Early in 1973, not long after he was sworn in to the Senate seat he would hold for more than three decades, Joe Biden attended a dinner party in the upscale Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia. The event, thrown by Biden’s fellow freshman senator J. Bennett Johnston Jr., of Louisiana, offered the newcomers a chance to mingle with some of the Senate’s old guard.
Political analyst Charlie Cook, then a freshman at Georgetown University working as a congressional intern, remembers well both the evening and the presence of Biden, a 30-year-old unknown from Delaware. “A bunch of us kids had been wrangled into serving drinks and helping out in the kitchen,” he said. “All of us were floored by how young Biden was. He was more one of us than one of the senators! And sure enough, when the grown-ups retreated to the dining room, Biden drifted back to the kitchen to hang out with us 20-somethings … It was hard for us to believe that someone our age, give or take a few years, was already a United States senator.”
Elected when he was just 29, Biden was the youngest member of the upper chamber in modern times, and the sixth-youngest in American history. Inexperienced and unheralded, he’d nonetheless ousted a veteran incumbent, J. Caleb Boggs, who had enjoyed the full backing of President Richard Nixon and the national Republican Party. Biden arrived in Washington with the luster of unlimited promise. Back home they compared him to Kennedy, a parallel he would consciously exploit. He was a man for whom the White House seemed not merely a possibility, but a likelihood. In a notoriously revealing 1974 profile that Kitty Kelley wrote for The Washingtonian, Biden talked about becoming “a good senator” and “a good president.” Biden’s sister, Valerie, who had managed his surprise victory, told Kelley, “Joey is going to be president someday. He was made to be in the White House … Just you wait and see.”
Fast-forward to 2007 and the presidential-campaign fields of Iowa. Biden’s once-slender facial features had thickened somewhat, giving him the look of an elder statesman straight out of central casting. What little remained of his modishly long hair had gone white; toward the front of his otherwise bald dome a patient hair-plug regimen had replanted a thin copse of strands, which he combed back, so that when the lighting and angle were just right it afforded the semblance of a silver mane. And he didn’t just look the part. He was one of the most recognized and influential members of Congress. Scarred by intense personal tragedy, a close brush with his own mortality, and his share of embarrassing missteps, Biden at age 64 was a survivor, in life and in politics. Though the luster of the wunderkind was long gone, the talents he had displayed at the outset of his career had matured. Yet here he was, six months away from the first contest of the 2008 presidential campaign, badly trailing a pack of less-seasoned Democratic hopefuls, mired in the low single digits in every poll, and struggling to raise enough money just to keep going.
It was a mystery. Back home in Delaware, Biden had a bond with voters that transcended issues and party politics, one that bordered on reverence. “I remember being in a cheesesteak shop in Claymont, just outside Wilmington, just eating dinner by myself one night years ago, when Joe came in to order something,” said Cris Barrish, now a senior reporter for The News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware. “It was like royalty or Jesus Christ himself had walked in. He didn’t know a reporter was watching, so none of this was for my benefit, but he charmed everybody in that place for a full five minutes. He knew the names of all the women behind the counter. Everyone seemed to want a piece of him, to touch him. That was the first time I fully appreciated the appeal he enjoys in this state.”
But that unfailing local electricity, which had propelled him back to the Senate with ease in five consecutive elections, stubbornly refused to travel. His first run for the presidency, in 1987, had sputtered out of the gate, when Biden was discovered passing off as his own passages from a speech by a British Labour politician. Now, 20 years later, he was on his way to another early fizzle. In those months before the Iowa caucuses—where Biden would ultimately finish with less than 1 percent of the vote—it was fair to wonder why he even bothered. Might he be seeking something else? Might he be angling to become secretary of state in the next Democratic administration, or even vice president?
Riding with Biden as he raced from one Iowa event to another, Gannett’s Nicole Gaudiano, who had been covering Biden’s trifle of a campaign for one of the few newspapers still interested, The News Journal, asked him exactly this question. Biden crushed the suggestion with such flourish and finality that Gaudiano couldn’t fit the whole denial into the story she was writing. She reported it in full in a blog post:
“Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, Shermanesquely, no. No. No. I would not be anybody’s secretary of state in any circumstance I could think of, and I absolutely can say with certainty I would not be anybody’s vice president. Period. End of story. Guaranteed. Will not do it.”
Today, Vice President Biden’s sunny, spacious office sits just down the hall from the main lobby of the West Wing, at the hub of American power. The other guy on the ticket may have gotten the oval-shaped room overlooking the Rose Garden, but Biden’s—which faces west, toward the Eisenhower Executive Office Building—is only a few quick strides away. Sitting across from the vice president this summer on facing sofas, I reminded him of the Iowa quote, emphasizing the word Shermanesquely.
He leaned back, folding his big hands before him, and shrugged.
“That was absolutely, positively true when I said it. I swear to God. Ask anybody. I never, never, never, never aspired to be vice president. It had nothing to do with who the hell the president was.”
Certain allowances need to be made, of course, for campaign rhetoric. But I believe him. Both quotes, from the campaign trail and from the White House, are so prototypically Biden: direct, earnest, forceful, earthy, overstated—note the triple no in the first and the quadruple never in the second—and ultimately, as it turns out, negotiable.
Biden is a salesman—a high-level one, but a salesman at heart. His father sold cars back in Wilmington, and the son has all the same moves. He is a virtuoso talker. That fluency is not a gift but an accomplishment: attaining it meant defeating a severe boyhood stutter, a feat in which he still takes pride. His prodigious loquacity is not about vanity, as his critics claim—although Biden is as vain as the next successful man. It’s about selling. It’s about the deal. In fact, that’s one of his favorite expressions: Here’s the deal.
In What It Takes, the monumental chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign, author Richard Ben Cramer had this to say about Biden, then in his first formal run for the presidency:
Joe can literally talk fast. It’s like the stutter left it all pent up, and when he starts talking deal, he goes at a gallop … He’ll talk that deal until it is shimmering before your eyes in God’s holy light … like the Taj Mahal.
For most of his adult life, Biden has been selling himself. In 2008, he began selling Barack Obama. The vice presidency is a perfectly respectable office, to be sure, but historically it has been a ticket more often to obscurity than to distinction. It has few official duties or responsibilities that rise above the ceremonial. It was most famously described by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s two-term VP, John Nance Garner, as being worth less than “a bucket of warm piss.” For a man of Biden’s early promise and abiding energy, it is a comedown. But midway through the administration’s first term, he seems to be making it work.
“I was talking to the president about this just the other day,” said David Axelrod, one of Obama’s senior advisers. “He was saying that choosing Joe was really the first presidential decision he made, and that as time goes on, he’s more and more convinced it may have been his best.”
The relationship with Biden was by no means a given. Axelrod noted that not long before being asked to take the second position on the ticket, Biden had been competing hard against Obama, and had seen himself as better qualified for the top job. Lashing together two such big egos was risky. “It’s a little like a shotgun wedding,” Axelrod told me. “Sometimes they take, and sometimes they don’t.”
Declaring his determination “not to be a pain in the ass” to the president, Biden has carved out a dynamic role, one of the most involved of any vice president. He is close to the president on a professional level, but seems content to remain on the outer fringe of Obama’s trusted core. The idea, he says, is to be “value added.”
Walter Mondale is widely considered the first truly modern vice president, in that he was not simply a replacement waiting in the wings, but an important player in the administration in his own right. With the exception of Dan Quayle, every VP since has fit this mold—none more so than the man Biden succeeded, Dick Cheney, who some believed was, on certain issues, actually steering the ship. And while that was an exaggeration, there is no doubt that Cheney built himself a kind of shadow national-security staff during President George W. Bush’s two terms. One of the first things Biden did when taking office, he says, was to hand back many of those positions: “I mean, Cheney had, like, 30, or whatever the hell it was,” he told me. “I said, ‘Mr. President, you can’t have two national-security staffs.’ So I went to [National Security Advisor] Jim Jones, whom I recommended for the job. And I said, ‘Jim, here’s the deal. I don’t want any of these staff.’ And he was like, ‘Holy God, you’re kidding.’ I said, ‘Under one condition: I get to help pick these guys, and I can individually task them [with duties when I need something]. I’ll let you know who I’m tasking, but that’s it.’ We only need one National Security Council. There used to be two. Literally, not figuratively. I mean, literally.”
No one believes Obama would want, need, or tolerate a Rasputin across the lobby. But whether it has been managing the tricky drawdown of American involvement in Iraq, or implementing the $787 billion Recovery Act, or soothing worries in Eastern Europe over Obama’s revised missile-defense strategy, or helping select two Supreme Court nominees, Biden seems the opposite of a pain in the ass. He has made himself indispensable.
During the three-month deliberations over Afghanistan strategy, Biden was the harshest skeptic at the table. Encouraged by Obama, he vetted the military’s plans so insistently that to some in the chain of command, he became the enemy. This evidently included the man in charge of the war effort, General Stanley McChrystal, who was portrayed in a Rolling Stone article joking with his inner staff as they derided the vice president. The president accepted McChrystal’s resignation, and the general apologized to Biden, who says the gesture wasn’t necessary. “To be very blunt with you, I was flattered,” Biden told me. “I mean, it was clear that I was the only guy they worried about.”
Like most modern vice presidents, Biden has been subjected to the constant ridicule and caricature that seem to accompany the office. And he is, by his own admission, prone to verbal blunders. But Biden’s stock has risen steadily in the West Wing, and as the Democrats appear poised to lose much of their leverage in Congress in the upcoming midterm elections, his long experience as a legislator, his warm relationships with his former Senate colleagues, and his relentless salesmanship are likely to become even more important to the president. Even his occasional well-publicized gaffes have served to humanize a leadership team that all too often seems aloof, cerebral, and elitist.
And here’s the curious thing. By stepping back, by sublimating his own considerable ego and ambition, by settling for second place, Joe Biden may finally have found a way to transplant that Delaware magic. In making his own political fortunes secondary, he has advanced them further than he ever could have on his own.