Joe Biden doesn’t just meet you, he engulfs you. There’s the direct contact with his blue eyes, the firm handshake while his other hand grasps your arm, the flash of those famously perfect white teeth, and an immediate frontal assault on your personal space. He shoulders right through the aura of fame and high office. Forget the Secret Service, the ever-present battery of aides and advisers, the photographers clicking away: the vice president of the United States moves in like an old pal with something urgent to tell you—just you. If he’s in a chair, he’ll scoot it closer; when the furniture’s not portable, he’ll lean forward, planting his elbows on his knees, gesturing with both hands while he speaks, occasionally reaching over to touch your arm or leg for emphasis.
Aboard Air Force Two, when Biden wanders back to the cheap seats to greet the reporters in his entourage, he isn’t content to simply stand in the aisle and banter. He leans, he reaches, and before you know it he’s lowering himself to the cabin floor.
“Mr. Vice President,” a reporter protests politely, “take my seat.”
“No, no, no,” Biden says, cheerfully dismissing the gesture. And then the second-highest office holder in the free world is seated on the aisle floor, legs stretched out on worn blue carpet, elbows propped on the aisle-side armrests, so he can resume his monologue at eye level, close in.
Biden is well known for commuting between Washington and Wilmington aboard Amtrak, a habit he started decades ago when he was a widower with two small boys. Sitting alone in one of those cramped, four-seat Acela booths around a table, Biden would often recognize passengers and wave them over to join him. I had the pleasure myself once years ago, riding the train from Washington to Philadelphia. The space was knee-to-knee intimate—perfect for his purposes—and Biden held forth animatedly for the entire 70-minute trip. When he stepped off at Wilmington station, the sudden silence in the car seemed like a physical presence, the onset of a vacuum. When I described the experience to a friend who’d taken the same ride more than once, he nodded knowingly and said, “We call it getting ‘Bidened.’”
Biden is famous, of course, for talking too much. Indeed, it is exceedingly rare to find anyone in a prominent position who does so much of his thinking out loud. This habit has led not only to a propensity for straying off message—a propensity that has bedeviled generations of his political handlers—but also to an outsize reputation for oratory. The vice president is a confident and skillful public speaker, to be sure, but he is best at rousing the converted, rather than at the higher art of persuading the skeptical and undecided. His thousands of turns behind public podiums have yielded not a single indelible speech. The one for which he is most famous is the one he’d most like to forget: the disastrous campaign-trail appearance at the 1987 Iowa State Fair, in which he borrowed liberally, and without attribution, from the British Labour politician Neil Kinnock.
Biden’s special talent isn’t speaking, but talking. The first is a public act, a practiced performance. The latter is personal and improvisational. All good salesmen know that the key to closing the deal is trust. You need to hold your customers’ attention and convince them that you are just like them. Biden is eager to share his own experiences, because trustworthy men have nothing to hide. He takes you immediately into his confidence—this is often what gets him in trouble with reporters—so that you will offer him your own. His language is instructive. He interjects Look, to make sure you are listening closely. If he feels his pitch straying into abstraction, he’ll stop mid-sentence to say, Let me break this down for you. He’ll dispel complexity with a personal story—My dad, he used to say to me, “Joey,” he’d say … His syntax is confiding, authentic, and peppered with mild profanity. He repeats himself for effect—no, no, no; never, never, never. Despite his patrician appearance, he is proudly, stubbornly blue-collar—Call me Joe.
Biden always has facts and figures handy, but he seeks your support less with logic than with bonhomie. His own emotions are so close to the surface that when he is excited, you feel it; when he is disappointed or sad or angry, he chokes up and his eyes moisten, and you feel that, too. The depth of his belief is, as Richard Ben Cramer put it, “like a hand” on your back.
Biden admits his weakness for revealing too much on occasion, but he sees it as a strength, a part of his “brand”: his gaffes reflect his determination to remain just Joe, to tell it like it is. But his problem runs deeper. Biden has the limber storyteller’s tendency to stretch. Though hardly a hanging offense—who among us hasn’t burnished a tale now and then?—it’s a dangerous tendency on the national political stage. In addition to the plagiarism scandal, in which he embellished his family’s humble origins, Biden has in the past exaggerated his scholastic résumé, and when selling himself seems compelled to pump up the facts to his own benefit. Remember that comment to me earlier about handing back to National Security Advisor Jim Jones the “30” staffers assigned to his predecessor? It seems Cheney’s staff had 10 people, not 30, and of that number, Biden retains seven who report to him directly, while three others have been handed back, or merged with Jones’s office. So the correct number is one-tenth Biden’s estimate—“like, 30, or whatever the hell it was.” We will have to take his word that they now all work together seamlessly. For many years, he described the driver of the truck that struck and killed his first wife and their daughter in December 1972 as drunk, which he apparently was not. The tale could hardly be more tragic; why add in a baseless charge? The family of the truck driver has labored to correct the record, but Biden made the reference to drunkenness as recently as 2007, needlessly resurrecting a false and painful accusation.
More recently, Biden has told a story of privately upbraiding President George W. Bush over the Iraq War. Challenging Bush’s assertion that he was a “leader,” Biden claims to have told him, “Mr. President, turn around and look behind you. No one’s following.” The former president’s deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, insists the exchange never took place, calling the vice president “a blowhard” and “a liar.” And though Biden sticks to his story, his past brushes with embroidering the truth continue to haunt him.
Though plenty smart, Biden is not an intellectual. He makes few references to books and learned influences in his speeches and autobiography, and he displays little interest in theory. An indifferent student at the University of Delaware and Syracuse University College of Law—he describes the latter as “boring”—Biden got by with prodigious cramming sessions. Today, by contrast, he is described by Tony Blinken, Biden’s national-security adviser, as a compulsive studier who likes to be overbriefed.
“He likes to tell the story of the time he got up on the Senate floor to deliver a speech on a bill concerning stripper wells”—that is, oil wells nearing the end of their productive lives—Blinken said. “When he finished, an opponent, Senator Russell Long, from Louisiana, got up and asked, ‘Senator Biden, have you ever seen a stripper well?’ He had not. Long proceeded to demonstrate such an intimate knowledge of wells and oil extraction that the import of Biden’s own argument was just overwhelmed. Now he demands that his briefings go 50 feet deep, even if the discussion is only expected to go five feet deep.”
As a senator, his proudest legislative accomplishment was the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which broadened law enforcement’s tools to protect women from abusive partners. Biden’s congressional voting record was generally left of center, but not dramatically so. He was inspired as a young man by the civil-rights movement, he is a strong civil libertarian, and he clearly sees an active role for government in American life. But at the same time, the laissez-faire U.S. Chamber of Commerce has sometimes rated him highly for a liberal lawmaker—as high as 71 percent in 2008.
In his personal life, Biden could hardly be more traditional. In the scruffy ’60s, when so many young men of his generation went unkempt as a social and political statement, Biden dressed up for class in college, sometimes wearing a tie. He says his first wife, Neilia, described him as “the most socially conservative man she had ever known.”
Though Biden prides himself on his foreign-policy fluency, he’s been all over the map on national-security issues. Author Tom Ricks likes to point out that Biden voted against the Gulf War in 1991 (a quick triumph); in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (a prolonged disaster); and against the “surge” in troops to Iraq in 2007 (a remarkable success). Though Biden has sometimes opposed military action, during the Bosnian War his was the loudest voice in Congress in favor of arming the Muslim minority and encouraging the NATO air strikes against the Serbs.
On the global stage, as in Delaware, the guideposts in Biden’s political landscape are often not ideas, but people. Many of the world leaders with whom the United States has business are men and women he has known for years, even decades. In fall 2009, for example, after Obama had decided to abandon plans to build land-based missile defenses in eastern Europe—a move interpreted as a concession to Moscow—the White House sent Biden on a three-day swing through Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic to reassure the leaders of those countries that their security would not be compromised. Biden had mastered the details of the issue—the virtues of sea-based anti-missile technology versus land-based, and so on—but his most important asset was that he knew many of the leaders personally.
Barry Pavel, senior director for defense policy on the National Security Council, was along on that trip. He describes the way Biden, in high-level meetings, would wave his hand and reduce the expert advisers accompanying him to decorative furniture. “It’s a thing he does,” Pavel said, referring specifically to discussions Biden held in Warsaw with Polish leaders. “We’re across the long tables with the coffee and the water and stuff, in these formal meetings, and he’ll say, ‘Now, these guys are going to tell you all the statistics and these are the brainiacs, but I’m here to tell you, this is much better for Polish security. I’m here to tell you, this is in your interest.’ He connects in a very streetwise way … And that’s something I couldn’t do, and there are few people in the government who could play the role, I think.”
And once he has connected, once he’s leaned in close and has your undivided attention … well, watch your wallet.
Here’s the deal.