Lifelong ambition led Joe Biden to Senate, White House aspirations
WASHINGTON — After nearly 25 years, Bobbie Greene still remembers the day her best college friend, Neilia Hunter, phoned about a guy from Delaware named Joe Biden she had met during a spring break vacation in the Bahamas.
"She went on very enthusiastically for quite a while and, at the very end, she said, 'I want to tell you a secret,'" Ms. Greene recalled recently. "'You know what he wants to be? He's going to be a senator by the time he's 30 and he's going to be president of the United States.'"
"I thought it was one of the most extraordinary things I'd ever heard," said Ms. Greene, a longtime political activist who is development director for People for the American Way. "Later, after I met him, I realized it wasn't. He always knew what he wanted to do."
Less than a decade after Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. met his future wife, and just two weeks before his 30th birthday, he won a U.S. Senate seat from Delaware in a stunning upset that was followed less than a month later by the tragic car accident that killed Neilia and the youngest of their three children.
Now 44, Biden is trying to fulfill the second half of his ambitious goal by becoming the youngest man to win the presidency since John F. Kennedy was elected in 1960.
He brings to the campaign an ingratiating manner and a quick wit with considerable Irish charm plus an ability to rouse audiences that few Democrats can match.
But he also brings a reputation as a showboater and a hothead with a penchant for windiness.
His candidacy was delayed earlier this year when he became chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. It was further complicated when President Reagan nominated appeals Judge Robert H. Bork to the Supreme Court and Biden became enmeshed in controversy over a series of outspoken – and, some felt, inconsistent – statements.
Some saw a familiar pattern.
"I was in Maine when I read about what he said about Bork," said Richard Sincock, a veteran Delaware Republican officeholder.
"I thought to myself, 'Same old Joe Biden,'" said Sincock, who served with Biden on the New Castle County Council in the late 1960s. "He's always been inclined to be brash and that hasn't changed."
Biden said, "I've been honest about what I think. I don't mean I've always been right. But I've never pussyfooted around."
"He's very quick to look at an issue and perhaps maybe too quick to formulate opinions on occasion," said Sen. Nancy Kassebaum, R-Kan., who worked closely with Biden on budget matters. "He is bright . . . (and) genuinely cares about public issues. The question is whether he can convince people he can command and control."
For Biden, that question will get its severest public test when the Judiciary Committee opens hearings Sept. 15 on the Bork nomination.
"That's his New Hampshire primary," analyst William Schneider said recently. Biden's presidential prospects will be strongly affected by the impression voters receive from the way he conducts the hearings and subsequent floor debate.
The senator can't remember when he first thought of seeking election to the White House. Though his parents had no particular interest in politics, his sister Valerie, who managed each of his campaigns, said he was always interested but wanted to be a senator, not president.
Biden was born in Scranton, Pa., where his parents met, but moved to Wilmington when he was 10. His father sold cars and the family wasn't wealthy. But the close-knit clan sometimes is compared to the Kennedys – a logical comparison, given its Irish Catholicism, and one that some say has been deliberately fostered by Biden family members.
Biden was a perennial class president, and friends said he would someday hold the nation's highest office, recalled David Walsh, a high school classmate at Archmere Academy and later Biden's law partner.
"Since he was such an obvious leader and very articulate and certainly not shy, everybody would say he'd make a great politician," Walsh said.
Biden said, "I went from wanting to be a jet fighter pilot to wanting to be a trial lawyer." But he added, "I figured out fairly early that I always seemed to be able to resolve disputes."
As for his decision to enter politics, Biden told the 1986 NAACP Convention in Baltimore, "I became involved in politics because of civil rights."
He often speaks of the way that John F. Kennedy, Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. inspired Americans during the 1960s, suggesting he was somehow involved in the activism of the time.
But Biden was removed from the world of anti-war and civil-rights protests and now characterizes his activities as "nothing of any consequence." While working one summer as the only white lifeguard at a local swimming pool, he became aware of racial inequality and joined black lifeguards in picketing a segregated movie theater.
"The civil-rights movement was an awakening for me, not as a consequence of my participation but as a consequence of my being made aware of what was happening," he said.
He was involved in campus politics at the University of Delaware and Syracuse University Law School in New York and once stuffed envelopes for a congressional candidate. But Bobbie Greene recalled that he was always interested in politics. "We would talk politics from dawn to dusk," she said.
One bone of contention was the Vietnam War, which Biden supported (he received a medical deferment from the draft for the same asthmatic condition that forced him to stop playing football). "We would argue vehemently," she said, adding that Biden had "turned around completely" by the time he ran for the Senate in 1972.
Not only was he no activist, but he had no clearly defined party affiliation.
Biden's first legal job back in Wilmington in 1968 was with a firm headed by William Prickett, a prominent Republican. Though he registered as an independent, Biden earlier this year told Laurence Barrett of Time magazine that, during this period, "I thought of myself as a Republican for six or seven months, no longer."
Friends acknowledged that the man who often talks so movingly of the effect of the Kennedys and King considered running for office as a Republican. Walsh, his high school friend and law partner, said, "I think that if he could have gotten a more likely shot at becoming a United States senator as a Republican, I guess he would have done it."
Biden said he registered as an independent because "I was really upset with the Democratic Party in Delaware because of its perceived position on civil rights." The state's governor, conservative Democrat Charles L. Terry, stationed National Guard troops in Wilmington during disorders stemming from civil-rights demonstrations.
"But I couldn't bring myself to register as a Republican because of Richard Nixon," said Biden, who backed liberal Republican Russell Peterson when he defeated Terry for the governor's seat in 1968.
Republicans repeatedly tried to woo Biden. But, after six months with Prickett's firm, he joined one headed by Sid Balick, an active Democrat who named Biden to a commission trying to revitalize the state party. In 1969, Biden registered as a Democrat.
When Balick ran for the Legislature, Biden helped. "I believe that was the very first political campaign he ever worked in,' Balick said.
"He loved it."
Later that year, Biden ran for the New Castle County Council.
His first campaign set the model for future Biden efforts – a largely family-run enterprise featuring door-to-door campaigning by himself, his sister, his two brothers, his parents and, of course, Neilia, by then his wife.
Biden won at a time most Democrats lost and at 27 was hailed as a future star. The first profile written about him, after that election, referred to him as "Delaware's JFK."
Biden next set his sights on veteran Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, a popular, homespun Republican who had served as governor, in the House and in the Senate. Besides, Biden's county council seat had been redistricted, and he felt he might have trouble because he had supported public housing projects in the suburbs.
Party leaders tried to talk him into seeking the governorship, but Biden thought Boggs would be an easier target.
He proved correct, scoring a stunning upset in 1972. He edged Boggs by 3,162 votes at a time when Nixon beat George McGovern in the state by nearly 50,000 votes.
Less than a month later, Neilia and their infant daughter, Amy, were killed and his two sons injured in a car accident. Biden briefly considered giving up his hard-earned Senate seat and, still grieving, took the oath of office in his sons' hospital room.
Biden has never moved to Washington and still commutes daily by train to the capital from his Wilmington home.
Though Majority Leader Mike Mansfield became his mentor, Biden admitted, "The first three years in the Senate for me were not very happy ones. I really did think I had a bit of a chip on my shoulder."
He said he was "mad' about the tragedy and a bit overwhelmed at finding himself in the Senate "as a 29-year-old or 30-year-old kid not wanting to show that he was intimidated by anything that was going on."
But Biden never lost sight of his goals, eventually landing seats on the Judiciary and Foreign Relations committees.
Biden dated Francie Barnard, a young Texas journalist who later married Washington Post reporter Bob Woodward.
The relationship was displayed in considerable detail in a September 1974 article in Washingtonian magazine. It said Biden had more than 35 pictures of Neilia in his office and quoted him as saying, "Why should Francie marry a guy like me who is still in love with his wife . . . she deserves better than that."
The episode left Biden suspicious of the press, with whom he has had a sometimes prickly relationship. When the president of the National Press Club gave him a particularly hard-hitting introduction for a speech last year, Biden responded with a slighting comment about her newspaper.
He is often self-deprecating about such things as his thinning hair and his tendency toward wordiness, but he reacts sharply to criticism, direct or implied. When a questioner at American University in Washington last June asked about his reputation as a hothead, Biden replied, "I don't know that I will ever overcome that any more than other candidates will overcome their reputations for dullness."
In 1977, after a two-year courtship, Biden married Jill Jacobs, a divorced schoolteacher. In 1981, their daughter, Ashley, was born.
Although he admits his first term in the Senate was "a blur," Biden showed an independent streak. Despite strong support from civil rights groups, he became a strong opponent of school busing. In 1976, he was the first senator to endorse Jimmy Carter for president.
In 1979, Biden played an important role in the debate over the SALT II arms-control treaty and led a Senate delegation that obtained clarifications from Soviet leaders.
During President Reagan's first term, Biden served on the Senate Budget Committee and co-sponsored a controversial plan to freeze all federal spending, including Social Security benefits.
And he formed a close alliance on the Judiciary Committee with its conservative Republican chairman, Strom Thurmond, that eventually led to enactment of a major anti-crime bill.
He also served for eight years on the Intelligence Committee and says he headed off two Reagan administration covert actions by threatening to make them public.
Although fellow senators in a 1984 U.S. News & World Report survey rated Biden, along with Connecticut's Christopher Dodd, as the Senate's "leading authority" on foreign policy, his legislative record is modest.
"If I were to compare him with other liberal senators,' said a former aide, who asked not to be identified. "I'd say he's more political and less involved in the issues. He's a mile wide and an inch deep. He hasn't mastered any issues and hasn't taken the lead on any issues."
But Paul Laudicina, his former chief legislative aide, noted, "He can spend a night studying an issue that someone else spends a week with and do much better with it."
Another former aide said criticism of Biden's meager legislative record overlooks the fact that, until this year, Biden was a junior senator or in the minority party. "This is his first chance to be in a major position."
Still, this aide conceded, "He does have a very spotty reputation with his colleagues where he's known as something of a hothead. Even Democrats blanched when he went after (Secretary of State George) Shultz. He grandstands. But there's an element of envy in it."
The aide referred to a July 1986 Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on South Africa at which, for several minutes, Shultz and Biden engaged in a virtual shouting match. It drew national television coverage and put an angry picture of Biden on the front pages of many newspapers.
"It may have been genuine anger," said a former committee staff member. "But I'm sure he (Biden) went into that room prepared to do it. To those who had seen him before, it was all very predictable."
Biden denied that. Until Shultz testified that South African blacks had to learn how to compromise with the white-minority government, he said, "I had no intention of having any confrontation. But I did not anticipate Shultz saying anything that outrageous."
Another criticism is that he is uninterested in details. Biden acknowledged that he is bored by some legislative matters.
"Given the opportunity,' he said, "to get on the train and leave and do a town meeting at home vs. sitting through a hearing on whether government employees should keep their cars running with their air conditioners on, I admit that kind of tedium does not really attract my interest in the way that the detail of an arms-control agreement attracts my interest."
Many people say the Biden who is running for president is remarkably unchanged from the man who was elected to the Senate in 1972.
But law school classmate Jeffrey Harris, who testified before Biden in the early 1980s, said, "He's become a lot more serious person. He seems to have a commitment to these issues that he didn't have."
Longtime friend Bobbie Greene said she thinks any changes are a matter of degree.
"I think he has matured," she said. "But he was a more formed human being than anyone else I knew when we were in school. He was very confident of the force of his personality. That's been how he's gotten everything in politics."
2006 Chuck Hagel Profile: "The Heartland Dissident"
This one is way too long to repaste, and plus if I tried to bold all the good parts it would be 70% bold. You guys, this article is WELL worth the read. If you're like me, and you're kind of in love with Chuck, I strongly bet you'll be even more so after you finish.
Michael McCarthy, an Omaha merchant banker who once made Chuck Hagel president of his investment bank and is now among his most stalwart backers, said he doubted that Hagel could get very far in presidential politics. But he didn't rule out a race. "Chuck's a complicated guy," he said. "He thinks with the clarity of an actuary but decides with the heart of an Irishman, so I don't know where at the end of the day he'll land. He sure as hell can overcome doubt and decide to go where his heart tells him to."
Guys, how much do I love that description?
And now for the promised Bagel:
He may not have become a leader of his caucus, but, to the likely dismay of the White House, he's also not an outcast. On a personal level, he's still a man who forges connections. In addition to John McCain, he gets along well with the chairmen of his key committees — Pat Roberts of Kansas on Intelligence and Richard Lugar of Indiana on Foreign Relations — and counts Democrats Joe Biden of Delaware and Jack Reed of Rhode Island as among his best friends on the Hill. "I've been in the Senate a long time, and there's nobody I've liked more than Chuck Hagel," Biden told me.
A Republican campaign pro, after an astute analysis of Hagel's virtues and drawbacks, zeroed in on a factor no one else had mentioned, one that he seemed to feel said a lot about the reason Hagel's party hasn't warmed to him, and therefore about his limited prospects.
"He doesn't have a happy face," the pro said.
That's something a good story — real life, in other words — can do to a person.
It's not that Chuck Hagel can't flash a smile. I watched him in Iowa patiently pose with members of his audience who lined up to have their pictures snapped. The strain started to show only after seven or eight little flashes. He also laughs easily, at his own jokes and others'. A tireless networker and campaigner who revels in small-town parades, he never seems to need prompting to attach a name to a face. But his gregariousness, the habit of a lifetime, takes concentration. When he's small-talking his way around a room, he seems to lean into conversations; and his fingers are usually working, if not grabbing elbows or patting shoulders, then knitting themselves together or kneading the palms of his hands, as if typing out signals to his brain to remind him he's on stage. If you had to choose a word to describe him at such moments, it might be "focused," even "conscientious"; it wouldn't be "happy." Later, while he's waiting to be introduced, his roughly chiseled features may look a little tired or pensive but never less than alert. This is a politician who works at his job.
Considering how he'd disappointed Bush after the attention lavished on him in Austin and what he'd said about South Carolina, it's remarkable that Senator Hagel then found himself on the short list for running mate in 2000. To this day, he doesn't know whether he was seriously in contention. Possibly there was some thought that the former member of the Texas Air National Guard could benefit by picking, or at least appearing to consider, a twice-wounded Vietnam vet. Hagel says he spent $15,000 on accountant fees assembling the information the campaign demanded. Dick Cheney, the chief talent scout, interviewed him twice and sent his son-in-law around to pick up a box of documents before it was discovered that the talent scout was actually the talent.
"I still have the box," Hagel said. Nothing could be more unanswerable than the question of what might have happened in Iraq had he been picked.
I seriously want to cry when I think about the fact that we could have had Vice President Hagel for the last eight years, instead of Vice President Cheney.
These articles are old, but I know how well-loved Messrs. Biden and Hagel are around these parts, and felt the need to share. Mods, my sincere apologies if either article has been posted before - I did my best to check.