News & Politics

Joe Biden and the "Anti-Semitic Punchline"

Kitty Kelley‘s 1974 profile of Joe Biden has kicked up a surprising amount of dust since Washingtonian put it online to coincide with our 50th-anniversary issue. “The piece captures the essence of Biden—emotional, authentic, endlessly talkative,” New York Times senior editor for politics Carolyn Ryan wrote Friday, “but is also infused with a 1970s ethos and atmospherics that make it an artifact of an earlier journalistic era.”

That earlier era can be glimpsed especially well in a passage in which Kelley documents a meeting between Biden and two fellow senators, William Proxmire and Thomas Eagleton. Biden, Kelley writes, tells Eagleton “a joke with an anti-Semitic punchline and asks that it be off the record.”

A Biden spokesperson did not reply on the record when Washingtonian asked whether the vice president remembered what the joke was. The remark “was kept off the record,” Gabrielle Bluestone noted for Gawker, in a piece summarizing the “The Best Parts of a Very Sexual, Very Horny, Very Good Interview.”

As it turns out, the remark wasn’t off the record for long.

Washingtonian ran a letter from Biden administrative assistant Wes Barthelmes in its September 1974 issue. Barthelmes objected to the profile in general—”The Washingtonian magazine is not large enough to accommodate a rebuttal”—and what he called “two factual errors”: Biden did not have a photo of his wife’s tombstone on his wall; and, “As Senator Eagleton commented after the article appeared, Senator Biden did not make such a ‘joke.'”

The tombstone in the photo, Kelley wrote in a reply, bore the inscription “In fond remembrance of her gentleness and purity/of her devotion as a wife and a mother/and in humble gratitude for the assurance/that she is in heaven.”

“I assumed the tombstone was Neilia Biden’s,” Kelley wrote. “I apologize for the error.”

She continued:

With regard to the anti-semitic punchline, Senator Biden related an anecdote to Senator Eagleton about a county in Delaware where Senator Biden said it’s not good to be Irish-Catholic, which Senator Eagleton is, but it’s even worse to be a Jew. Senator Biden told about being at a dinner in the county and he quoted a man telling him, “You’re all right, but we’ve got to get rid of that dirty Jew Roth.” Senator Biden then told Senator Eagleton, “And [Senator William V.] Roth isn’t even Jewish.”

Kelley wrote, “I agree that anti-Semitic is too strong a description, and again I apologize.”

Reached by email, Kelley says she remembers “dear Wes’ letter—he was a friend and he told me he had to write it—either that or lose his job as chief of staff.” Barthelmes died in 1976. He asked Kelley off the record, she says, “to ‘forget’ playing the hours of tape I had from the interview.”

There’s other stuff in the article that’s causing Biden some delayed heartburn: His office told the Huffington Post last week that he’s always been a strong supporter of abortion rights, contrary to this quote from the 1974 article: “I don’t like the Supreme Court decision on abortion,” Biden told Kelley. “I think it went too far. I don’t think that a woman has the sole right to say what should happen to her body.”

As with much of this article, then-Senator Biden was taken out of context” with that eyebrow-raising comment, a Biden spokesperson told Huffington Post reporter Ryan Grim. “The Vice President is and has been a long-time supporter of a woman’s right to choose.”

“Nothing was out of context,” Kelley says today.

Here’s an image from Barthelmes’ letter, and Kelley’s response, from the September 1974 issue of Washingtonian.

Senior editor

Andrew Beaujon joined Washingtonian in late 2014. He was previously with the Poynter Institute,, and Washington City Paper. He lives in Del Ray.