services, Appropriations, Foreign Relations. All of them. Every time a liberal member of the Judiciary Committee would go off on some haunt and do something Eastland didn't want, he'd say, 'Don't y'all need some more staff on that Committee?' And everybody would go, 'Staff? That's money. I mean yeah, hell, sure. O.K. I'll be a good boy. I'll get more staff...I was fascinated by him."
The Democratic Caucus Encounter
One of Biden's first encounters with Eastland four years earlier could have painted a different picture. There is an unwritten rule in the Senate, at least at that time, that a freshman Senator didn't speak their first year. That meant in committee, on the floor or in caucus meetings. "Not speaking" isn't one of now-Vice-President Biden's strong points.
In November of 1972 Biden beat the Delaware Republican incumbent two-term and former governor Senator Caleb Boggs by roughly 3,000 votes. The United States Constitution states one of the qualifications for US Senator is they must be 30 years old by the time they are sworn in and NOT when they are elected. This was the case for Biden having turned thirty on November 20 before he was sworn in on January 3, 1973 making him one of the youngest senators in history.
Each side of the aisle in Congress typically meets on a weekly basis at lunch to discuss policy and which upcoming issues will get their focus. Senator Mike Mansfield of Montana was the majority leader and during these luncheons he would sit at the head table with the other Democratic leadership which included President Pro Tem Eastland.
Mansfield's practice was to allow each senator to say his piece and offer his ideas (there were no female senators this session). Biden recalled after several months of these caucus luncheons he felt compelled to speak.
Mansfield was winding down the luncheon and asked if any other senators had comments before they adjourned. Biden felt very strong about the public financing of elections, mustered up his strength and raised his hand.
Mansfield was a bit taken back but recognized Biden anyway. Having just come from the campaign trail, Biden launched into a full-blown speech about why the public financing of elections was the way to control the money in politics (political action committees would be created the following year).
Biden could feel the energy created from many of the great liberals in the room like Ted Kennedy, Phil Hart (MI), Birch Bayh (IN), Hubert Humphrey (MN), and Edmund Muskie (ME) who were nodding and giving him "amens". He felt he had finally arrived and, in spite of the no speaking rule for freshmen, he was now a member of the most exclusive club in the world: The United States Senate.
After Biden's speech, Mansfield then asked for closing comments. Eastland was chewing on his iconic cigar and simply leaned over to the microphone. Biden says Eastland rarely spoke at these meetings and the room got quiet as he addressed Biden:
"Senator Biden they tell me you're the youngest senator in the history of America. If you keep making speeches like that you're going to be the youngest one-term senator in the history of America."
The caucus room was roaring with laughter and Biden then decided it may just be best to observe the freshman rule and stay quiet the rest of the year.
Whether he kept that pledge to stay quiet I don't know, but I have a guess.