A Bystander to ’60s Protests, Biden Now Becomes a Target

When students took over Hamilton Hall at Columbia University in April 1968, a young Joe Biden was studying law 250 miles away, just weeks from graduation. Protests and chanting and tie-dye shirts were not his style. “I was in law school,” he later recalled. “I wore sport coats.”

Now, 56 years ago to the day after the police stormed Hamilton Hall to evict demonstrators in one of the most iconic moments of the 1960s protest movement, Mr. Biden has no more affinity for their modern-day successors occupying the same university building to voice their outrage over Israel’s war in Gaza.

Having traded up from sports coats in the Syracuse University law school library to suit coats in the Oval Office, however, Mr. Biden cannot simply shrug off the uproar on American college campuses as he once could. This time he is not just a disdainful bystander but one of the targets of the discontent, challenging him to navigate the treacherous waters of campus politics better than Lyndon B. Johnson did in 1968.

Mr. Biden has sought to walk a careful line in recent days as protests have mushroomed and in some cases led to suspensions and arrests. While he expresses support for the free speech rights of students to oppose his support for Israel, he has condemned antisemitism directed at Jewish students. But as the political far left calls him “Genocide Joe” and Republicans blame him for the campus chaos, the president has sought to stay personally out of the fray as much as possible.

He made no immediate comment on Tuesday after the latest Columbia building takeover, leaving it to a spokesman to condemn the action as an “unacceptable” move crossing the line from disagreement to disorder. “The president believes that forcibly taking over a building on campus is absolutely the wrong approach,” the spokesman, John F. Kirby, told reporters. “That is not an example of peaceful protest.”

He added: “A small percentage of students shouldn’t be able to disrupt the academic experience and the legitimate study for the rest of the student body. Students paying to go to school and wanting an education ought to able to do that without disruption, and they ought to be able to do it and feel safe doing it.”

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