50 years covering Biden
As a young Wall Street Journal reporter in 1972, I was covering Ted Kennedy campaigning for Democrats in a banner Republican year: One of the last stops was Delaware, where, drawing on my 20-something-year-old wisdom, I suggested it was futile stumping for a 29-year-old city counselor running against an entrenched Republican incumbent senator.
“No,” Kennedy replied, “this kid is special.”
On Thursday that “kid” — Joe Biden — will accept the Democratic nomination for president and is the favorite to be sworn in next January as the 46th President of the United States.
The journey has been strewn with setbacks and tragedies.
Biden has many notable qualities: empathy, authenticity, verbosity. Most striking: I’ve never seen a politician with such resilience, not Richard Nixon, not Bill Clinton.
He has come back from multiple tragedies, life-threatening health scares, two spectacularly unsuccessful presidential runs, a humiliating experience chairing a controversial hearing on a Supreme Court nominee and, as vice president five years ago, stiffed by his party’s establishment.
He always gets back up.
There are other reporters who know him better, but I’ve written about him for almost a half century, interviewed him scores of times. There were variations, but he always was vintage Biden.
Six weeks after his upset 1972 win, his wife and infant daughter were killed in an automobile accident, which badly injured his two young sons. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield had to persuade him to take his Senate seat and counseled the grieving widower.
Interviewing Biden in the mid 1970s — off the Senate floor or on the way back to the office buildings — he’d offer a quick quote, but was flip. Two decades later, I mentioned this to the retired Mansfield who replied, “You can’t imagine the courage that young man displayed.”
By the 1980s Biden was more confident, even cocky. He decided to run for President in 1987. To appreciate how ill-prepared he was, read one of the best books ever written on politics, “What it Takes” by Richard Ben Cramer, who describes the scene of the candidate and his hot shot advisers debating campaign strategy: It still makes you cringe.
He had to drop out the next year and suffered two brain aneurysms. Talking to him in1990, there was no looking back: “I’ve got a lot to do,” Biden said.
He was chairman of the Judiciary Committee when Clarence Thomas was nominated for the Supreme Court and a former assistant, Anita Hill, accused him of sexual harassment. The hearings were explosive, but one-sided. Journalist Jill Abramson, who co-wrote the authoritative book on the Thomas affair, noted that Biden was “out maneuvered and bluffed” by the Republicans.
So much for any Biden comeback. Except soon he persuaded two women Democratic Senators to join the all-male Judiciary Committee and became the prime proponent of the Violence against Women Act.
The Delaware lawmaker turned to foreign affairs, where he became the top Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee. One small story was when Biden, who had good relations with Senate adversaries, persuaded right-wing Republican Jesse Helms to stop blocking the supremely confident Richard Holbrooke’s appointment to be United Nations ambassador. A few days later, I asked him how he did it. Helms had complained about the nominee’s massive ego: Biden explained, “I told him, ‘Yeah, Jess, but he’s our ego.'”
Helms and Holbrooke went on to forge a constructive relationship on the United Nations and on AIDS issues.
The Iraq War was the next Biden touchstone. He asked all the right questions, the three R’s: What’s the “rationale” for the war, the impact on the region and who would replace Saddam Hussein? They were prescient, except Biden voted to authorize the war.
This didn’t help his 2008 Presidential run, where he barely registered in Iowa and had to drop out. Six months later, he was rescued when Barack Obama chose him as his running mate.
A successful vice president in a successful administration would be in line as the heir apparent. Tragedy struck again in 2015 when Biden’s son, Beau, Delaware’s Attorney General, died of brain cancer. As the vice president agonized over running in 2016, Hillary Clinton quickly pre-empted his candidacy.
Shortly before the election, I traveled with Biden as he was helping other candidates; no other reporters were on Air Force 2. On a late-night ride back to Washington, in a long talk, he seemed at peace, was eager to make enough money to build that beach house for his family, and insisted he’d stay active through the Biden center at the University of Pennsylvania.
Trump surprisingly won, and Biden stayed very active.
On the eve of the 2018 midterm elections, he was campaigning in Florida, and I was promised ten minutes with him. Over the course of an hour, he laid out all the reasons he shouldn’t run for president and all the reasons he should. His private contempt for Trump exceeded even his public disdain.
Returning full circle, back to 1972, Paul Kirk, Sen. Kennedy’s top political adviser who was on that trip, told me recently it was initiated by Biden. Nordy Hoffman, an All-American football player at Notre Dame under Knute Rockne, was directing the Senate Democrats’ campaign efforts and told Kirk a young city counselor called; seems he thinks his family could be the Kennedys of Delaware.
The kid may have been right.
Al Hunt is the former executive editor of Bloomberg News. He previously served as reporter, bureau chief and Washington editor for the Wall Street Journal. For almost a quarter century he wrote a column on politics for The Wall Street Journal, then the International New York Times and Bloomberg View. He hosts 2020 Politics War Room with James Carville. Follow him on Twitter @AlHuntDC.