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Sen. Joe Biden's Farewell Speech to the Senate

Sen. Joe Biden's Farewell Speech to the Senate

Senator Joe Biden - January 15, 2009

BIDEN: Mr. President, let me begin by thanking the leaders for their kind comments. It is true that I have been here a long time, I say to my friend from Kentucky. As a matter of fact, as I -- I prepared some remarks, I say to my friend from Hawaii, I remember the first time I stood on the floor as a United States senator. It was a desk directly to your left, Senator, the top row here, second in. It was temporarily my desk.

And I remember standing up, and having been told that the desk on my right was the desk of Henry Clay's, on my left Daniel Webster, because the senior senator from the respective states got those desks.

And I say to my friend from California, it was the only time I can remember being speechless...

(LAUGHTER)

... when I stood there as a 30-year-old kid thinking, "Oh, my God."

Well, I never thought I'd be standing here today. I never believed serving this chamber was my destiny, but it always was a big part of my dreams.

You know, I remember vividly the first time I walked in this chamber, I walked through those doors. I walked through those doors as a 21-year-old tourist. I had been down visiting some of my friends at Georgetown University. I went to the University of Delaware, and I was -- I had a blind date with a young lady from a school they used to call Visi (ph), Visitation, which is now part of Georgetown. My good friend, a guy named Dave Walsh (ph) was there.

And after the evening staying at his apartment, I got up and -- I shouldn't say this probably, but I -- I don't drink. Not for moral reasons, I just never had a drink. And there's nothing worse being the sober guy in a bunch of -- with a bunch of college guys who have a hangover the next morning.

(LAUGHTER)

So I got up and decided I'd get in the car. It's a true story, Tommy (ph) -- or Senator Carper. And I drove up to the Capitol.

BIDEN: I've always been fascinated with it. In those days, you could literally drive right up to the front steps. This is -- I was 21 years old. This is 1963.

And I say to my friend from Iowa, I drove up to the steps, and there was a rare Saturday session that just ended. So I walked up the steps, found myself in front of what we call the elevators. And I walked to the right, went in the reception room, there was no one there.

And the glass doors, those French doors that lead in behind the chamber opened. I just -- there were no signs then. I just walked in.

(LAUGHTER)

Literally, I walked in. And I walked in down here, and I came through those doors. And I walked into the chamber, and the lights were still on. And I was awe-struck. Literally awe-struck.

And what in God's name made me do it, but I walked up, I say to my friend here from Arkansas, and I sat in the presiding officer's chair.

(LAUGHTER)

And I was mesmerized.

(LAUGHTER)

And the next thing I know, I feel this hand on my shoulder, and a guy picked me -- a Capitol policeman picks me up and spins me around, and he said, "What are you doing?"

And after a few moments, he realized I was just a dumb-struck kid and didn't arrest me or anything.

But that was -- that was my first time I walked on the Senate floor.

(LAUGHTER)

And it's literally a true story. And, by the way, and just nine years later, 10 years later, I walked through those same doors as a United States senator. And a Capitol Hill policeman stopped me walking in. He said, "You remember me?" I said, "No, sir."

He said, "I welcome you back to the Senate." He retired. He was a Capitol policeman retiring.

I know you used to be a Capitol policeman, Senator Reid.

He was retiring two weeks later. And he said, "Welcome to the floor legally."

Well, it's sort of a fitting way to -- I started my career here, and I may not be a young man anymore, but I'm still awe-struck. I am still awe-struck by this chamber.

And I think it brings my career full cycle to know that while I was once detained for sitting in the presiding officer's chair, I will now occasionally be detained in the presiding officer's chair...

(LAUGHTER)

... as vice president of the United States of America.

The United States Senate has been my life, and that is not a hyperbole. It literally has been my life. I've been a United States senator considerably longer than I was alive before I was a United States senator.

BIDEN: And 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.

When I arrived here, giants -- giants loomed over the landscape of the United States Senate. People with names like Kenny Inouye, Hubert Humphrey, Ed Muskie, William Fulbright, Jacob Javitz, Mike Mansfield, Stuart Symington, Scoop Jackson, Sam Irving, John McClellan, Senator Warren Magnuson, Claiborne Pell, another persons who's still here, Bob Byrd and the lion of the Senate, Ted Kennedy.

In those days, chairmen dominated. Literally, as (inaudible) remember -- if a chairman said he wanted a vote, almost without exception, every other chairman who voted with that chairman on the vote of the floor of the United States Senate in 1973. But the old ways of doing businesses and the old ways of thinking were at that very moment in the Senate system beginning to change.

As my colleagues know, there's a long-standing tradition in the United States Senate, I think, honored in the breach now more than the rule, but when I got here in '73, it was mandatory that a new senator would pay respects to the quote, "old bulls of Senate." I never dreamed I'd be an old bull of the Senate.

BIDEN: But I remember the first appointment I made. It was to go see Senator John Stennis, chairman then of the Armed Services Committee. I, now, have Senator Stennis' office.

And I walked in, and Senator Stennis had a great, large mahoganey conference table that was a gift from the president of the Philippines, the vice president of Barclays (ph), for the liberation of the Philippines. And he used it as his desk. There was no -- he had a blotter at one end of it and it seated, I don't know how many people it seats, 15 people. And it was his desk. And with a group of leather chairs around it. And I walked in. And those of you who remember John Stennis, he "talked at you like this" when he talked; put his hand up like this.

And he looked at me, he said, "Young man, sit down. Sit down." And patted the leather chair next to me. So, I dutifully sat down. And he said, "Congratulations." He said, "May I ask you a question."

I said, "Yes, sir, Mr. Chairman."

He said, "What made you run for the United States Senate?"

And being tactful, as I always am, I answered honestly without thinking. I said, "Civil rights, sir."

As soon as I did, I could feel the beads of perspiration pop out of my head. And I thought, "Oh, my god."

He looked at me and he said -- absolutely true story -- he said, "Good, good, good." And that was the end of the conversation.

(LAUGHTER)

Well, that was 1973. In 1988, time had transpired. He'd become my good friend. We shared a hospital room -- a hospital suite at Walter Reed for a number of months, and he had lost his leg to cancer. And it was during that interregnum period when President Bush was coming into office. And as the tradition is, as all of my colleagues know, you get to choose your offices based on seniority as they come up -- an office comes up.

And I've always thought -- we all think our offices are the finest -- I always thought that his office, which had been the office of a man that he never referred to by his first name, Senator Oait, that I can remember; the man after whom the Russell Building is named: Chairman Russell. It had been his office. And, so, I walked down to look at his office. And it was that period in December when no one's around. The elections are over. And I walked in and I think his secretary of 30-some years; name was Mabel. I -- my memory is not certain on that -- but I think her name was Mabel.

BIDEN: And I walked in the ante-office to hers, the ante-room to her office -- to his office. And all these boxes were piled up -- she was packing up forty some years of service. And I said -- she said -- Senator, welcome, welcome. Y'all going to take my office -- you're going to come and take office -- I said, I don't know -- I think her name was Mabel -- I said, I don't know Mabel I'm going to check. And she said -- I said -- is the chairman in? And she said, no you go right in your office.

So I walked in the office, without her knowing that Senator Stennis had come in through the other door up the hallway and was sitting there in his wheelchair, at this time, the same exact spot with one leg, staring out the window of that office -- it looked out onto the Supreme Court. And I said, "Oh Mr. Chairman, I apologize -- I apologize for interrupting." He said, "No, Joe," he said, "Come in, sit down, sit down."

I sat down in that chair and with a (inaudible) at me, Senator Boxer, he looked at me and said, "Joe, do you remember the first time you came to see me?" And I hadn't. He said, I asked you. And I told my friend from Mississippi this story before as he walks through the floor about Senator Stennis. I asked -- he asked me, "Do you remember?" I said, "No, I don't." And he said, "I asked you why you ran for the Senate?" And I said, "Oh I remember." As a smart young fellow, wouldn't I? And he looked at me and said -- he said "Y'all going to take my office, aren't you Joe?" And he caressed that table (inaudible) family members -- the table he loved so much -- he caressed it like it was an animate object. He said, "You're going to take my office." and I said, "Yes sir, I am."

He said, "Well I wanted to tell you then, in 1970, what I'm going to tell you now. He said, "This table here was the flagship of the Confederacy."

BIDEN: If you read "Masters of the Senate" about Johnson's term, you'll see in the middle of the book a picture of the table in my office, with the famous old southern segregationist senators sitting around that table, chaired by Senator Russell.

And he said, "This was the flagship of the Confederacy. Every Tuesday we gathered here under Senator Russell's direction to plan the demise of the civil rights movement, from 1954 to 1968." He said, "It's time this table passes from the man who was against civil rights into the hands of a man who was for civil rights."

And I found it genuinely, without exaggeration, moving.

We talked a few more minutes, and I got up and I got to the door, and he turned to me in that wheelchair, Thad, 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, I said, "Mr. Chairman, how's that?"

And probably Thad will only remember as well as I do, he went like this. He said, "It freed my soul. It freed my soul."

Well, 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.

Men and women who come to Washington, who come in contact with folks in different parts of the country that we represent, slightly different cultural backgrounds, different religions, differ attitudes about what makes this country great, all races, all religions.

And it opens a door for change. I think it opens a door for personal growth, and in that comes the political progress this nation has made.

BIDEN: I learned that lesson as a very young senator. I got here in '73. And one of the people, along with Danny and others on this floor who kept me here, were -- was Mike Mansfield, the majority leader.

And he used to once a week have me report to his office, which is where the leader's office is on the other side. And he really was doing it, I know, in retrospect now, to take my pulse, see how I was doing.

And I walked in one day through those doors on the Republican side, and a man who had became my friend, Jesse Helms, and his wife, Dot, who's still my close friend and I keep in contact with. And I walked through those doors and Jesse Helms, who came in '72 with me, was standing in the back excoriating Bob Dole for the Americans with Disability Act.

And I walked through the floor on my way to my meeting with Senator Mansfield. And I walked in and sat down on the other side of his desk. And, some of you remember, he smoked a pipe a lot of times when he was in his office.

And he had the pipe in his mouth, and he looked at me. He said, "Joe, it looks like something's bothering you."

I said, "Mr. Leader," I said, "I can't believe what I just heard on the floor of the Senate. I can't believe anyone could be so heartless and care so little about people with disabilities. I tell you, it makes me angry, Mr. Leader."

He said, "Joe, what would you say if I told you that four years ago, maybe five, Dot Helms and Jesse Helms were reading -- I think it's the Charlotte Observer, the local newspaper -- and they saw an ad in the paper or a piece in the paper about a young man in braces who was handicapped at an orphanage, who was in his early teens.

"And all the caption said was the young man wanted nothing more for Christmas than to be part of a family."

He said, "What would you say if I told you Dot Helms and Jesse Helms adopted that young man as their own child?"

BIDEN: I said, "I'd feel like a fool, an absolute fool." He said, "Well, they did." He said, "Joe, every man and woman sent here is sent here because their state recognizes something decent about them. It's easy to find the parts you don't like. I think you job, Joe, is to find out that part that caused him to be sent here."

He said, "Joe, never question another man's motive. Question his judgment but never his motive."

I think I can say without fear of contradiction I've never questioned any one of your motive. I learned the lesson very, very early at the hands of "Iron Mike" Mansfield, who had more -- more character in his little finger than the vast majority of people we know have in their own -- their whole bodies.

That advice has guided me, and, hopefully, well. And I hope it guides this Congress.

Because those who are willing to look for the good in the other guy, the other woman, I think become better people and become better and more able legislators.

This approach allowed me to develop friendships I would never have expected would have occurred. I knew I would be friends with Danny Inouye, who came to campaign for me. I knew I could be friends with Ted Kennedy, and I knew I could be friends with Fulbright and Humphrey and Javitz, men with whom I shared a common view and a common philosophy.

But I never thought -- I never thought I'd develop deep personal relationships with men whose position played an extremely large part in my desire to come to the Senate in the first place to change what they believed in -- Eastland (ph), Stennis, Thurmond. All these men became my friends.

BIDEN: As Senator Hatch will remember, I used to go over after every executive session at the United States Senate Judiciary Committee and go into Jim Neeson's office, which was catty corner, and sit down in his lobby to ask him all the dumb questions a young kid would want to ask. Who's the most powerful man you ever met, Senator? What was the most significant thing that ever occurred since you've been here, et cetera.

By the way, on that score, I asked him that, he looked at me, he said, "Air conditioning."

(LAUGHTER)

I said, "I beg your pardon."

He said, "The most significant thing that happened since I got here since I got here is air conditioning."

(LAUGHTER)

BIDEN: I thought, "Wow, that's kind of strange."

He said, "Well," he said, "You know, Joe," he said, "before we had air conditioning," he said, "all those recess lighting (ph), all of they used to be great pieces of glass, like in showers." He said, "Come around May, that sun" -- he used to use a little bit of profanity which I will not use for appropriate reasons -- he said, "that darn sun would beat down on that dome hit that glass, act like a magnifying glass, heat up the chamber, and we'd all go home in May or June for the year. He said, "Then we put in air conditioning and stayed year round and ruined America."

(LAUGHTER)

Well, Senator Stennis was my genuine friend and supporter. Among most unlikely -- friendships, was Strom Thurmond.

BIDEN: Some of you knew my relationship with Strom. Did I ever think when I got here that I would become friends with Strom Thurmond? He stood for everything -- everything -- I got started because of civil rights.

Yet on his hundredth birthday, shortly thereafter, on his deathbed, I got a phone call from his wife Nancy. She said, "I'm standing here at the nurse's station, Joe, with the doctor. Just left Strom. He asked me to call you. He wants a favor."

I said, "Of course, Nancy, whatever he wants."

He said, "He'd like you to do his eulogy."

Well, I never thought, never thought in my wildest dreams that this place, these walls, the honor that resides (inaudible) would put me in a position where a man whose career was one of the most interesting in modern American history asked me to be his eulogist.

I never worked so hard on a eulogy in my whole life. I think I was completely truthful, truthful to the best of my knowledge. As I pointed out, he's a man who reflected the ages. He lived in three different ages, three different parts of American history.

But I remind people, which some of them won't even remember, by the time he resigned, he had the highest percentage of African Americans working in his office of United States senator. He voted for the reauthorization of the Voting Rights Act.

He had, in my view, I believe, changed.

This is an incredible place, I say to my colleagues, an incredible place, and it's left me with the conviction that personal relationship are the one thing that unlock the true potential of this place.

Every good thing I have seen happen here, every bold step taken in the 36-plus years I have been here, came not from the application of pressure by interest groups, but through the maturation of personal relationships.

Pressure groups can and are strong and important advocates. But they're not often -- they're not often vehicles for compromise. A personal relationship is what allows you to go after someone hammer and tong on one issue and still find common ground on the next.

BIDEN: It is the grease that lubricates this incredible system we have. It's what allows you to see the world from another person's perspective -- and allows them to take the time to see it from yours.

I'm sure this is not -- this has not been my experience alone -- in this sense, I'm probably preaching to the choir -- to the very men, women who are sitting here on the floor -- you've experienced similar things.

One of the most moving things I ever saw in my life, was on the floor of the United States Senate. The year was 1977, we were about to adjourn for the year. There was a vote cast, and as we all do, we assembled in the well to vote. And one of my personal heroes, Hubert Humphrey, was literally riven with cancer. He died very shortly thereafter. He showed up like Dewey Barton (ph) of Oklahoma -- he showed up every single day, knowing he literally had days to live.

He walked down this aisle, because I was standing back there, I've been in this back row for years with my good friend Fitz Hollings for 34 years, and he walked down the aisle and as he did, Barry Goldwater came in through the doors and was coming down the aisle to vote.

Barry Goldwater and Hubert Humphrey virtually shared nothing in common philosophically. They had a pretty tough campaign in 1964. It got pretty rough. Barry Goldwater saw Hubert and walked up and gave him a big bear hug and kissed him. And Hubert Humphrey kissed him back.

And they stood there, in tight embrace, for minutes, both crying. It brought the entire Senate to tears. But to me -- to me -- it was the mark -- the story of the history of this place. Hubert loved it here. He wants that night, quote, "The Senate is a place filled with goodwill and good intentions. And if the road to hell is paved with them, then this is a pretty good detour."

Friendship and death are great equalizers. Death will seek all of us at some point, but we must chose to seek friendship. Our ability to work together with people with whom we have a real and deep and abiding disagreements, especially in these consequential times, I believe is going to determine whether or not we succeed in restoring America. I think it is literally that fundamentally basic.

Things have changed a great deal since I first arrived here. There were no women in the Senate. Margaret Chase Smith has just retired and it was going to be -- it was going to be six years until the next woman elected her own (inaudible) Nancy Kassingbomb (ph).

Today, there is 16 women in the Senate. We need many more, but that's progress. Our proceedings, in those days, were not televised. We didn't have fax machines, let alone e-mail. I remember the fights, Danny, we used to have in conference about whether or not we'd actually spend money for computers -- remember those fights?

BIDEN: Some of the older guys thought, "Computers? Why are we going to waste the taxpayers' money and put computers in our offices?" I'm almost embarrassed to acknowledge that.

(LAUGHTER)

That makes me a pretty old dude, as the kids would say.

I often hear senators lament, today, that the 24-hour news cycle, the need to go back home every weekend -- or in my case, every night -- makes it harder than it used to be to get to know one another -- to share a meal.

I first got here after I had -- there was an accident in my family, I didn't want to stay. And Senator Humphrey and Kennedy and Mansfield and Hollings, among others, said, "Just stay six months."

It used to be, which was not unusual in those days -- there used to be groups of senators, who with their spouses, would take turns once a month having dinner for the rest of the senators.

And I -- Senator Eagleton of Missouri, who recently passed away, and a good friend; Senator Gaylord Nelson and his wife, who is incredible who recently, as well, passed away. Senator Hollings and my friend -- and he is my friend -- Senator Ted Stevens from Alaska -- did one of those groups, along with a guy named Saxby from Ohio, who became attorney general. And I never stayed -- ever stayed -- in Washington, particularly in those days, but they insisted I come and I go to those dinners.

BIDEN: I was the only -- I was a kid, I was single, and they included me. The truth of the matter is, they went a long way toward saving my life -- changing my life.

You know, for the first time in 36 years, I'm going to have a home in Washington: public housing.

(LAUGHTER)

And I hope -- I hope that Jill and I can use it to help bring us together a little bit. I hope it can be used to foster and deepen the relationships. We all are so busy in our own careers, it's awful hard to do it anymore.

I've seen senators who come to this institution to attack it, because that's how they got here: They attacked it. They called it useless and venal.

BIDEN: And attitudes like that, as we've observed in the past -- attitudes like that can sometimes become self-fulfilling prophesies.

But if you come here with the dedication and hard work and open mind, some good faith, you want to make progress, that too can become a self-fulfilling prophesy.

In 1837, Ralph Waldo Emerson, in his lecture to -- he gave the Phi Beta Kappa address at Harvard -- and he said, "Meek young men grow up in libraries believing it's their duty to accept the views which Cicero, which Locke and which Bacon have given, forgetful that Cicero, Locke and Bacon were only young men in libraries when they wrote these works."

I'm told today by the Senate historian that there have been over 1,900 United States senators who have served, and that I've served with more than 320 of them. And I've learned something from every one of them. As a matter of fact, he also told me a piece of discouraging information as well: Only 19 senators in the history of the United States of America have ever served as long as I have, one of whom's in this chamber.

As I said, I've learned a lot from them. And I can tell you from experience, most of them are only seen as giants in the hindsight of history. At the time, they were legislators trying to do their best. I look in my desk, and I see the names carved in the drawer.

BIDEN: Maybe the public doesn't know how much like kids we are. We get here, we come over here after the Senate's closed, and we sit there, somewhat embarrassed, and we actually carve our names in the drawers of the desk, in the bottom.

It's a tradition. I don't know of anyone -- maybe there's someone who didn't do it, but I don't know of any, the most sophisticated among us.

I look in the desk drawer that I have and I see names of famous Delawareans like the -- there have been the longest-serving family in history of the state Delaware, the Bayards, six have been United States senators. But I also see names in my drawer, Scoop Jackson, John F. Kennedy and others.

Look in your desk, and you'll see names you recognize as well. You all know them.

Forty years from now, when someone opens your desk and looks at your name, will they think of you the way I think of these men? To me, that's the test which you're going to have to meet.

With (ph) the gravity of our challenges we face today come, like every moment, similar moment in our history, the most significant opportunity to change, the most significant opportunity for progress.

I firmly believe that this, too, can be an era of legends, of giants.

BIDEN: But this much I know: Our nation desperately needs it to be.

During my first term in the Senate, when I spoke out in favor of campaign finance reform at a Democratic caucus -- Senator Inouye may remember this. He was then the secretary of the Senate. The Senate pro tem, Jimmy Eastland, listened intently -- what's now called the Mansfield Room -- and I got finished with this impassioned speech about the need for public financing.

And Eastland stood up -- and he hardly ever spoke at the caucuses. Senator Inouye will remember. And he always wore a Glen Plaid suit and always had a cigar in his mouth about as big as a rubber hose.

And he leaned up on that -- he never stood up completely straight. And -- I was at the table in the front. He sought recognition. He leaned up, put himself half way up, and he took the cigar (inaudible) and said, "Joe, they tell me you are the youngest man in the history of America to ever get elected to this august body" -- I wasn't; there was one younger than me popularly elected, but I didn't dare correct him.

He said, "Let me tell you something, Joe. Y'all make many more speeches like you did here today, you're going to be the youngest one- term senator in the history of the United States of America."

(LAUGHTER)

I walked out of that conference. I said, "Leader Reid (ph)" -- and walked in here. We didn't used to have those booths by the phone. And Warren Magnuson -- also smoked a cigar -- pulled his cigar and said, "Biden, come here!"

Can you imagine calling a senator that, you know, saying, "Come here"?

He said, "Stop this stuff.

(LAUGHTER)

"I didn't work this darn hard" -- little language difference.

(LAUGHTER)

"I didn't work this darn hard for the past 30 years to have some sniveling little competitor get the same amount of money as me. Stop it. Stop it."

(LAUGHTER)

I just walked away as politely and quickly as I could.

I never dreamed -- I never dreamed that nearly four decades later, I'd be elected to the seventh term of the United States Senate -- never, ever dreamed (inaudible).

Thirty-six years ago, the people of Delaware gave me, as they've given you in your states, a rare and sacred opportunity to serve them. And like I said after the accident, I was prepared to walk away in 1973 and that opportunity. And men like Ted Kennedy and Mike Mansfield and Hubert Humphrey and Fritz Hollings and Daniel Inouye, they convinced me to stay -- "To stay six months, Joe," remember Danny (ph)? "Just stay six months."

And one of the true giants of the Senate, who thank God is still with us, Robert C. Byrd, without any fanfare in late December, in a cold driving rain, drove to Wilmington, Delaware, stood outside at a memorial service at a Catholic church for my deceased wife and daughter -- got soaking wet in that cold rain. Never once came to see me. Just to show his respect. Got back in the automobile and drove back to Washington, D.C.

This is a remarkable place, gentlemen and ladies. And as I healed, this place became my second family -- more than I suspect it is for most.

BIDEN: I needed it. And for that I will be forever grateful -- forever grateful.

So to the people of Delaware, who have given me the honor of serving them, there's no way I can ever, ever express to them how much it's meant to me.

To my staff past and present and all those here on the floor past and present dedicated to making this institution run, including the young pages who come wide-eyed and, hopefully, go home wanting to come back someday in our spots, I thank you for everything you've done for me. And I suspect you've done for me more than you've done for most.

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, you once saved my life. You are my life today.

I thank all of you. I thank all of my colleagues for making my Senate service possible and this next chapter in my career and life so hopeful.

I came here to fight for civil rights. In my office now sits that grand conference table that once was used to fight against civil rights, and 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.

BIDEN: And the United States Senate has been an incredible instrument in ensuring that justice.

So although you've not seen the last of me...

(LAUGHTER)

... 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.

(APPLAUSE)

Joe Biden is the Vice President of the United States of America.

Senator Joe Biden

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