The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden’s Senate records could answer questions about his past actions — but they’re being kept secret

Sen. Joe Biden (D-Del.), then chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, holds up letters from law professors opposing the confirmation of Judge Robert Bork to the Supreme Court on Capitol Hill on Sept. 30, 1987. (John Duricka/AP)

Joe Biden’s effort to make his lengthy experience the central issue of his campaign has been confounded by questions about his actions during almost four decades as a U.S. senator, on issues including criminal justice, busing and the hearings into the nomination of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas.

Those questions might be answered in the massive trove of Senate records he donated eight years ago to the University of Delaware under an agreement that they could be made public by early this year.

But the records are being kept secret, following new terms the university posted on its website just before Biden made his presidential campaign official in April.

Biden has sought to blunt criticism of his past actions by putting the most positive spin on them, but the limited availability of documents from his 36-year Senate career complicates a full evaluation of his record.

The collection of documents that Biden donated to his alma mater fills 1,875 boxes and also includes 415 gigabytes of electronic records. It includes committee reports, drafts of legislation and correspondence.

At the time of the donation, the university’s then-president, Patrick Harker, thanked Biden for providing “an abundance of materials that will illuminate decades of U.S. policy and diplomacy and the vice president’s critical role in its development.”

Starting in 2011 and for years after, the university had described the terms of the agreement as keeping the papers sealed “for two years after Biden retires from public office.” But this year, on the day before Biden announced his presidential campaign, the university changed the way that it described those terms.

Instead of citing his departure from “public office,” the university said the documents would not be made public until two years after Biden “retires from public life” or after Dec. 31, 2019, whichever is later. It did not define what is considered “public life.”

“The entire collection is unavailable,” said Andrea Boyle Tippett, a spokeswoman for the University of Delaware. “Its contents will become available, as the website indicates, when Mr. Biden retires from public life.”

“As he is currently running for office, he is in public life,” she said. “Since retirement for anyone, not just public figures, takes different forms, I can’t speculate beyond that.”

The university denied public records requests for copies of the initial agreement that Biden signed, as well as any changes to it or correspondence about it.

Asked about the change in timing and language regarding the release of the Biden papers, Tippett replied that “the gift agreement signed when the papers were donated is not a public document.”

“There were no subsequent documents or amendments,” she said. “Per university policy, we do not share donor information with outside parties.”

She added that “it is not uncommon for archival collections to be closed until the entire collection is organized and catalogued. The collection is vast, and processing is not complete.”

The Biden campaign said no change has been made to the agreement since September 2016, although it could not say what change was made then. The campaign said it had nothing to do with the change announced by the university in April.

'A rich trove'

In terms of a presidential candidate with a long paper trail, there are few parallels to Biden, who mounted unsuccessful runs in 1988 and 2008. But he is not the first politician to try to keep his records under wraps.

When Mitt Romney (R) left the Massachusetts governor’s office, some of his top aides purchased and removed their state-issued computer hard drives, and emails were wiped from a server. The U.S. Senate papers of Al Gore (D) were not made available during his 2000 presidential campaign, and they remain private more than 18 years after he left federal office. In 2014, the Clinton Library in Little Rock released a large cache of records related to Hillary Clinton after questions were raised about why some 33,000 pages of documents dating to her days as first lady hadn’t been released sooner.

“They aren’t keen on opening a lot of information when someone is running for office,” said Douglas Brinkley, a presidential historian who has written several books on American history. “I wish they were wide open for the public, but alas when politicians start running for the president, they try to make sure there’s not that kind of transparency or documentation.”

The Biden archive — whose closure was also reported in April by HuffPost — could shed light on some of the most consequential moments of his career. Among the areas of interest would be the 1994 crime bill, his work in 1982 and 2006 on reauthorizations of the Voting Rights Act, as well as his stance against busing as a means of integrating the schools and his actions in limiting witnesses in the Thomas hearings.

The documents also could showcase his foreign policy views, including the internal deliberations that led to his support for the Iraq War as well as letters and meetings he had with world leaders over decades. He has argued that he was a pioneer in efforts to blunt climate change — speaking out and filing legislation in 1986 — and his papers could provide more detail.

Biden has at times played down or misrepresented his record — saying last weekend, for example, that he did not support more funding for state prisons, even though in 1994 he argued for $6 billion in such funding.

On busing, his current campaign aides have argued that Biden never opposed the right of local communities to implement voluntary busing plans, a distinction that Biden often did not make in interviews and news articles in which he called busing “an asinine concept, the utility of which has never been proven to me.”

Biden also has argued recently that he fought against everything that a group of segregationist senators stood for — even though letters found in the archives of Sen. James O. Eastland, a longtime Democratic senator from Mississippi, illustrate how Biden solicited his help on antibusing legislation. Biden’s own papers could include additional correspondence with Eastland, as well as other segregationist senators whom he served with at the start of his career.

During his Senate years, the future vice president served in multiple key roles, including as chairman of the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees.

“The Biden papers will be a great boon for scholars of American political history in the 20th and 21st century,” Brinkley said. “There will be notes on Anita Hill, segregation, busing and on and on. . . . Just seeing what the incoming was into his office, and seeing copies of letters Biden wrote in response — it’ll be a rich trove.”

'Something for everyone'

When Biden traveled to the University of Delaware nearly eight years ago to donate his extensive collection, university officials touted how much could be learned from all that he had accumulated over his lengthy tenure as a senator.

Biden’s trip to the university was a homecoming of sorts, with most of his family and the state’s top elected officials on hand to witness him signing the document donating the papers.

“In giving my collection of papers and other materials from my service in the United States Senate to the university today, I hope two things: One, they will not regale in the fact I do not know how to spell. I never thought it a worthy undertaking,” Biden joked, before turning serious.

“I hope they will take from my papers a deeper understanding of how true and honest compromise can advance the great national goals, and how it is through resolving differences that we shape our society we live in and we shape it for the better,” he said.

“Politics is not a dirty word. At the end of the day, politics is the only way a community can govern itself and realize its goals without a sword,” Biden said.

The university has installed new mechanical shelving systems to house what officials have described as the largest donation the library’s special-collections department has ever received. In 2012, the university released photos of the boxes arriving on 33 pallets after being transferred from the National Archives and Records Administration. Library staffers that day lined the hallways and applauded as the boxes arrived.

The library in 2012 received a $30,000 grant from the National Endowment for the Humanities to support the cost of one dedicated computer server and other archival materials for processing the collection.

The university in 2013 announced that it had hired two assistant librarians to begin what was described as a two-year project to process Biden’s senatorial papers. In addition, the university announced in 2017 that it had hired a senior assistant library and political-papers archivist to process and promote the Biden senatorial papers.

The collection also has a curator on staff, L. Rebecca Johnson Melvin, who did not return a message seeking comment.

“There are so many issues you can look at, such as leadership in Congress,” Johnson Melvin said in a 2012 news release. “What were the various social and political issues over time — foreign relations, economic issues, any number of topics? There’s something for everyone in this collection.”