Biden’s bio reveals a life of ambition

That same belief permeates a new biography about a vice president who has always banked on his “word as a Biden.”

Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption is a sympathetic tome by former Baltimore Sun journalist Jules Witcover. Still, it does not shy away from tackling Biden’s flaws: namely, that he is verbose and gaffe-prone. If anything, Witcover goes overboard. And, in case you didn’t get the point, he closes the book with “That’s Joe.”

That said, Witcover paints a picture of a man who is the same in public as he is in private. What you see is what you get. One thing Biden abhors is the abuse of power, no matter the culprit. His son, Beau Biden, recalls that when he was 15, his father took him to Dachau and the Berlin Wall:

“It goes to what animates my dad’s public life — the necessity to stand up to the bullies, whether it’s at St. Helena’s in grade school … or doing the same as a United States senator to the tyrants of the world. There is no difference between the private man and the public man. He is the same.”

And this book offers several examples of that: from the nun who belittled him in class for stuttering to confronting world leaders on the international stage.
Witcover spoke to Biden and several of the vice president’s family members and confidants for the book. The vice president also answered submitted questions, as did President Obama.

Witcover does a masterful job of synthesizing anecdotes from the vice president’s life and career — too numerous to mention here. But together, they give you a true sense of the man, how he sees himself in the world and how he would like others to view him. Witcover lets friends and family weave a story of ambition, love, devotion and tragedy as the young Biden loses his first wife in a horrific accident after his historic election to the Senate.

He takes us through those first years in the upper chamber as Biden hankered for a seat on the Foreign Relations Committee and eventually secured it, along with a seat on the prestigious Judiciary Committee, which would allow him to play a central role in the confirmation processes of several Supreme Court justices.

Fast-forward to the last decade, and Witcover recounts Biden’s eagerness to have the Senate in session after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, along with Biden’s conversation with President George W. Bush, urging him not to delay his return from Florida to Washington.

“I said, ‘Mr. President, don’t do that. Come home. Land at Andrews [Air Force Base, in nearby Maryland]. Get a helicopter. Get on the front lawn. Let everybody see you.’ ” (Bush said his security people would not permit it.)

Biden initially supported the president in the war on terror, but tension developed as the focus began to shift from Afghanistan to Iraq. Although he supported the Iraqi invasion in 2003, Biden ultimately split with the administration on the handling of the aftermath and what he saw as an effort to undo everything President Clinton had accomplished on the international stage.

Biden saw 2008 as his last chance to seek the presidency. He had been burned by a failed bid in 1988 and accusations that he plagiarized a speech given by then-British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. “I didn’t deserve to be president. I wasn’t mature enough,” Biden recalls.

It had taken him 20 years to rebuild his reputation as a serious man on the big issues confronting the nation and world. He didn’t want to relive the mistakes of the past and risk what he’d built. But with an open, albeit limited, shot at the Democratic nomination, he took his chances and lost the big prize, only to get the call to be “adviser in chief” as Barack Obama’s running mate.

As we approach the halfway point in this administration, we learn of the value Biden has brought to this ticket. He’s versed in both foreign and domestic affairs, able to speak freely and candidly in private to the president and to be in the room for every important decision. He’s been a point man on Afghanistan, the New START Treaty, the recovery plan and the confirmation of two Supreme Court justices. More recently, he became the campaigner in chief, taking on the Republicans in the run-up to the midterms, returning to his blue-collar roots. It worked in 2008 but fell short this year.