A Senate stalwart who bounced back
A Senate stalwart who bounced back
Sunday, August 24, 2008
September 1987 was a month of ruin and renewal for Joe Biden.
Then a three-term senator from Delaware, Biden saw his bid for the Democratic nomination for president in tatters after he had been caught cribbing from other politicians’ speeches. He exited the race amid a chorus of Washington chatter that the presidency would never be his.
Yet just as his candidacy was ending, Biden, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, was leading the Democrats in a successful battle against Robert Bork, President Ronald Reagan’s nominee to the Supreme Court. And soon after, Biden underwent surgery on two brain aneurysms. Had he continued running for president, friends say, the rigors might have exacerbated his health problems and even killed him.
The tumult of that period transformed Biden: He settled down into a role as a statesman of the Senate, becoming a serious student of policy and government. As the Democrats’ point man on crime and as a champion of the Violence Against Women Act, among other bills, Biden became a close ally of labor unions, civil rights leaders and women’s groups. While he drew ire from some feminists over the treatment of Anita Hill during the Clarence Thomas hearings, in 1991, he was also the only member of the Judiciary Committee to emerge with favorable marks from a majority of Americans, according to a Gallup poll.
He has become widely recognized as a respected voice on foreign policy, the two Iraq wars (against the first, for the second), the Balkans conflict, global AIDS prevention and a wealth of national security issues. From his perch as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations committee, he has aggressively criticized President George W. Bush for his unilateralist approach to the world.
It was this expertise in foreign policy that helped raise Biden’s standing with Obama, who announced in text and e-mail messages early Saturday that Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., 65, was his choice to be the next vice president of the United States. An Irish Catholic son of Scranton, Pennsylvania, the sort of white, working-class city that Obama is fighting to win this November, Biden is in some ways a political elder brother to the 47-year-old Obama: competitive and protective, far more experienced in government and politics, and already a veteran orator when Obama was still finding his voice.
The two became colleagues upon Obama’s entry to the Senate in 2005 and his appointment to the Foreign Relations Committee. Obama was perhaps best known at the time for opposing military action in Iraq. Biden, who had opposed the Persian Gulf war in 1991, worked in 2002 with the committee’s ranking Republican member, Senator Richard Lugar of Indiana, on a resolution that would authorize action to remove weapons of mass destruction in Iraq — but not to remove President Saddam Hussein. The White House opposed the idea, which foundered; Biden ultimately voted for the war resolution that Obama opposed.
Since then, Biden has been a critic of the Bush administration’s strategy in Iraq and a leading advocate of partitioning that nation into three semiautonomous regions, for Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds — modeled somewhat on the division of Bosnia in the 1990s, an effort he was involved in. This so-called Biden Plan — often referred to that way by Biden himself — has been somewhat praised by Obama and other leading Democrats.
Biden achieved a major legislative victory last month when Bush signed a measure co-written by Biden to increase spending significantly over the next five years to treat and prevent AIDS, malaria and tuberculosis overseas.
If Al Gore was a generational peer to Bill Clinton, and Dick Cheney was a guiding force to George W. Bush, Biden has at times acted as blunt-speaking provocateur to Obama, challenging the younger politician’s ideas and assumptions in ways that Obama said he wants from his running mate.
A man of strong and many opinions, with a puckish humor and an inability to say no to Sunday news programs, Biden also has been satirized as the personification of senatorial windiness, though in the presidential debates of this past year he showed new discipline for keeping his comments succinct.
Still, he has sometimes lapsed into gaffes. In announcing his second bid for the presidency, in January 2007, Biden referred to his fellow candidate, Obama, as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
In a debate in December 2007, Biden had to defend himself upon being asked if he was “uncomfortable talking about race,” and won a vote of confidence afterward from Obama himself.
“I’ve worked with Joe Biden, I’ve seen his leadership,” Obama said. “I have absolutely no doubt about what is in his heart and the commitment that he has made with respect to racial equality in this country. Joe is on the right side of the issues and is fighting every day for a better America.”
Biden also said at another point in 2007 that Obama was “not yet ready” for the presidency, a point that Biden was questioned about in an August 2007 debate of the Democratic candidates.
“Look, I think he’s a wonderful guy, to start off with, number one,” Biden replied, before explaining his concern that Obama and other candidates were wrong (and he was right) on steps to recast American policy toward Pakistan. ( Obama said he did not see much difference in their approaches to Pakistan.)
Compared with other relationships he has built in Washington, where he is serving his sixth term in the Senate, Biden has little history with Obama. In Biden’s 2007 autobiography he mentions Obama only once, and in the prologue section. “I served with the last of the Southern segregationists,” Biden writes of his long Senate career, “but I was there to see Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama sworn in.”
The child of a car salesman and a graduate of the University of Delaware and Syracuse Law School, Biden had settled in the Wilmington, Delaware, suburbs to practice law and serve as a local councilman when he decided in 1971 to challenge a popular incumbent senator, J. Caleb Boggs. Only 29 years old, Biden won in a tight race; he turned 30 in time to meet the legal age requirement to serve in the chamber.
A month later, driving in search of a Christmas tree, Biden’s wife, Neilia, and their three young children were struck by another car. Neilia and their 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed; his two sons were hospitalized but recovered. Biden considered resigning but was persuaded to start his Senate term. Five years later he courted and wed a teacher, Jill Jacobs, whose photograph he had noticed in an advertisement for local parks; they have a daughter, Ashley.
In 1988, Biden underwent surgery to repair two so-called berry aneurysms in arteries in opposite sides of his brain. The first of the aneurysms — a ballooning of an artery — tore without warning, leaking blood to cause neck pain and nausea. Biden wore a brace until the correct diagnosis was made. He escaped without suffering a paralyzing stroke. The second aneurysm apparently caused no symptoms and was repaired a few weeks after the first. Biden returned to the Senate after a seven-month absence.
A Family Man
As he has grown in prominence, Biden has commuted for years between Washington and Wilmington, so he is home every night. He is close to his family. His sister, Valerie Biden Owens, has played an important role in all of his campaigns and managed his presidential bid last year. And he is known as a doting grandfather, often sitting on the floor to play with his grandchildren. Biden has long been ranked as one of the l
east wealthy members of the Senate.
He largely built his power base and expertise as the chairman or ranking Democrat of two powerful Senate committees: Judiciary, which he led from 1987 to 1995, and Foreign Relations, from 2001 to 2003 and since 2007. On Judiciary he became a leading advocate for the Violence Against Women Act, tougher drug sentencing laws and money for local law enforcement programs.
Leading the hearings on Clarence Thomas’s nomination in 1991, Biden came under fire from women’s groups and women in Congress who said that he initially gave short shrift to allegations of sexual harassment against the nominee by Anita Hill.
But he noted that Hill had at first not wanted her identity disclosed even to Thomas, making an investigation difficult. Polls after the nomination fight showed that Biden, who ultimately voted against Thomas, was credited by the public with presiding fairly over the contentious hearings and he appeared to suffer little lasting political damage.
More recently, Biden voted against Bush’s nominations of John Roberts Jr. and Samuel Alito Jr. to the Supreme Court.
During and since his time leading the Judiciary Committee, Biden has been derided by some critics as the “Senator from MBNA,” or “(D-MBNA),” because of his close ties to the credit card behemoth that was based in Wilmington, Delaware, until it was bought three years ago by Bank of America.
Employees of MBNA Corporation had heavily contributed to Biden, pouring more than $214,000 into his campaign coffers going back to 1989, making the company his single biggest supporter, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.
Moreover, in 2003, after Biden’s son Hunter had graduated from law school, MBNA hired him as a management trainee and quickly promoted him to executive vice president. After Hunter Biden left the firm to become a partner at a Washington lobbying firm, the company paid him a $100,000 annual retainer to advise it on the Internet and privacy issues. Biden also paid Hunter’s law firm $143,000 for “legal services,” including nearly $60,000 in outstanding bills just last month.
In another MBNA connection that has raised questions, Biden sold his Delaware house for $1.2 million in the mid-1990s to John Cochran, a senior executive of the company who would become its chairman and chief executive.
Campaign consultants for Raymond Clatworthy, a Delaware businessman who ran twice against Biden, tried to make an issue of the sale in their race in 1996, suggesting a sweetheart deal, but Biden produced an appraisal of his home that matched the purchase price.
Biden became an early supporter of a controversial bankruptcy law that was championed by the company and other credit card issuers and finally passed in 2005, making it more difficult for consumers to erase their debts. Obama, who voted against the measure, recently skewered the presumptive Republican nominee, Senator John McCain, for backing the bill, saying it allowed “banks and credit card companies to tilt the playing field in their favor, at the expense of hard-working Americans.”
A report last year by Credit Suisse, the investment bank, concluded the law had had a “profound impact” on the country’s subprime mortgage crisis, leading directly to a rise in foreclosures.
Obama has made the bankruptcy bill an issue on the campaign trail, announcing a plan in July to revise the law and give more protection to debtors. He has argued that his opposition to the legislation demonstrated his support for working families, while casting McCain, who voted for the measure, as being in the pocket of credit card and banking industry lobbyists.
Accompanying Biden’s respected legislative record is a personal touch that is renowned for verbal gaffes, usually a product of impolitic directness. None was more devastating than the plagiarism incident that eventually forced him to exit the presidential race in 1988.
During a speech at the Iowa State Fair, Biden delivered a moving closing monologue about his family’s humble roots. It turned out that he had borrowed the passage from a British politician, Neil Kinnock, who had been describing his own personal history. Biden previously attributed the words to him on the stump but for some reason did not this time.
Other revelations quickly emerged: Biden had plagiarized parts of a paper he wrote in law school, using word for word five pages from a law review article without attribution; in a breezy moment with a voter in New Hampshire he had dramatically embellished his college and law school accomplishments; he had adopted parts of speeches by Robert F. Kennedy without citation.
By 2007, when he decided to try for the White House again, the political agonies of the ’80s had been forgotten by many Americans. And Biden himself pledged to be more careful if he won in 2008.
Memorably, at one of the Democratic candidate debates, he was asked whether he could reassure voters that he would have the discipline to watch his words and language if elected. “Yes,” Biden said, and nothing more, smiling as the audience laughed with approval.