WASHINGTON – Joe Biden is an archetypical veteran Washington politician: fiercely partisan, combative and glib, but also a senator who’s carefully built a reputation as a consensus-builder on tough issues.
The 65-year-old Delaware Democrat – introduced by Barack Obama on Saturday in Springfield, Ill., as his running mate and “a leader ready to step in and be president” – was the fifth-youngest person ever elected to the U.S. Senate when he won his seat at age 29 in 1972. He appears on paper to be the kind of elder statesman/Washington insider that political analysts believe Obama badly needs.
What separates Biden from the Senate pack, though, is not the resume, it’s the style.
He’s a politician who can discuss, seemingly for hours, a detailed plan for rebuilding Iraq. But in 2006, about three months after offering a proposal for partitioning that country into three regions, he probably got just as much notice when he quipped while campaigning, “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking.”
These two sides of Joe Biden – conciliator and “regular guy” – have both helped and hurt him throughout his political life.
Biden briefly made a presidential bid in 1987, but his proclivity to talk and talk got him in trouble.
In a television ad, Biden used, without attribution, the words of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock during a debate in Iowa.
“Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to a university?” Biden asked. “Why is it that my wife, who is sitting out there in the audience, is the first in her family ever to go to college?”
Kinnock had earlier asked, “Why am I the first Kinnock in a thousand generations to be able to get to university? Why is Glenys (his wife) the first woman in her family in a thousand generations to be able to get to university?”
But while the incident derailed the White House bid, few back in the Senate were upset; they saw it as Biden being Biden.
He was Senate Judiciary Committee chairman at the time and quickly rebounded as he led the fight to reject Robert Bork, President Reagan’s Supreme Court nominee. He got broad support from colleagues, including Bork loyalists. “Hang on tight,” Republican Sen. Alan Simpson said at the time. “You have at least had the guts to throw yourself in the public arena, to run for the presidency. And that’s better than a lot of faint-hearted detractors will ever do in this world.”
Biden’s judiciary work made him a favorite enemy of conservatives, though in 1991 he first had to deal with annoyed women’s groups.
He was chairman of the committee during the Clarence Thomas hearings and was criticized for not being quick to scrutinize allegations by Anita Hill that Thomas harassed her. Biden did eventually convene hearings examining the charges and voted against Thomas.
Biden was instrumental four years later in shepherding President Clinton’s crime initiative through Congress. The legislation aimed to add 100,000 police officers on America’s streets, but also expand the use of the federal death penalty.
He became chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee when Democrats regained control of the Senate in 2001 and a year later was battling many leaders in his own party over whether to give President Bush broad authority to wage war in Iraq.
Biden fought some of his party’s wiliest strategists, notably West Virginia Sen. Robert Byrd, but 29 Democrats joined 48 Republicans to give Bush the bipartisan backing he wanted.
Yet Biden also remained a critic of administration policy and by 2006 was advocating another way to deal with the increasingly unpopular conflict.
Rather than timetables or surges, he proposed federalizing Iraq and giving Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds autonomy over separate regions.
Biden is still a consensus-builder and a talker – something Obama knows firsthand. An early effort by Biden to compliment Obama also drew criticism as racially insensitive when he said Obama was the first mainstream black presidential candidate to be “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Other Biden lines are sure to be repeated: “I am not running for vice president. I would not accept it if anyone offered it to me. The fact of the matter is I’d rather stay as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee than be vice president,” he told Fox News last August. And he said Obama was “not yet ready” to be president.
Biden was born in Scranton, Pa., and his family moved to Delaware while he was still in grade school. Biden has always been known as a devoted family man, often taking the train home to Wilmington after his workday in Washington.
His first wife, Neilia, and a daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after he was elected to the Senate.
He married Jill Tracy Jacobs in 1977, and they have a daughter, Ashley, 27, a social worker.
Biden has two children from his first marriage. Beau, 39, Delaware’s attorney general who is often mentioned as a successor to his father, is a captain in the National Guard, about to be deployed to Iraq.
Another son, Hunter, 38, has worked as a corporate Washington lobbyist, while Obama has campaigned on minimizing the influence of lobbyists and special-interest groups in politics.
Biden survived two brain aneurysms in 1988, taking months to recover.Biden tried to win the presidency again this year, and drew large, enthusiastic crowds in Iowa. But after a finishing a distant fifth in the Iowa caucuses, he dropped out the next day.
Biden-watchers thought he was in the running for vice president when they observed two uncharacteristic traits this spring and summer: He did not take sides in the Obama-Hillary Clinton nomination fight, and he stayed fairly quiet.
He tried hard to remain the statesman, and when he returned earlier this week from a trip to Georgia, his rhetoric was lofty.
“I have left the country convinced that Russia’s invasion of Georgia may be one of the most significant events to occur in Europe since the end of communism,” he said.
Of course, that’s not all Joe Biden said. He went on for another 500 words.