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A Reason For Pride—And Hope

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Joe Biden was walking toward his office in Washington, D.C., when Strom Thurmond appeared at the other end of a very long hall. He was clearly in as big a hurry as Joe.

Joe nudged my arm. “Watch this,” he said, grinning, waving toward the elder senator. “Hey Strom, talk to this guy. He’s from my home magazine. He’s writing about me.”

Senator Thurmond—a one-time Dixiecrat and living legend among his fellow Republicans—walked over, shook my hand and laughed. “Best man in the Senate,” he said, “best man in the Senate,” then continued down the hall.

“See that?” Joe said, nudging my arm again. “Great guy. It is possible to have friends in Washington. The thing is to remember that we’re all just people. Everyone has a story.”

I fell under a strange spell that day in Washington. That was nearly nine years ago. Today I feel a real joy. We the people of the United States of America have elected our first black president, a man with a story that is nothing less than amazing. And with Barack Obama we have elected the First State’s Joe Biden as vice president. No other Delawarean has risen to so lofty an office. It is our proudest moment.

That Obama chose Joe to be his running mate seemed to me somehow inevitable. Certainly, candidate Obama needed a complement with experience, as well as someone with a sincere, proven interest in civil rights. If he was to be a president who could unite people of all kinds because he could relate to people of all kinds, he could not afford a second who was not equal to the task.

Obama could not have picked better. The rest of the country will soon come to know Joe much differently. They may have seen a rousing campaigner, a Joe who tells it like he sees it, who can “straight talk” every bit as well as his friend John McCain. Not all will trust his ideas or policies. But I hope they get to see a Joe others know, the Joe who sees people for who they are, manages to find something good and admirable in all—even in opponents—a Joe who treats others with respect.

Another example from that day in Washington nine years ago: When a Biden staffer asked the U.S. Senator Jesse Helms—then Joe’s boss on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a man as conservative as any conservative Southern Republican could possibly be—if I could use his office to interview then Secretary of State Madeleine Albright about Joe, Helms consented enthusiastically.

Helms considered Joe a friend, and he considered him a friend because, though they were ideological opposites, Joe had, early on, made a point of getting to know him well. Where many people saw a one-time segregationist, Joe saw, below the surface, a man with a heart large enough to adopt and care for an orphan with cerebral palsy. In the highly polarized Clinton years, that friendship and mutual respect signified something good and decent in the often rotten game we call politics.

When I say I fell under a spell that day nine years ago, it is because, though I’d interviewed Senator Biden in the past, I had always been one of several reporters fighting for a moment to discuss the business at hand. I’d never had enough time to get a personal sense of the man. He could, with justifiable pride, tell a great story about winning back the last piece of the old Fort Miles for Cape Henlopen State Park. He could stir enthusiasm during a campaign, for himself and other Democratic candidates, like no one else.

That he had charisma was undeniable. That he had charm was equally undeniable. But these were simply traits successful politicians needed, surface gloss. Ceremonial functions said little about how the man did the real work of governance. In Joe’s case, I learned the work was personal in the best of ways.

On the train to D.C., he spoke about a pending vote on the Comprehensive Test Ban Treaty and the conflict in the Balkans as if anyone would know as much about such things as he. He didn’t dumb down his explanations. He didn’t have to. He had an easy way of characterizing complex issues in simple terms. More important, he wanted these things to be understood. “Mark, the time is critical. We have to decide if we want to be isolationists or if we want to be internationalists.” If we the people can’t understand, how can we form sound opinions? How can we be good citizens?

Somehow, I had gotten pulled into the discussion. Intellectually, I knew I was speaking with a senior senator, but I felt like I was conversing with a mentoring professor—one with clear opinions. And this is why Joe’s fans are so intrigued. He is an ordinary man who worked hard to succeed despite great personal tragedy. It so happens that he worked hard in the capital of the free world and, in so doing, has acquired extraordinary knowledge and experience that play out on an international scale.

Yet at the end of the day, he comes home to Delaware, just like any working schlub who commutes on Amtrak. It is the strangest kind of abstraction, yet a familiar one: Do we know a guy named Joe who happens to be a senior senator, or do we know a senior senator who happens to be named Joe?

Does it matter? A Joe Biden seems to be needed more than ever. We make a big deal here about The Delaware Way, an ability to set aside personal differences and party politics to achieve a greater good. Perhaps Joe can foster that kind of cooperation as vice president. Democrats will be the majority in both houses of the coming Congress, which will make it easier for the president to accomplish his goals. But I suspect the new administration doesn’t want to alienate Republicans. Moderation is the order of the day. Perhaps Joe will show a special gift for bringing everyone closer.

At least I hope so. Politics won’t fix an economy or end a war. Cooperation among well-intentioned people will. I have to believe Obama and Joe have the best of intentions and the sincere interest in people that is too often lacking among the Washington elite.

Maybe it is easy for we Delawareans to feel like Joe is truly one of us, a working person like any other. But Joe belongs to the whole country now. I think interested watchers may soon get to know him well enough to feel the same way.

 

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