Joe Biden’s Empty Rhetoric About Hope and History

In 1995, Bill Clinton quoted poet Seamus Heaney to encourage peace in Northern Ireland. Last week, Biden performed a sort of listless political karaoke in Jerusalem.

U.S. President Joe Biden gives his remarks after his visit to Augusta Victoria Hospital in east Jerusalem, Friday, July 15, 2022. Biden is making a stop at the hospital in east Jerusalem, after the Trump administration cut funds to the facility. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)
President Joe Biden spoke to Palestinians during a visit to Augusta Victoria Hospital in East Jerusalem on July 15, 2022. Photo: Evan Vucci/AP

To anyone familiar with the context in which the Irish poet Seamus Heaney wrote that “once in a lifetime/ The longed-for tidal wave/ Of justice can rise up/ And hope and history rhyme,” there was something deeply depressing about hearing President Joe Biden use those words to lie to Israelis and Palestinians last week in Jerusalem.

That’s because Biden, who has done nothing to restart the long dormant peace talks, introduced the quote from Heaney by suggesting that Israelis and Palestinians were living through one of those moments when a just resolution to the conflict was close to being achieved.

Although Biden has quoted Heaney’s words dozens of times since 2005, in a dizzying array of contexts, the idea that peace can be achieved when “hope and history rhyme” had already been transformed into cliched political rhetoric by the time he started using it.

What was sobering and strange about hearing Biden recite those hopeful lines in Jerusalem now, is that Heaney’s phrase, in the hands of another American president, Bill Clinton, was once genuinely thrilling.

Heaney wrote the words in 1990, to be spoken by a chorus in “The Cure at Troy,” his adaptation of an ancient Greek play which was first performed that year in Derry, at a particularly bleak moment in the bloody and seemingly intractable conflict in his native Northern Ireland.

Heaney explained later that his uplifting verse — which became something like the motto for the peace process in Northern Ireland after Clinton quoted it in a speech in Derry in 1995 — was inspired by the seemingly miraculous transformations taking place at the time in Eastern Europe, where authoritarian states collapsed, and in South Africa, where Nelson Mandela was released from prison and the apartheid regime began to crumble.

During the visit to Derry to encourage progress in a peace process that had already brought about an Irish Republican Army ceasefire, Clinton told the crowd that Heaney’s words “for me capture this moment.”

“‘History says, Don’t hope on this side of the grave,’” Clinton recited. “But then, once in a lifetime the longed-for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme. So hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.’”

“Well, my friends, I believe. I believe we live in a time of hope and history rhyming,” the American president added, in a speech that was recently featured in a “Derry Girls” episode about the hope that filled the city then. “Standing here in front of the Guildhall, looking out over these historic walls, I see a peaceful city, a safe city, a hopeful city, full of young people that should have a peaceful and prosperous future here where their roots and families are,” Clinton said to cheers.

The quote went over so well that Clinton used it again and again in the years that followed, beginning the next day in Dublin, where Heaney gave him a handwritten copy of the text as a present.

In 1996, when Clinton released a book on the eve of the Democratic convention, aides told Todd Purdum of the New York Times that the title, “Between Hope and History: Meeting America’s Challenges for the 21st Century,” reflected how deeply struck the president was by Heaney’s phrase. “Mr. Clinton used the line to reflect his thoughts about America’s posture as it enters the next century,” Purdum reported.

The following year, as he accepted an award for brokering the 1993 Israeli-Palestinian peace agreement, Clinton described that framework for peace as, “one of those magic moments that the Nobel Prize-winning Irish poet, Seamus Heaney, spoke of when he said that sometimes people just leave aside their cynicism and their bitterness, ‘and hope and history rhyme.’”

In 1998, Clinton quoted Heaney again in remarks welcoming the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in Belfast, and mentioned that the poet’s handwritten stanzas were hanging in a frame on the wall of his White House office.

Heaney’s words were by then so closely associated with making peace that they were quoted by others involved in the process. When Gerry Adams, the leader of the IRA’s former political wing Sinn Féin, flew to Bilbao in 1998 to encourage the Spanish government to open talks with Basque separatists, he quoted Heaney. (Adams later titled his memoir “Hope and History: Making Peace in Ireland.”)

When Irish political leaders visited New York City in 1999, they were treated to a dramatic reading of that passage from “The Cure at Troy” by Gregory Peck at St. Patrick’s Cathedral.

As she campaigned for the Senate in 2000, First Lady Hillary Clinton told a gathering of Irish Americans, “Many people in the room have worked for a lifetime to make hope and history rhyme.” That same week, the actor Roma Downey recited the lines at the Kennedy Center in Washington for the Irish leader, Bertie Ahern, and the British minister for Northern Ireland, Peter Mandelson.

Later that year, as he returned to Washington following a farewell trip to Ireland during the final month of his presidency, Bill Clinton treated reporters on Air Force One to a long, detailed analysis of Heaney’s play, explaining the plot of the original Greek drama, “Philoctetes” by Sophocles, and describing how Heaney had transformed it into a metaphor “for the peace process in Northern Ireland, and for people struggling with tribal wars in Africa or any of these conflicts.”

On a post-presidential trip to Johannesburg in 2006, Clinton recited the lines that Heaney wrote with Nelson Mandela in mind to Mandela himself.

So when Joe Biden started working the quotation from Heaney into his prepared remarks in 2005, and then made the stanza the centerpiece of the stump speech he delivered on the campaign trail in Iowa and New Hampshire in 2007, during his unsuccessful run for the presidency, he was well aware that he was borrowing from Clinton’s rhetoric about resolving old conflicts.

But Biden turned the lines of poetry into a more general call for optimism in the face of difficulties. At the Iowa Democratic Party’s Jefferson-Jackson dinner in late 2007, for instance, Biden introduced the quote by saying, “Folks, the sentiment that rests in the heart of, I think, almost every American can be best summarized, in my view, in one stanza of poetry.” He then paused to acknowledge to his rival, then-Sen. Hillary Clinton, that the poem was also a favorite of her husband’s, before reciting the words and closing with an appeal to the voters. “Join me, join me, join me in making hope and history rhyme, because I promise you, I guarantee you, it’s fully within the capability of this great country to do it now, at this moment. We owe it to the American people.”

When Biden dropped out of the race for the Democratic nomination after the Iowa caucus two months later, he signed off by telling his supporters: “We have the capacity to make hope and history rhyme, and you’ve given me great hope and great pride.”

Biden turned the lines of poetry into a more general call for optimism in the face of difficulties.

During his eight years as vice president, Biden worked the quotation from Heaney into remarks on many different subjects. In 2012, he recited what he called “a metaphoric thing about the Irish fighting against the British,” to a crowd on Martin Luther King Jr. Day in Philadelphia.

“There’s a stanza in that poem that I think best defines the nature of the American spirit, whether you are a newly minted citizen or your family’s been here for eight generations,” Biden told mourners at a memorial service in 2013 for Sean Collier, an MIT campus police officer who was shot and killed by the Tsarnaev brothers following the Boston Marathon bombing. “I think that sentiment is stamped into the DNA of Americans, regardless of where they come from,” Biden told the mourners after reciting the lines. “It’s who we are. It’s who we’ve always been. Just look at the journey and the history of this country. For us Americans, we believe that hope and history can rhyme.”

When Nelson Mandela died in late 2013, Biden’s office released a statement that quoted Heaney and added: “In the hands of Nelson Mandela, hope and history rhymed.” The next day, Biden recited the verse during remarks on U.S.-Korea relations at Yonsei University in Seoul and told Korean students: “We have a chance to make hope and history rhyme so that your children and grandchildren will never live through a period like your grandparents and great-grandparents lived through.”

In 2014, Biden recited Heaney in Cyprus, to urge leaders of the Greek and Turkish communities to make peace — “For the sake of the boys and girls born on this island who deserve the possibility that only peace can bring, let’s finally make hope and history rhyme together” — in Washington, at a forum to encourage African business leaders to trade with the U.S. — “You have a chance in Africa to make hope and history rhyme in a way that has never occurred before” — and in Marrakech, at a summit for tech entrepreneurs — “We collectively have a chance to make hope and history rhyme like it hasn’t in a thousand years. The potential is immense, the intellect is available, and the technology accommodates it.”

Biden also suggested that year that the presidents of Guatemala, Honduras, and El Salvador, gathered for an Inter-American Development Bank conference, should be inspired by Heaney’s words to tackle security, judicial, and police reform.

In 2015, Biden told attendees at the Caribbean Energy Security Summit in Washington that they should be encouraged by Heaney’s words — “We’ve got a chance to make hope and history rhyme here, in terms of your economies, and the single biggest burden that could be lifted from you right now, economically, is the cost of energy ” — and urged European leaders at the Munich Security Conference to deliver of the promise of Heaney’s vision by taking collective action on threats posed by Russia, Iran and Islamic State. “All of us in this room are delivered to a moment that only happens every four or five generations. We have to rise to the moment,” Biden said. “So let’s take a shot at making hope and history rhyme.”

Biden also leaned heavily on the same quotation in his campaign for the presidency in 2020, using it to close his acceptance speech at the Democratic National Convention, then reciting a slightly altered version of the poem for a campaign commercial that laid Heaney’s words over images of the coronavirus pandemic and the racial justice protests that followed George Floyd’s murder.

When Biden was finally declared the winner of the election, one of his fans in Kansas, a public health worker and painter named Dakota Driscoll, celebrated by putting a “Make Hope and History Rhyme” watercolor up for sale on Etsy, as part of her series of “daily motivation inspiration positivity wall art quotes.”

The day Biden was sworn in as president, his inaugural celebration included a reading of the poem by composer and lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda — with a cameo from Biden himself at the end.

Throughout his presidency, Biden has continued to treat Heaney’s words as an all-purpose plea for optimism, quoting the Irish poet in remarks on the 100th anniversary of the Tulsa race massacre, the 10th anniversary of the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, the closing of a summit on democracy — “Democracy is what makes it possible for hope and history to rhyme” — political polarization, and, last week, to Israelis and then Palestinians, in separate addresses on consecutive days on opposite sides of Jerusalem.

Hearing Biden recite the once-powerful lines from Heaney, despite the collapse of the Israeli-Palestinian peace process, it was impossible not to notice how sharp the contrast was with the situation when Clinton used the same words in Derry, 27 years ago, at a point when there was real momentum for an end to that conflict.

In his comments to both communities, Biden all but ignored the failure of the preliminary peace agreement signed at the White House in 1993 by Israeli and Palestinian leaders and the collapse of talks. Instead, Biden acted as if a major breakthrough for peace was just around the corner.

Speaking at the residence of the Israeli president, Isaac Herzog — whose father, the former Israeli president Chaim Herzog, was born in Belfast — Biden quoted Heaney and claimed to be optimistic that an end to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was within reach. “I truly believe that we’re at one of those moments — if we get lucky and work hard — where we can make hope and history rhyme,” Biden said.

“Israel and the United States are both places built on hope, grit, and determination,” Biden continued. “And I believe, together, we will stay always true to our founding values and that we can help make hope and history rhyme once more.”

The following day, Biden tried to offer some encouragement to Palestinians whose hopes for a just resolution to the conflict have been ground down by the reality of enduring military occupation, nearly 30 years after the peace accords brokered by Clinton were signed.

“There’s an old expression: ‘Hope springs eternal,’” Biden began. Then, as a way of introducing the quote from “The Cure at Troy,” Biden mentioned that he had Irish roots.

“My background and the background of my family is Irish American, and we have a long history — not fundamentally unlike the Palestinian people — with Great Britain and their attitude toward Irish Catholics over the years, for 400 years,” Biden said.

“There’s a great poem,” Biden added. “It goes like this — and it’s classically Irish, but it also could fit Palestinians.” Then, slightly misremembering the lines, Biden recited the words he has woven into remarks on dozens of subjects over the past two decades. “History teaches us not to hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime, that longed-for tidal wave of justice rises up, and hope and history rhyme,” he said.

“Hope and history rhyme,” he repeated. “It is my prayer that we’re reaching one of those moments where hope and history rhyme.”

By the time he finished speaking in Jerusalem, Biden seemed to have completed the long process of degrading Heaney’s once-powerful lines into what another of his favorite Irish poets, W.B. Yeats, called “polite meaningless words.”

Although no one asked Biden, who has done little to revive the dormant peace talks, why he believed that a breakthrough was just beyond the horizon, his apparent suggestion that the Palestinians were, like the indigenous Irish, dispossessed and discriminated against caught the attention of Israeli nationalists and their supporters in Washington.

The fact that Biden had twice compared the plight of the Palestinians to what the Irish had endured during four centuries of colonization and oppression by the British was quickly blasted out on Twitter by Republican opposition researchers, and described by a columnist for Rupert Murdoch’s National Review as “a disgraceful smear of Israel.”

But Israelis who see the ongoing occupation as unjust and untenable, like Daniel Seidemann, the director of Terrestrial Jerusalem, agreed with Biden. “The comparison between the collective experience of the Irish and that of the Palestinians is,” Seidemann wrote on Twitter, “one of the peaks of the President’s visit.”

Biden’s reference to the parallels between the two conflicts seemed almost offhand, and there was no sign that he has thought deeply about why the peace process in Northern Ireland, halting and precarious as it might be, has been so much more successful than the one in Israel and Palestine. But there is a very obvious difference.

During his visit, Biden also reiterated his support for “a two-state solution,” with Israelis and Palestinians living on opposite sides of a partition along ethnic lines, calling that “a guarantee for a strong democratic state of Israel with a Jewish majority.”

Biden remains committed to that vision of the future despite the fact that, in the 29 years since the Oslo Accords were signed, it has led not to two states but a de facto single state which controls the lives of more than 14 million people, roughly half of them Jews and the other half Palestinians, who live between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

That single regime, the Israeli rights group B’Tselem concluded last year, functions only through the principle of apartheid.

“The common perception in public, political, legal and media discourse is that two separate regimes operate side by side in this area,” B’Tselem wrote in the report which concluded that Israel is practicing apartheid. “One regime, inside the borders of the sovereign State of Israel, is a permanent democracy with a population of about nine million, all Israeli citizens. The other regime, in the territories Israel took over in 1967, whose final status is supposed to be determined in future negotiations, is a temporary military occupation imposed on some five million Palestinian subjects.”

“Over time, the distinction between the two regimes has grown divorced from reality,” the Israeli rights group noted. “Hundreds of thousands of Jewish settlers now reside in permanent settlements east of the Green Line, living as though they were west of it. East Jerusalem has been officially annexed to Israel’s sovereign territory, and the West Bank has been annexed in practice. Most importantly, the distinction obfuscates the fact that the entire area between the Mediterranean Sea and the Jordan River is organized under a single principle: advancing and cementing the supremacy of one group — Jews — over another — Palestinians. … There is one regime governing the entire area and the people living in it, based on a single organizing principle.”

In Northern Ireland, by contrast, the peace agreement signed in 1998 is a one-state solution, based on power-sharing between the two communities. While the cross-community assembly created by the agreement has frequently ground to a halt in the years since, sectarian killings have come to an end. Speaking in 2008, Heaney told the New Yorker poetry editor and fellow Irish poet Paul Muldoon that the peace agreement was imperfect but had opened the way for ordinary if often disappointing and frustrating politics; it was still the foundation for reconciliation between the communities that had to share the territory. In the first 10 years after the agreement was ratified in a referendum, Heaney observed, “we had moved from the atrocious to the messy, which is an advance.”

In the same interview, Heaney also spoke of the complexity of resolving a conflict between two communities divided by centuries of historical pain and suffering. An Irish diplomat had once observed, Heaney said, that the struggle for a just peace was not just about granting full civil and political rights to the indigenous Catholic community in a region that was created to keep them in the minority. “This is not a matter of altering some electoral anomaly,” Heaney said. “This is a matter of changing the relationship between the victorious and the defeated.”

The victorious community, Heaney explained, were the descendants of the British, Protestant settlers who arrived in Ulster in the 1620s to displace and rule the defeated Irish Catholic indigenous community. Ireland was partitioned in 1921 by the retreating British forces to ensure that one section of the partitioned island would have a Protestant majority.

“It wasn’t just civil rights. It wasn’t just one man, one vote. It wasn’t just, you know … no discrimination, and so on,” Heaney said. “It was changing the relationship between that group who thought of themselves as Irish nationalists, and out of it, and the group in charge — the caste, if you like — the Northern unionist caste.”

The central challenge of that peace process, Heaney observed, was “the difficulty of reestablishing relationships” between the descendants of the winners and the losers of the colonial war of conquest that forced the communities to live side by side for centuries, and to consider the same territory their home.

That, clearly, is also what’s needed to finally bring about peace in the land between the Jordan River and the Mediterranean Sea.

In Jerusalem last week, Biden seemed to almost stumble across and then retreat from the realization that the Irish and the Palestinians share a history of oppression, initiated in both cases under British colonial rule, and leading to conflicts made worse, not better, by an effort to divide contested territories through partition along ethnic lines.

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