Senator Joe Biden bursts through the doors of the Wyndham Garden Hotel and reaches to shake the hands of his hosts, one of whom points out that there is a large spot on the tail of his suitcoat. “I know, I know,” the senator says. “I was playing with my granddaughter this morning and I rolled onto something and, geez, I got it on my pants too. I’m just going to stop in the men’s room here for a minute…”
Joe has a minute this morning. Usually he’s running late, much to the panic of the producers who often invite him to Larry King Live and other shows. But today is Columbus Day, so there is no legislative session down in Washington. Joe attends a special early Mass, heads into his Wilmington office, then down to the hotel a block away to speak to a group of health professionals about his landmark Violence Against Women Act and the VAWA II.
Out in the hallway, the senator is regaling his hosts from St. Francis Hospital. He loves this, what in others might be seen as mere gladhanding, what Joe sees as a way to bring people into the fold.
St. Francis knows the Bidens well, he tells them — emergency doctors gave his two boys (now grown men) 268 stitches for various injuries over the years. “As soon as we walked in, the nurses would say, ‘Oh, here come the Bidens again,’” Joe laughs. “Now I have two granddaughters …” He mentions them countless times each day.
This is the part of Joe we know best. Because Joe is always sharing stories about himself, about his family. And there are the stories turned legend — the brash young county councilman who dared to take on a political icon and become the second-youngest person ever popularly elected to the U.S. Senate, the traffic accident that killed his first wife and baby daughter, the failed presidential campaign, the aneurysm that nearly killed him and, now, only the 20th senator in this nation’s history to cast 10,000 votes.
So when we see bumper stickers that say “Joe,” we understand. After 27 years we know him like we know our brothers, sons and fathers. You pop into Deerhead Hotdogs for lunch one day and there’s Joe, talking a blue streak to a random constituent, just like you. Or you go to a spaghetti joint on Saturday night and there’s Joe, prototypical man in full, dining with his wife and another couple and he’s smiling away and talking, talking, talking.
Then the very next morning you turn on the TV and there, on Face the Nation, is Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., D-Delaware, ranking democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee — our Joe — explaining to Bob Schiefer why Slobodan Milosevic is a thug and a son of a blankety blank (he’d say the word if it weren’t network television), why the United Nations should keep the peace in Kosovo, why he fought so hard for expansion of NATO. Or there’s Senator Joseph R. Biden Jr., former chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee — our Joe — explaining why the articles of impeachment are not high crimes or misdemeanors.
And this is the great dichotomy of Joe. So knowable, yet we can never fully know the length and shadow of his influence. He needs our votes here at home, yet he is often the point man on concerns so far beyond the ken of most Delawareans we barely understand their relevance.
Which means that, if the United States is the world’s last superpower, and if the U.S. Senate truly is the world’s greatest deliberative body, Joe — our Joe — an elder statesman at the age of 58, is one of the most important people on the planet.
“He’s the senator you can count on to understand the issues, to get them right, and to argue them cogently,” says Secretary of State Madeleine Albright. “He is the preeminent voice in foreign affairs” — not to mention crime and constitutional issues — “He is someone I can call on for advice, and that exchange of views is invaluable to me.”
In other words, Joe has bigger things to worry about than spots on his trousers.
“My father has a saying,” Joe is telling the 50 people in the Wyndham conference room. “It’s a lucky man who gets up in the morning, puts two feet on the floor, knows what he’s going to do, and thinks it’s worth doing.”
Joe starts every speech in similar fashion. It sometimes seems as if one of the most important people on the planet learned everything he needed to know from his parents. Yet they are his greatest political influences and only heroes, and his modus operandi is informed by their many lessons. “If somebody loves you, love them back.” “Always tell the truth.” “Always do what you say you’re going to do.” When young Joe protested that the quarter his father tossed to a bum would be spent on booze, Joe Sr. would say plainly, “But for the grace of God, that could be you.”
So when Joe throws an arm around the shoulders of a constituent, when he starts telling his stories, he is inviting them to sit down at the dinner table of his childhood home, the center of social life for the Biden children and all their friends, a place where people gathered to talk about the world and, Joe says, “incidentally eat.” He explains things in terms anyone can understand. He draws his analogies from his life experience.
Joe is explaining to the group, as he often does, that the great advantage of being a United States senator is, “Once in a while, you get to do something that matters to some people.”
His Violence Against Women Act is such a thing. Passed as part of the now famous Biden Crime Bill of 1994, the VAWA strengthened penalties against rapists and abusers, increased enforcement of protection-from-abuse orders, funded women’s shelters and hotlines, and allowed abused wives to sue their husbands in federal court. The VAWA — along with the Biden Crime Bill and the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork in 1988 — is one of his proudest accomplishments, decreasing incidents of domestic abuse by 25 percent.
“My passion for this issue sometimes seems to surpass my good judgment,” he says. “This law I actually wrote with my own hands, but when I started out on this, there was little organized constituency for it. It was actually opposed by most women’s groups. Some feared it would take precedence over issues of choice and gender preference.” When Joe brought it up in committee, an elder senator got hot. “You don’t understand,” he hollered. “Sometimes a man just has to use force to discipline his wife.”
“So I wrote this first and foremost to change attitudes,” Joe says. “Violence grows out of a culture, a culture we’re only now beginning to confront.”
Joe explains that the No. 1 cause of dropouts among female college freshmen is date rape, a point reinforced by a 1989 survey of college students that showed 32 percent of men and 24 percent of women believed a man had the right to use force for sex after a date he paid for. “One-quarter of our daughters,” Joe repeats. “I have a daughter and two granddaughters, and I will kill the son of a bitch who harms them.”
This is vintage Biden, what professor Joe Pika, chairman of the University of Delaware department of political science and international relations, calls good old-fashioned stemwinding. Joe’s speeches feed off his emotion, and the issue of domestic violence strikes at the very core of his beliefs.
He cites crime statistics like others would rattle off RBIs and ERAs: Nine murders from domestic violence in Delaware this year, 58 in the past four, 2,000 protection-from-abuse orders issued and 560 women seeking refuge in state shelters last year, 3,600 calls made to the domestic violence hotline.
Joe has shucked the microphone and is pacing the floor, positively explosive. “No one should have to wake up in the morning wondering if some SOB is going to be in a good mood or not. That’s hell. That’s slavery.
“My father has a saying: It takes a small man to hit a small child or woman. Abuse of power is sickening, and the ultimate abuse of power is the abuse of physical power.”
He pauses, then sighs. It is a heavy sigh, part empathy for victims of abuse, part frustration over backward attitudes, part surprise that he got so worked up so early in the day.
“Well, anyway, there are a few issues I do care about.”
“His is not a political agenda,” says Jim Soles, professor emeritus of political science at the University of Delaware and a longtime friend of the senator. “His is a policy agenda.” Joe Biden is more concerned with process than politics, with getting things accomplished than getting credit for them.
Joe believes deeply in the rule of law. He has spent his life teaching it, practicing it and legislating it. So it is ironic that he has just admitted to 50 witnesses that he would kill a man.
“It’s not good,” he says, “but it’s an honest response, one that I would intellectually argue and caution someone against, but, as a lawyer, one I would also defend someone against. It’s the paradox in me, but nothing enrages me more than the abuse of sheer physical force. I can actually feel the bile rising up in my throat. Pray God I wouldn’t follow my visceral instinct.”
Whether it came from his grandfather Finnegan, who told young Joe stories about the persecution of Irish Catholics in his native Scranton, Pennsylvania, in the 1920s, or whether it came from the inferiority he felt as a stuttering adolescent, Joe has always had a keen sense of justice and fairness. “The press calls it my ‘politics of passion.’ I don’t see it that way at all,” he says. “These things are just the right things to do.”
In 1993 Joe met Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic. Joe, a serious student of history with a special interest in the World Wars and Jewish Holocaust, thought Milosevic every bit as evil as Hitler. Milosevic’s policy of ethnic cleansing was, simply put, a hateful abuse of his power over Bosnia’s Muslims. Joe consented to meet with Milosevic, but, “He didn’t even shake his hand,” says Ted Kauffman, Joe’s chief of staff until 1995. “He just said, ‘You are a war criminal, and you will be tried as a war criminal.’”
Joe has a long history of bluntness with world leaders. When Chancellor Helmut Schmidt of West Germany, angry that Joe was late for their first meeting 20 years ago, told him, “You young guys don’t understand anything,” Joe, according to Kauffman, responded, “We couldn’t have screwed things up any worse than your generation.” “You know what comes of it?” Kauffman says. “Helmut Schmidt and Joe become best buddies.” After that, the chancellor refused to talk about certain issues with President Carter or Secretary of State Edmund Muskie — only Joe.
With 20 years of such relationships under his belt — Joe was the person who convinced former Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netenyahu, a friend since the administration of Golda Meir, to participate in the Wye River talks last year — Joe enjoys an esteem rare among U.S. Senators. Meeting Schmidt was the turning point. “I had a respect, but there was no awe,” he says. “It all comes down to individuals. I had this recognition that these guys are just like me.”
So he had no fear of Milosevic. “He looked at me as if I had said, ‘Lot’s of luck in your senior year.’ It didn’t faze him a bit. Even some of my staff said as we were leaving, ‘You said that to the president of a country.’ I said, ‘I don’t care. He is a war criminal.’”
When Joe saw a replay of Bosnia in Kosovo early this year, he urged President Clinton and NATO to use force. As Joe saw it, Milosevic could have destabilized all of Central Europe, and refugees would have strained the nations of Western Europe. It was not a popular position, but one, says chief of staff Alan Hoffman, that Joe felt strongly enough about to lose an election over.
Some called the ensuing 78-day air campaign against Milosevic, the first war waged by democracies in Europe in the information age, another Vietnam. Skeptics in Congress called it “Biden’s War.” “How’s your war going today, Joe?” they’d ask. Joe maintained that someone had to send a message to other racist strongmen that ethnic cleansing would not be tolerated. If the United States and other free democracies of the world would not make the point, then who?
If ever there were an issue that would define the United States’ role in the world during the 21st century, it is arms control. At the center of the matter in October was the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty.
In explaining the importance of the treaty, Joe goes off on a tangent about how a nuclear warhead works, how a blasting cap of conventional explosives forces together tiny rods of plutonium with force enough to exceed a critical mass and cause all atomic hell to break loose. “But, see, plutonium has only been around in the history of man for 50 years,” he says. “No one knows what it does to missiles over time. So once in a while government scientists take 10 missiles completely apart and examine every little piece. It’s like my ’67 Corvette. At one time it was in pieces on the floor of a friend’s garage. Then they replace anything that’s worn out or bad and put them back together. Since 1958 only 1 percent of the defective nuclear weapons tested couldn’t be fixed. Only 1 percent.”
Having spent 3 1/2 years of his life commuting to and from Washington on the Metroliner so he could be home with his family at night, he’s had ample time to study. That resulting body of knowledge, says Kauffman, is why Joe has such an amazing “bullshit detector.” That is why senators from both sides of the aisle pay attention when he speaks.
Yet some of Joe’s Republican counterparts don’t see restoring old hot rods as quite the same as ensuring the safety and reliability of Minuteman rockets and Trident II missiles. That was a key argument in their opposition to the CTBT.
The treaty, sought in some form by every president since Dwight D. Eisenhower, was written to end explosive testing of nuclear weapons and therefore halt their proliferation. Despite polls that showed 82 percent of Americans favored the treaty and despite support from the joint chiefs of staff, the directors of the national laboratories, Albright and former chairman of the joint chiefs Colin Powell, the Republican leadership was adamantly opposed to the CTBT. They want to hand President Clinton the solid defeat that had eluded them for the past seven years. The president and Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle therefore asked Joe to negotiate an agreement. No one else, Daschle says, had the respect, knowledge or diplomatic skills to pull it off.
Joe describes his relationship with Clinton as “easy, informal, comfortable. I’ve been through six presidents, so he listens to me.” Which gives the ever-outspoken Joe the unique ability to say exactly what he thought about the Monica Lewinsky affair. “I told him he was lucky he wasn’t standing in front of me,” Joe says. “He asked why. I said, ‘Because I’d knock you on your rear end.’ It’s very hard for me to overcome my personal disappointment. He told me during the hearings, ‘If I were you, I’d feel the exact same way.’”
Despite his disapproval, Joe did not believe Clinton’s trespasses were impeachable. As the Senate fumbled for a way to conduct the president’s trial, Joe, generally considered one of the two senators most knowledgeable about constitutional law, stayed focused on process over politics. He called in scholars from Duke University School of Law to set the record straight. “He did the best he could,” Soles says. “If the high road is the Constitution, and I think it is, Joe took it.”
Joe believes multilateral arms agreements are the only way to maintain peace and order in the future. So the CTBT is the high road as well, therefore not a matter to let succumb to partisanship. The Republican opposition was “a game of chicken,” he says. “When I was a kid, we used to go out to Cherry Island, and there was this narrow little bridge. You either got out before you got to the bridge or you had really good brakes. The Republicans hate the president so bad they’re willing to jeopardize our national security.”
After all the negotiations over the Columbus Day weekend, after only one day of hearings and one day of debate — as opposed to the usual 12 to 14 days of hearings and 12 to 14 days of debate on most treaties — 24 of the 55 Senate Republicans signed a letter to Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott, asking him to pull the vote so the treaty could be revisited later. When Lott forced the vote, all 55 voted against the CTBT.
It was a “triumph of isolationism over engagement,” Joe says. “Are we going to be isolationists or internationalists? Everything else is just a shell argument. Americans believe in strength and engagement. The world is too small. You can’t pretend anymore. So I don’t believe this is the end. If I believed this was the end, I’d really be worried for my granddaughters.”
There are those granddaughters again, daughters of son Beau, a federal prosecutor in Philadelphia. Son Hunter is an undersecretary of commerce. And these, along with wife Jill, a teacher at Del-Tech, and daughter Ashley, a freshman at Tulane University, are the most important things in Joe’s life. “Family is the beginning and the end,” he says. “Everything else is in the middle.”
So he had no qualms about suddenly cancelling a 10-day trip to meet with several heads of state in Asia last year because Ashley’s Archmere Academy lacrosse team qualified for the state championships. “Believe me,” says Kauffman, “lots of people involved in the planning of that trip were not very understanding.” Likewise, when, back in 1987, his advisors told him the best day to announce his candidacy for the presidency was June 3, Joe said no way. “It was Jill’s birthday, and the most important thing to happen on Jill’s birthday is Jill’s birthday.” When they suggested June 8, Joe again said no. June 8 was Ashley’s birthday. An advisor remarked, “Doesn’t he know that if you want to be president, you have to trash your family?”
Joe has skipped most of the big dinners at the White House, lunches with important editors, Democratic National Committee events — things that could have and most likely would have advanced his career. But after 27 years, Joe has built strong relationships. David Broder and Mary McCrory call him now.
Perhaps if such media figures knew him as well in 1987, Joe’s presidential campaign would have ended differently. “Withdrawing from that race was the single most difficult thing I have ever done in my life,” he says. “I had never quit anything in my life.” Worse, says Jill, the media, frenzied by allegations that he had plagiarized in campaign speeches, investigated every aspect of his life. “It went to the very core of how Joe defines himself,” she says.
Joe was vindicated by the Bork hearings, what Daschle has called “the most contentious Supreme Court nomination hearings in history.” By proving that the president could not make the court in his own image, he defeated the nomination of the most revered conservative jurist in the country and established himself as an intellect passionate about preserving the integrity of the political system. Fairness, he realized, is rarely in either party’s best interests, but it is the right thing. Joe’s reputation ever since has allowed him to accomplish things others cannot.
Which begs the question: Will Joe run for president again?
“Whether or not I run again depends on a lot of things. I don’t try to plan. I am a great respecter of fate. The only thing you can do is do whatever your job is as well as you can, and things will take care of themselves. I’m not less ambitious about what I want to accomplish for my country, so if the time comes when running makes sense … I have no plans to run, but I have no plans not to run again either.”