Ask me any time since 1984 which politician I admire and trust the most, my answer would be consistent: Joe Biden. I supported his run for the Presidency in 2008 and was delighted when Barack Obama chose him to be his running mate.
Part of the reason I’m a Biden fan is personal. In the mid-eighties I worked as a legislative aide to Senator Larry Pressler (R-SD). Joe Biden’s office on the top floor of the Russell Senate office building was just around the corner from where I worked, and over the course of those two years I had a number of conversations with Biden. No, we weren’t buddies — the conversations all took place in the elevator.
The first one involved tacos. I had gone down to the staff cafeteria where they had “make your own tacos” and built a couple very impressive tacos to eat at my desk. Biden got in the elevator and looked at the tacos wide eyed. ”Wow,” he said, “those are amazing tacos, where did you get them?” When I told him he lamented about how stuffy the Senate Dining Room was. I think every time he saw me after that he called me the “taco guy.”
Our conversations were superficial. When he found out I was working on my MA at Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (now the Nitze School) he mentioned that it was an excellent institution. But most of the time the banter was what you’d expect from people who work in the same building and see each other rarely and only on the elevator — pretty insubstantial.
That itself was impressive, however. The Senator on the other side was John Warner of Virginia. He’d stand aloof in the elevator and not make eye contact, puffing his Virginia cigar while standing in front of the “Do Not Smoke in the Elevator” sign. I did get to see Warner’s ex-wife, Elizabeth Taylor. I was walking down the hall and saw a woman walking the other way. She looked down but as she passed glanced up at me. I smiled and nodded a hello, she smiled back — once I saw her eyes I knew it was her (and the papers confirmed she had visited her ex-husband on the hill that day).
Yet the reason I admire Biden is because he is honest, genuine, intelligent and has never lost his connection to average folk. He personifies the traits most people want in a leader.
Biden’s biography is well known. He grew up as a member of the working class poor, his father struggling to make ends meet, first in Scranton, PA and then Wilmington, DE. His father finally became a reasonably successful used car salesman and the family moved to the middle class. A stutterer as a child, he practiced in front of the mirror to become a successful speaker. He worked his way through law school, avoiding service in Vietnam, yet not protesting the war.
He had married Neilia Hunter in 1966, and his son Beau was born in 1969. In 1972 everything changed. Republican Senator J. Caleb Boggs was considering retirement, but President Nixon convinced him to run one more time. No prominent Democrat in Delaware wanted to take on Boggs, so Biden stepped in. He had little money or formal support, and ran on a platform of opposition to the Vietnam war and being an outsider who would bring change to Washington.
Delaware is a small state. Biden’s youthful energy and exuberance found him campaigning everywhere, all the time. In a shocker, Biden outsted Boggs on November 7, 1972 by just over 3000 votes. At age 30 Biden had become one of the youngest Senators in history.
The next month tragedy struck. His wife and one year old daughter were killed in an automobile accident, with his sons Beau and Hunter critically injured. Biden’s world fell apart. He considered resigning, but was convinced to stay on. To care for his young sons he started commuting via Amtrak everyday to DC, but lacked passion and focus. He was angry and doubted his religious faith; he had hit bottom. His staff didn’t think he’d be able to keep up — being so successful so young, he now didn’t know where to turn.
But he had two boys to care for. So he trudged on. In 1975 he met Jill Jacobs and married her in 1977. They had one daughter together, and he threw himself into his work as a US Senator, becoming known for his expertise in both legal issues and foreign relations. He almost died in 1988 due to an aneurysm that doctors successfully treated.
Biden has consistently been ranked as one of the least wealthy Senators, with a net worth of about $300,000. That itself says a lot. Some go to Washington to make connections and build their fortune, Biden focused on public service. The only scandal he was involved in came when he ran for President in 1988 and one of his speech writers borrowed language from Neil Kinnock of the British Labor party. When that came out, people dug and found that he had been accused of plagiarism in his first year of law school. That hurt his Presidential bid, but otherwise in forty years he’s had a squeaky clean record.
One reason I’ve always admired Biden is that he connects with people. He understands the human side of politics. It shows in the way he’d talk to a young Senate staffer on the elevator, his famous friendships with Amtrak employees during his years of commuting to DC, and his focus on policies to help average folk. His reputation as a foreign policy expert is immense — if he had not been Vice President, he’d probably have become Secretary of State.
He is an honest, hard working man who understands how policies affect real people in a city full of corrupt lazy and vain people who think in terms of abstract power games. His famous gaffes are a mark that he is genuine. He says what he thinks, he doesn’t force himself to stick to a politically correct script.
Tonight Vice President Biden takes the stage in what may be his last big political campaign event, debating Wisconsin Senator Paul Ryan. Ryan is smart in an abstract sort of way, and perhaps has the capacity to become a superb all around political leader. But he’s no Joe Biden.
Yes, I support Obama over Romney, so for that reason alone I would want Biden to do well tonight. Yet I also hope that Biden does a superb job to cap what is likely the final campaign of a man whose intelligence, integrity and character is admired by even his political opponents.