Grandpop Finnegan taught his grandson, Joe Robinette Biden Jr., never to lie. Joe Biden’s father taught his son never to give up. And in the third grade, when a nun ridiculed Joe for his severe stutter, his 5-foot-1-inch mother, Jean Finnegan Biden, taught her son never to let anyone make him feel small.
In his book, “Promises to Keep,” Biden recalls the day a nun forced him to read aloud. Jean marched into St. Helena’s School and confronted the teacher. “If you ever speak to my son like that again,” she said, “I’ll come back and rip that bonnet off your head.”
Biden’s fortitude comes from his parents. His inspiration comes from the rest of his family, especially his wife, Jill, his brothers Jimmy and Frankie, and his sister, campaign manager and best friend Valerie Biden Owens.
“Joe believes that families come first,” says outgoing Governor Ruth Ann Minner. “He always has. He always will, even as vice president. All of the issues he’s worked on, whether it’s child protection or domestic violence, the Family Medical Leave Act or looking out for Social Security, his issues affect families.”
During nearly 36 years in the U.S. Senate, Biden helped end genocide in the Balkans, secured passage of the Violence Against Women Act and recovered from a brain aneurysm. But without his parents and siblings, he would never have survived the loss of his first wife, Neilia, and his baby daughter, Naomi, both killed in an auto accident that left his sons, Beau and Hunter, in critical condition.
The year was 1974. Biden was 30. He had just won election to his first term in the U.S. Senate, making him the youngest person ever popularly elected to that house of Congress. Without Neilia, though, politics lost its allure. “I began to understand how despair led people to cash it in,” Biden wrote in his book, “how suicide wasn’t just an option but a rational option.”
UD classmate Fred Sears was with Biden on spring break in Nassau the day he met Neilia. “She stood out, like in the movie ‘10,’” says Sears. “While all of us dumb college guys were trying to decide who would talk to her first, Joe was taking a 50-yard dash toward her.”
Neilia was Biden’s backbone, a partner during his hungry days as a young New Castle County councilman, a loving mother to their three children. “When she died, it changed Joe tremendously,” says Sears. “He looked long and hard at how anyone could be a senator, especially a freshman senator, as a single parent.”
Biden has suffered crippling blows in his life, and “With each blow, his family has been there to lift him to his feet,” says his friend, U.S. Senator Tom Carper. “Without them, I’m not sure if Joe—or any of us—could have risen to the heights he’s risen.”
The day Biden became Barack Obama’s running mate, he and Jill headed for the airport en route to Springfield, Illinois. On the way, Biden called Carper.
“He wasn’t bragging about the VP nod,” Carper says. “He called to ask how my son, Ben, was doing in college. Kids are first. That says a lot about the guy.”
Biden’s family has expanded to include another daughter, Ashley, plus daughters-in-law and grandchildren. Never has the Biden bond been so eloquently illustrated than at the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver. There, Biden’s son, Delaware Attorney General Joseph Robinette “Beau” Biden III, introduced his father as the Democratic vice presidential nominee. “Good evening. I’m Beau Biden,” he said. “And Joe Biden is my dad.”
Beau, who is serving in Iraq as a captain in the Army National Guard in a war his father opposes, told the country about his mother’s accident, about being in a body cast at age 4, about his father being sworn in as senator at his hospital bedside, about how it felt when his father came home on the train every night from Washington, D.C.
When the entire Biden family joined Biden on stage after his acceptance speech, it felt real—a son, brother, husband, father and grandfather sharing one of the most important moments of his life with the most important people in his life. —Maria Hess
Page 2: Scholar of the Constitution
Until he was declared the Democratic nominee for vice president, Joe Biden’s greatest prominence on the national stage no doubt occurred during the Senate Judiciary Committee’s hearings on the confirmation of Ronald Reagan’s U.S. Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork.
Already a declared candidate for the presidency in the 1988 election, Biden found himself walking a tightrope between the self-promotional necessities of a presidential campaign and presiding over sober deliberations about the Senate advise and consent provisions of the U.S. Constitution.
The tension between the two roles eventually snapped the tightrope, and Biden abandoned his presidential bid, hunkering down instead on the Bork hearings. The Supreme Court and the Constitution are, arguably, the better for it.
“Joe’s constitutional expertise should not be considered restricted to just his roles in the Bork or Clarence Thomas hearings,” cautions long-time former aide Claire DeMatteis. “He has presided over more hearings for Supreme Court justices than any other senator.”
But it is clear from Biden’s own words that the issues presented during the Bork hearings crystallized Biden’s thoughts on the U.S. Constitution. In his memoir “Promises to Keep,” Biden writes that learning about Bork’s constitutional philosophy “allowed me to revisit my own beliefs about the fundamental underpinnings of American democracy.”
Bork’s view was that any right not specifically referenced by a statute or the Constitution could not be protected by the courts. To Biden that meant “Bork’s Constitution is essentially a contract…nothing more, nothing less. It has no spirit; it is not a reflection of the hopes and aspirations of the American people.”
Biden wrote that finding an argument to counter Bork’s view of the Constitution led him to new ways of thinking about his own political beliefs. “I thought government was obligated to be active in helping its citizens. I thought government should serve people.”
Biden’s colleague, U.S. Senator Tom Carper, says Biden’s views of the constitution simply reflect deeply held spiritual and religious views.
“Joe is not only a believer in the Golden Rule, but he lives by it,” Carper says.
Professor Erin Daly, a colleague at the Widener University School of Law, where Biden has taught Constitutional law for years, says Biden has an especially strong grasp of the Constitution’s separation of powers among the three branches of government.
“I think that expertise is not only great for students, but will be most useful to the new president as well,” Daly says.
Former top aide and speech writer Mark Gitenstein cites the delicate balance Biden has been able to provide between the First, Fourth and Fifth Amendments and the government’s right to defend its own need for confidentiality, especially in the intelligence sphere.
“Biden crafted a statute (the Classified Procedures Information Act) that protected First Amendment freedoms while still allowing the government to prosecute former CIA employees for leaking intelligence information,” Gitenstein says. “He also helped draft the Agent Identity Statute that struck a balance between First Amendment rights and the need to prosecute those who leaked the names of CIA operatives, the statute that helped convict Scooter Libby in the Valerie Plame scandal.”
Gitenstein says Biden’s expertise on the Constitution’s free speech protections allows for balancing those principles against the government’s need to protect itself. That pragmatic wisdom, Gitenstein believes, comes from the senator’s willingness to seek the advice of others to ensure the correctness of his position. —Reid Champagne
Page 3: Civil Rights Champion
Ted Kaufman remembers Valerie Biden asking him to help in her brother Joe’s improbable run to unseat Delaware’s longtime Republican U.S. senator, J. Caleb Boggs. Working for DuPont at the time and active in Democratic politics, Kaufman was dubious at best about Biden’s chances.
“I don’t think you can win,” Kaufman told the young challenger. “But you are fighting the good fight on civil rights.”
That Kaufman, who took a one-year leave of absence from DuPont to serve on Biden’s staff and wound up staying 22 years, zeroed in on Biden’s commitment to civil rights is no surprise to those who know the vice president. Claire DeMatteis, who served as senior counsel coordinating the activities of the senator’s Delaware and Washington, D.C., offices, says simply, “The reason Joe ran for office is civil rights.”
Over the past four decades Biden cut a swath through the thickets of resistance to advancing civil rights protections. Whether it was renewing provisions of the Voting Rights Act, opposing attempts to cut funding for affirmative action programs, cosponsoring the bill to declare Martin Luther King Day, supporting resolutions to create the Equal Rights Amendment, and opposing Supreme Court nominations such as Samuel Alito’s for the nominee’s evident lack of understanding of discrimination in the 21st century, those who know him believe Biden’s consistent civil rights activism is rooted in a fundamental vision of power.
“His commitment is based on his sensitivity to the abuse of power, whether it be white versus black or man versus woman,” says DeMatteis.
It is a view echoed by Kaufman, who does not believe Biden is merely a creature of the civil rights era in which the senator grew up. “If you look at what drives him, it is about power and how someone uses power against the powerless.”
Kaufman adds that Biden’s idea of civil rights also spills into the international sphere, where the senator has had impassioned exchanges with former President Ronald Reagan’s secretary of state, George Schultz, over the administration’s reluctance to impose economic sanctions against the government of South Africa because of its adherence to the policy of apartheid, and where the senator prodded the Clinton administration to halt the genocide in Bosnia.
“It’s a state of mind,” Kaufman says. “Everything Joe does derives from his cardinal rule of protecting civil rights here and abroad.”
That does not mean Biden won’t occasionally stake out a position that puts him at odds with more ideological civil rights advocates. In the 1960s, he supported anti-busing legislation that he believed coercive, referring to busing as “a liberal train wreck.” That put him directly at odds with Delaware’s NAACP.
“We had heated debates over his position,” says Littleton P. Mitchell, who served as state NAACP chairman for 30 years. “I tried to convince him that only by sending white children into black schools could we ever convince white parents that separate could never be equal when it came to education.”
But Mitchell compared his disagreement with Biden to having a spat with your wife.
“The man has been a friend to me,” Mitchell says today. “He gave me his phone number and took my calls directly over the years. He invited me to sit in on the Clarence Thomas (U.S. Supreme Court) hearings. He gave the eulogy at my wife’s funeral in 2004. The NAACP has consistently given him high marks for his work in civil rights.”
DeMatteis believes Biden’s basic character informed and sustained his reputation during these difficult periods in his career.
“Like him or hate him, you know where he stands,” she says. “Whether the stance is popular or not, you know you can still respect him for his honesty.” —Reid Champagne
Page 4: Crime Fighter
Joe Biden considers the Biden Crime Bill and the Violence Against Women Act among his proudest accomplishments. So it’s no coincidence that a victim’s rights and anti-domestic violence advocate, Quincy Lucas of Dover, was tabbed to officially nominate Biden for vice president at the Democratic National Convention last summer.
The landmark crime bill helped raise the profiles of Biden and Delaware across the country, says Claire DeMatteis, a former senior counsel to Biden who helped research and implement the law. Nearly 15 years later, people across the country still recognize Biden’s work on behalf of victims of domestic and sexual violence.
“When Jill [Biden] was campaigning, everywhere she went victims asked her to thank Joe for what he did,” DeMatteis says. “Jill would take down their names and give them to him.”
The $30 billion Biden Crime Bill—the largest of its kind, formally called the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act of 1994—is credited for reducing crime during the 1990s by adding 100,000 police to departments across the United States, setting up treatment programs for offenders and expanding the federal death penalty. To this day cops everywhere love Biden for it.
Thanks to the Crime Bill, Delaware has received more than $33 million in grants that have added more than 460 police officers, more than $10 million in grants for technology such as laptop computers, and $22 million for prisons.
The Violence Against Women Act, part of the Crime Bill, funded a national system of shelters for victims of abuse, strengthened protection from abuse orders and established a national hotline that’s been used by more than 1.5 million victims. Biden’s website states that the act has resulted in a 50 percent decrease in domestic violence and a 60 percent drop in rapes.
“He had an impressive conference table in his Senate office that seated 25 people,” DeMatteis says. “He would have police and others there and a paper and pen. He would say, ‘Here’s what I’ve written so far. What’s wrong with it?’”
“The unique part is, he worked with us on it to understand the problems in policing,” says Tom Gordon, then chief of New Castle County Police. “That was reflected in the bill. We had a part in it.”
Gordon says the Crime Bill helped New Castle County Police put more than 44 extra cops on the streets during a four-year stretch when the crime rate was up. The county was experimenting with community policing at the time. Added officers helped the effort.
“It allowed more officers to use their education and training to solve crimes,” Gordon says, “to think outside the box and come up with new ways to solve crimes.”
It took five years and countless hearings before Congress passed the measure. Even then, Biden’s work wasn’t done. The day after the Crime Bill passed, Biden was on the horn with U.S. Attorney General Janet Reno, demanding a one-page application for police to request grants for cops and equipment.
“He said, ‘Here’s what I want,’” DeMatteis recalls. “[Reno] said, ‘The federal government doesn’t work that way.’ And Senator Biden said, ‘This has to be simple, easy and quick.’”
Biden got his form. Gordon, for one, appreciated the bureaucracy-trimming effort.
“That allowed quick money into local governments,” Gordon says. “It really dropped crime during the ’90s when it had been escalating. It helped us all get through that tough time.”
Even after the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, when the Bush Administration began to shift funding to Homeland Security efforts, Biden continued his famed support of law enforcement
“Outside the Crime Bill, when COPS (Office of Community Oriented Policing Services) and block grants decreased, Senator Biden was a key instrument in helping us get approved for grant funds for technical equipment,” says Delaware State Police Major Joseph Papili. “That funding enhanced our ability to share information with other agencies in the state and in neighboring states.”
DeMatteis and Papili predict that as vice president, Biden will continue to be a friend of public safety. DeMatteis says one of the first things the Obama-Biden administration will do is put money back into Crime Bill initiatives such as COPS.
“It’s not just the Crime Bill and the Violence Against Women Act,” Papili says. “Senator Biden has been very supportive of public safety in general. He’s a pretty good partner in law enforcement.” —Drew Ostroski
Page 5: Foreign Relations Expert
U.S. Senator Tom Carper believes Joe Biden will be able to offer President Barack Obama immediate expertise in the Middle East, one area many believe he’s sure to be tested in soon after assuming office.
“Joe has a strong knowledge of the world and world leaders, especially in Iraq, Pakistan, Iran and the Middle East in general,” Carper says.
Claire DeMatteis, who served as senior counsel to Biden, was there when Biden first decided to give up the Judiciary Committee to become chairman of Foreign Relations.
“It was part of a personal strategy on his part to become the Senate expert in foreign policy for the Democrats,” she says.
DeMatteis says Biden has an “incredible knowledge of nuclear weapons, non-proliferations and arms treaties. He can cite chapter and verse from just about any arms agreement.”
Joseph Pika, an international relations professor at the University of Delaware, believes growing up during the Vietnam era informed Biden’s passion.
“He entered the Senate at the high point of Congressional assertiveness of its prerogatives in foreign policy,” says Pika. “That gave him the confidence to speak out on international issues and to use his own judgment on foreign affairs.
“Biden has flown around the world to conduct personal fact-finding visits and draw his own independent conclusions. And he has constructed his own network of foreign policy advisers both in and out of government. Vietnam built the confidence he needed to become a foreign policy expert.”
Tempering his expansive, internationalist world view, though, is the knowledge that no nation can go it alone, says DeMatteis.
Yet Biden knows a bully when he sees one, and he is not shy about calling him out. In his memoir “Promises to Keep,” Biden recounts a much publicized 1993 confrontation with leader Slobodan Milosevic of Serbia during a meeting in Belgrade.
“Milosevic could tell I had just about had it with his lies, and at one point he looked up from the maps and said, without any emotion, ‘What do you think of me?’
“‘I think you’re a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one,’ I said.”
The story became controversial when one of the aides present at the meeting later contradicted the level of confrontation that Biden had characterized in his book. Ted Kaufman was also at that meeting and remembers it clearly.
“There is no doubt as to what Joe said and how he said it,” says Kaufman, a former Biden chief of staff and a campaign aide in the senator’s successful vice presidential run. “I still have the picture of the senator shaking an angry finger in Milosevic’s face, as [Bosnian Serb leader Radovan] Karadzic looks on.”
For all his knowledge, sense of decorum and respect for protocol when engaging world leaders, we might see a Vice President Biden stand one up, should that meeting conflict with family matters. DeMatteis recalls such an occasion when Biden headed the Foreign Relations Committee.
“Joe was scheduled to take the committee to Russia to meet with [President Boris] Putin,” DeMatteis recalls. “Then he learned his youngest daughter Ashley’s high school lacrosse team had made it to the state finals. Needless to say, the meeting with Putin was abruptly canceled.”
Joe Biden has served long enough on the national stage to have become many things to many people. But as DeMatteis says, no matter what, “Family is first, second and third in Joe’s list of priorities.”
More expression of that kind of sentiment might go a long way in helping to restore this country’s image around the world, and toward showing what Americans stand for. —Reid Champagne
Page 6: Party Leader
After 39 years in politics, Joe Biden is the man counted on to deliver votes for his state Democrats. “He’s the best when it comes to party politics, the guy really knows what he’s doing,” says Democratic National Committeeman Rhett Ruggerio. “When he talks, people listen.”
“He helps other candidates run for office, including Tom Carper,” says Claire DeMatteis, who spent 10 years on Biden’s staff. “He’s helped resolve disputes if the party wasn’t on the same page. He has the power and the charisma to pull people together. He is the top of the ticket.”
As Biden becomes vice president this month, he also becomes a huge cog for the National Democratic Party. Though his career in the Senate paints him a big-time policy leader, he has respectfully shunned the role of party cheerleader.
“It’s sort of like the minister’s wife. If she doesn’t sing in the choir, she’s not interested in church music. If she does sing in the choir, she’s trying to change church music,” says Jim Soles, University of Delaware professor emeritus of political science. “I think that’s the way with major political figures as well.
“I think you can certainly say Joe has always been helpful to the Democratic Party. I don’t think that Joe has ever tried to move the Democratic Party toward particular candidates or issues. I think that is because Joe’s respectful of the party’s role.”
Biden might not be a party reformer in the mold of Howard Dean, mainly because he likes to let his strong Democratic values—fighting for the middle class, women’s rights and civil rights—do the talking. “His leadership nationally is in his policy, not in these politics with a capital P,” DeMatteis says.
As Biden told The New Yorker in October: “I’ve been able to influence the direction of the Democratic Party on foreign policy. And I’ve been relatively—presumptuous to say—relatively successful legislatively in the Senate, being able to win a lot of Republican friends, and being able to cross the aisle.”
So will Vice President Biden play the game in order to strengthen his party?
“I think Joe Biden will carry an awful lot of water for the president,” Soles says. “He’s going to be a person that has the president’s ear and progress the president’s program. Once you’re there, you still have to maintain your base, the national party.” —Matt Amis