WASHINGTON — Joe Biden has lived a life of second chances, a cycle that’s been cruel and redemptive by turns. Now he’s starting over once again.
Deeply private yet in-your-face, collegial yet ideological, the Delaware senator brings a wealth of foreign policy experience to Barack Obama’s Democratic ticket, plus wisdom in the ways of Washington and an infectious enthusiasm for political dispute.
He adds suspense, too, over the question of when — not if — he’ll put his foot in his mouth. Biden’s agile mind comes with a loose tongue that cannot always be properly restrained.
Back in his hometown of Scranton, Pa., Biden’s Catholic schoolmates nicknamed him Dash because he stuttered so much his speech sounded like Morse Code. Biden overcame that rip at his confidence, smoothed his talk and doesn’t seem to have quieted down since.
The strongest sign that Obama was seriously considering Biden for his running mate, despite some differences over national security, energy and more in their voting records, was Biden’s odd absence from the public in recent days. Normally he’s a sucker for a microphone.
And it was a sign of those Washington ways that when he said “I’m not the guy” no one believed him, just as no one believed him when he said of the vice presidential slot last year, “I would not accept it if anyone offered it to me.”
That’s how people talk in politics — a different sort of telegraphing code. And after more than a third of a century in Washington, and two short-lived presidential campaigns of his own, Biden has it down pat.
He came to Washington as a wunderkind, elected to the Senate in 1972 at age 29 — the earliest possible age — and just meeting the rule that one must be 30 when sworn in. The knock against him used to be that he was more sizzle than steak, articulate but perhaps not all that deep.
At age 65, as a party elder and veteran of titanic judicial nomination struggles, world crises and legislative dealmaking, that rap has faded.
His hearings as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee are historical soliloquies on the fly, complete with grace notes liberally dispensed to colleagues and witnesses of any political persuasion, humor often directed at himself and sharp-tongued fulmination over what he sees as the failures of the Bush administration.
His first presidential campaign, in 1987, was a “train wreck” by his own description, one of those times that forced him to pick up pieces and start anew.
He’d lifted lines from a British politician, exaggerated his academic achievements when boasting about his smarts to a voter who challenged him (“I have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect,” Biden recalls saying) and suffered horrendous headaches that turned out to be life-threatening brain aneurisms that kept him out of the Senate for seven months.
“In the aftermath I had to remake my health, my reputation, and my career in the Senate,” he writes in his memoirs. And that was not the worst of his shattering episodes — not even close.
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On Dec. 18, 1972, five weeks after Biden was elected to the Senate, his wife Neilia, infant daughter Naomi and sons Beau and Hunt were out in the family station wagon getting a Christmas tree when a tractor-trailer broad-sided them.
Down in Washington, Sen.-elect Biden was using Sen. Robert Byrd’s spacious office that day — his own first office was so small that anyone inside it had to stand up and move to let the door open. Biden’s sister Val took the phone call.
“There’s been a slight accident,” she said, chalk white.
“She’s dead, isn’t she?” Biden recalls saying, meaning his wife.
Neilia and Naomi died in the crash. The boys were critically injured. Biden said he did not find this out for sure until he flew to Delaware and arrived at the hospital.
Biden came to understand how suicide could be seen not just as an option “but a rational option.”
He devoted himself to the care of his sons and was sworn in at the bedside of one of them before they both recovered fully, growing up to become lawyers. In 1977, Biden married Jill Tracy Jacobs. They have a daughter, Ashley.
He still will not work on Dec. 18, the date of the accident.
Biden does not talk often of the tragedy but decades later, anything to do with the welfare of his children still rankles — and explains perhaps his sharpest rebuke of Obama as well as Hillary Rodham Clinton in this year’s primary campaign.
Capt. Beau Biden, a member of the Delaware National Guard and the state’s attorney general, had been preparing for deployment to Iraq, and it did not sit well with his father that Obama and Clinton had at times voted against money for the war.
“There’s no political point worth my son’s life,” Biden snapped. “There’s no political point worth anybody’s life out there. None.”
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Biden led Judiciary Committee proceedings in the explosive debates that rejected the Supreme Court nomination of Robert Bork in 1987 and approved Clarence Thomas in 1991.
He earned the ire of conservative activists in the Bork hearings, only to be criticized by liberals later for sending the Thomas nomination to the Senate floor without, in their view, fully investigating Anita Hill’s allegations of misbehavior by Thomas.
Reflecting on the Thomas-Hill hearings, Biden said personal accusations should be handled in closed sessions. “We could have the Lord Almighty be nominated and someone in this country will communicate to the committee something negative about that person.”
Biden counted a law to protect women from violence and his push to end genocide in the Balkans as the two matters that redeemed the lost promise of his first presidential campaign.
The latter issue brought him into conflict with the Democratic administration of President Clinton, which he said was not doing “a damn thing” to help the beleaguered citizens of Bosnia. It also brought him face to face with this year’s Republican presidential candidate, Sen. John McCain, as they engaged in a TV debate on Biden’s push for air strikes in 1993. McCain was just one of the Vietnam veterans from both parties who feared intervention would turn into a quagmire.
“If we do nothing, there’s a Serb victory and the continuation of genocide,” Biden said.
“If we do what you want, we only have two options,” McCain responded. “That’s admit failure or send ground troops.”
“What do we do if we don’t do anything?” Biden challenged.
“I’m not ready to risk another Vietnam,” McCain said.
“This is not Vietnam,” Biden asserted.
The U.S. finally acted and was spared another Vietnam.
Now, McCain on one side and Obama and Biden on the other are divided over whether Iraq could turn out to be a Vietnam. Biden, unlike Obama, supported the invasion but pushed in the presidential campaign for an even speedier withdrawal than Obama has envisioned, and proposed dividing Iraq into largely autonomous Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish regions.
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Obama and Biden have taken opposing positions in Senate votes at least a dozen times.
Obama voted for tougher fuel economy standards and an energy bill both opposed by Biden. Obama endorsed the Bush administration’s military procedures for detaining and prosecuting foreign terrorism suspects at Guantanamo in a bill that Biden voted against.
The two were also at odds over legislation making it harder for people to erase debts in bankruptcy; Biden supported it and Obama was opposed. Also unlike Obama, Biden supported stricter rules on lawmakers’ pet projects, the confirmation of Gen. Michael Hayden as CIA chief and renewal of the Patriot Act.
Biden’s second presidential campaign faltered early on, just one of the Democrats shunted to the sidelines as the bracing contest between Obama and Clinton dominated everything. He dropped out after finishing poorly in Iowa, the opening contest.
He proved to be a cheerful campaigner who mixed easily with voters, got along with rivals and displayed a self-deprecating humor that leavened debates and speeches.
When the longwinded senator was asked if he could reassure voters he had the discipline needed on the world stage, he drew laughs with a rare one-word answer: “Yes.”
Obama jumped in to defend him on another occasion, when Biden was asked if he had a problem with minorities.
The question was rooted in Biden’s occasional gaffes. He had apologized earlier for describing Obama as “articulate” and “clean” in one unguarded episode that was taken by some to have a racial overtone.
And he’d had to defend his remark that “you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.”