By Geoff Gehman ’80
U.S. Vice President Joe Biden gave a rousing speech Wednesday at Kirby Sports Center about the grand possibilities of future progress through American ingenuity.
Speaking before a capacity crowd and many members of the media, Biden linked four eras of revolutionary changes in national technology and opportunity. The transcontinental railroad, he said, greatly improved life for his great-grandfather, Edward Francis Blewitt, a member of Lafayette’s Class of 1879. The G.I. Bill opened doors for the grandfather of President Barack Obama. The space program created hundreds of thousands of jobs for engineers and scientists. Today’s college students will benefit from new jobs generated by advances in everything from cancer research to solar power.
Biden proved why he’s considered, as he mentioned, the White House’s most ambitious optimist. He predicted that by 2020 America will rise from its current position of 16th to first in percentage of college graduates in its population. He vowed that Alzheimer’s disease will be radically reduced by 2025 and that high-speed railways will be prominent 10 years later. “It’s never, never, never been a good bet,” he said, “to bet against America.”
His speech became a sort of commencement address when Biden told students their future was limitless. He offered himself as a case study. He overcame a stutter by looking into a mirror as he recited poems by Emerson and Yeats. Today, he’s a remarkably skilled orator, as fabled for his successful lobbying for the Violence Against Women Act as for his grilling of Supreme Court nominees.
Biden showcased his powers of persuasion. He referenced motivational slogans from entrepreneur Steve (“Think different”) Jobs and actor Walter (“No brag, just fact”) Brennan. He wielded rhetorical devices – “Imagine”; “How is it possible?” – skillfully. His voice surged with musical dynamics.
Biden’s visit was full of Lafayette history. He is the second active U.S. vice president to speak at the College; the first, Richard Nixon, addressed the 1956 Commencement. He is the second world leader to speak in Kirby Sports Center in seven months. The first, former Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev, also had his image showcased on the scoreboard of Fisher Field.
Fisher Field was the site of Biden’s last Lafayette event: a 1963 football game between the Leopards and the Blue Hens of his alma mater, the University of Delaware. Biden joked that Delaware might not have won that day if Lafayette had had the services of Jim Hall ’90, a former Leopard linebacker and a member of a brigade of Secret Service agents who patrolled Kirby Sports Center yesterday.
Caitlin Flood ’12 (Bellerose Terrace, N.Y.), a double major in government & law and philosophy, liked Biden’s support of “high-paying, decent jobs” for the middle class and “full access to food and energy and water” for people around the world. She especially liked his backing of early education and cheaper college tuition.
Jacob White ’15 (Wayne, Pa.), a double major in international affairs and Russian & East European studies, said the vice president’s speech “was an inspiring call to Lafayette students and students around the country to work hard, dream big, and aspire to make a difference.”
Biden’s visit to Lafayette was coordinated by Alan Hoffman ’88, his deputy chief of staff and a two-time chief of staff during Biden’s 36-year tenure as a U.S. senator from Delaware.
After the speech, Biden was presented with a reproduction lithograph of the Lafayette campus in 1875, the year his great-grandfather arrived on campus. Before the speech, he visited Kirby Hall of Civil Rights, endowed by Fred Morgan Kirby, who launched the chain of Woolworth variety stores in Biden’s hometown of Scranton.
The vice president was greeted in the Kirby Hall lobby by Lafayette President Daniel H. Weiss and Caroline Lang ’13, president of Student Government. Lang introduced Biden to the Kirby Sports Center crowd following her own introduction by Weiss. During his speech Biden predicted a bright future for Lang, envisioning a White House position for “Madame President.”
In the Kirby Hall library, Biden examined Lafayette records of his great-grandfather Edward Blewitt and his great uncles Arthur Joseph Blewitt, Class of 1904, and Robert Patrick Blewitt, Class of 1905. The vice president was particularly intrigued by his great-grandfather’s course load, a banquet of everything from chemistry to religion, surveying to speaking.
The archival show-and-tell inspired Biden to recall his own family treasure hunt. Last year he was inspecting precious items owned by his late mother when he discovered more than 100 poems written by Edward Blewitt, a civil engineer who became a Pennsylvania state senator. Biden promised to send his great-grandfather’s poem about Lafayette to Diane Windham Shaw, director of special collections and College’s archivist and the host of the vice president’s archival tour.