The Salesman

Experienced, emotional, marked by personal tragedy and political setback, Joe Biden is in many ways the antithesis of the president he serves. But his stock has risen steadily in the West Wing, and with the Democrats poised to lose much of their leverage in the midterm elections, the vice president’s unique skills and attributes may prove ever more crucial to his administration’s success.
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Rags to Riches

In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots, British author Christopher Booker distills down what he considers the archetypal human narratives. The second of these (after “Overcoming the Monster”) is “Rags to Riches,” which he defines thus:

We see an ordinary, insignificant person, dismissed by everyone as of little account, who suddenly steps to the centre of the stage, revealed to be someone quite exceptional.

This is, in effect, the story that Biden tells in his 2007 campaign autobiography, Promises to Keep.

We begin with little Joey Biden, growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, crippled by a stutter so dreadful that he is dubbed Joey “Bye-Bye” Biden or “Joe Impedimenta,” by classmates and teachers alike. He overcomes the disability through diligent practice and eventually delivers a speech at his high-school graduation.

Like many of the heroes in rags-to-riches tales, Biden is a lost child of privilege, a prince among paupers. His father had grown up close to a wealthy maternal cousin, with whom he shared a posh life of country estates, sailing, and partying. But a series of business ventures gone sour sent the senior Joe Biden crashing back down to the blue-collar streets of Scranton, where he was reduced to moving his family in with his in-laws and eventually taking a job as a car salesman when he moved his family to Delaware. “He was the most elegantly dressed, perfectly manicured, perfectly tailored car sales manager,” Biden wrote. “He was a great dancer. He loved to sing, and he had a thoroughgoing grace; I never saw him flustered in a social setting.”

In Joey’s eyes, the family had been exiled from wealth and social standing; regaining this lost patrimony has been one of the central themes of Biden’s life. As a boy, he set his heart on Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school on a leafy campus across the road from the house his family moved to in Claymont, Delaware, when Joey was 10. His parents couldn’t afford the full tuition, but Joey eventually entered a work-study program, and labored on the school’s grounds crew in order to attend classes with the elite. He was a handsome boy and a good athlete, and he worked hard at fitting in, at looking and sounding the part. Biden’s fascination with the outward trappings of wealth is evident in his description of his first visit to the upstate New York home of his eventual first wife, Neilia Hunter:

The first time I pulled up to Neilia’s house on the lake, I realized that the Hunters were different from the Bidens. Her dad had done well in the restaurant business. Even in the dark I could see the outlines of the house, and it was huge by my standards.

Biden would later marry Neilia, finish law school, and set out to build for them the same kind of lavish life. He had the taste and style of an affluent young man, and what he lacked in money he made up for in drive. Cramer vividly records the newly married Biden’s pursuit of a suburban mansion equal to his ambitions, an estate that had once belonged to Delaware’s native gentry, the du Ponts. It was a purchase that stretched his real and projected means beyond easy belief, but Biden was undeterred. He pursued it with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession, exhibiting the kind of optimism and artful deal-making that would distinguish his whole adult life. He got the house, and has since assiduously maintained the affluent lifestyle he grew up admiring.

Biden’s rise was so rapid that his future prospects seemed limitless. Before he was 30, he had an enviable suburban homestead with a beautiful wife and three children, and had somehow managed to win election to the United States Senate. But it all came tumbling down in an instant on December 18, 1972. Just weeks after the election, before Biden had been sworn in, Neilia accidentally steered her car into the path of a truck in rural Delaware. The collision killed her and their baby daughter, Naomi. Their two young sons, Beau and Hunter, were severely injured. Overcome with grief, Biden questioned his faith, contemplated suicide, and was so filled with rage that he walked the streets of Wilmington at night, half-looking for a fight.

One of his first decisions was to abandon his hard-won Senate seat. He memorably told reporters, “We can find another senator; my boys cannot find another father.” Ironically, it was this heartfelt statement that may have permanently cemented Delaware’s passion for its young senator. He was eventually persuaded to change his mind, as he tells it, by the kindness and stubbornness of then–Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and other prominent senators. He took his seat a few days after the other members of his class had been sworn in, in 1973. It was arranged for him to take his oath of office beside the hospital bed where Beau was recovering from his injuries. Even then, he still had his doubts. He began making plans to move with his boys to Vermont, to start over where no one knew them.

Biden’s ferocious love for his sons was a testimony to his character that would endure through decades of commuting home every night to Wilmington. Who could fail to be moved by it? If such a thing happened today—a promising junior senator, stricken with tragedy, soldiering through his grief, gathering close his wounded boys—it would play out breathlessly on cable TV and the Internet before the entire world. In 1972, it was primarily a local story, which made its impact at home all the more intense. It touched hearts in every corner of Delaware, and voters there have never forgotten. It explains the deep connection reporter Cris Barrish witnessed at the Claymont steak shop all those years ago.

Biden and his boys gradually recovered and, over time, the young senator emerged as the most eligible bachelor in Washington. In 1974, when he was interviewed for The Washingtonian by Kitty Kelley, an early pioneer in the art of the embarrassing celebrity profile, Kelley clearly charmed her subject. Biden foolishly (and typically) took her into his confidence, speaking openly of his grief, and in startlingly intimate terms about his relationship with the departed Neilia. Biden described her as “my very best friend, my greatest ally, my sensuous lover.” The two of them had enjoyed a “sensational” marriage, sharing everything “from sex to sports.” He spoke of his ability to “satisfy her in bed” and, showing Kelley a picture of Neilia in a bikini, enthused that “she had the best body of any woman I ever saw. She looks better than a Playboy bunny, doesn’t she?” He spoke openly, needily, of his desire to meet the right woman and remarry: “I want to find a woman to adore me again.”

It was painful to read, especially for Biden. In his autobiography, he wrote: “It was devastating. I’d been very wary of the press until then. Now I began to actively hate it.” But he had done this to himself. For all its prurience, the story captured Biden exactly: the frank emotionalism, the recklessly unguarded nature, the penchant for drama, the ambition, the unashamed romanticism.

Romance would return not long after, when Biden spotted Jill Jacobs—like Neilia, a gorgeous blonde—in posters advertising Delaware’s New Castle County park system. They were set up on a blind date, and he swept her off her feet. She married Biden in 1977, raised Beau and Hunter, and gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Ashley, in 1981. Together, they restored the perfect picture, and set Joey’s rags-to-riches story back on the rails. Biden received a bad scare in 1988, when a brain aneurysm came near enough to killing him that a priest administered last rites. But he recovered from this, too. (When he speaks of it, Biden often credits his humiliating plagiarism stumble in the prior year’s presidential campaign with saving his life; had he stayed in the race, he says, he likely would have ignored the warning signs that sent him to the doctor.)

Though Biden is consistently ranked as among the least-wealthy U.S. senators, his family has enjoyed a distinctly affluent lifestyle. All three children attended Ivy League schools; eldest son Beau is now the attorney general of Delaware. But if appearances are one thing, the Biden brand is another. Despite the suburban estate, the well-tailored suits, the impressive golf game—Biden shot a 77 the first time Obama invited him out, and he likes to joke that he has not been invited back (he has been)—Biden is still the kid on the grounds crew, the kid with something to prove, Joey Bye-Bye from the streets of Scranton.

Anything You Want

According to Biden, it went like this: it was spring 2008. He was out of the race for president. He knew his campaign was dead when he finished fifth in Iowa—“We got our asses kicked” is how he puts it—behind Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and even New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. “It was no problem,” he told me. “I ran my race. I have no regrets. Went out and did what I thought. Said what I said.”

Obama and Clinton were slugging it out in the remaining primaries, and Biden was back to being the senior senator from Delaware and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, still commuting most days in his familiar seat on the Acela. It was there, in fact, in June, that he fielded the first call from Obama about the vice presidency.

During the campaign, he had mocked the freshman Illinois senator for parroting his own more seasoned views on complex issues, had notoriously patronized him as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” and had repeatedly characterized Obama as too inexperienced for the job. But that was all part of the game, Biden says. The two men liked each other, and Biden respected Obama’s political skills. Still, it would have been hard for Biden not to see this 46-year-old, first-term colleague as a parvenu, as someone cutting in line. But such is the nature of political stardom in America. Biden’s early role model, Jack Kennedy, had been even younger when he ran for president.

“Joe,” Obama said, “I’d like your permission to vet you.”

For someone in Biden’s position, this was not a surprise. He had declined to endorse either Clinton or Obama after dropping out of the race months earlier, and had offered both candidates advice in the months since. On a trip to the Virgin Islands after he dropped out, he and Jill had talked through the option of accepting a job in a new Democratic administration—Biden thought Clinton was as likely to ask him as Obama was—and they had decided he would not, regardless of who won the nomination. But one remote possibility remained. It had come up in a conversation with John Marttila, one of his senior advisers, at a final meeting of his campaign staff.

Marttila told him, “You really ought to be vice president.”

“John, I do not want to be vice president,” Biden replied. “Do not talk up vice president for me, okay?”

Mike Donilon, a campaign consultant, reminded Biden of the importance that civil rights had held for him throughout his career. “You mean to tell me,” Donilon asked, “if an African American tells you that he needs you on the ticket in order to win, you’ll say no?”

The question was left hanging. There was no certainty at that point that Obama would be the nominee. Months later, when the call on the train came, that prospect was more certain. But Biden doubted that Obama would end up choosing him. There was the friction between the two men during the campaign, for one. And more than that, Biden was leery of becoming a vice-presidential also-ran, whose name was floated and then discarded. He had seen presidential front-runners “drag that bloody rag through the Senate,” he said, giving everyone the scent.

He told Obama: “No, no, no. Look, pal, I told you I’d help you. I’ll do anything you want.”

So, said Obama, why the hesitation?

“Yeah, but that didn’t include vice president,” said Biden.

Obama said he thought “anything” should mean anything, adding, “I need an answer now.”

“If you need an answer now, the answer’s no,” Biden said.

“Well, how much time do you need?” Obama asked.

“I don’t need any more time.”

Obama told Biden to think about it more anyway. So Biden called a family meeting. Present were Jill, their sons, his sister, Valerie, and longtime aide Ted Kaufman, who has since been appointed to Biden’s Senate seat.

“I don’t want to do this,” Biden told them. But Jill’s reaction surprised him, given the decisions they had made on vacation.

“You really ought to do it,” she said.

Jill, whom Biden describes as fiercely partisan, was alarmed by the possibility of continued Republican governance, of John McCain in the White House. “You can’t possibly let that happen,” she said. And Biden came back to Donilon’s point, and the central role civil rights had played throughout his political career. How could he refuse to help the first viable African American candidate?

So Biden called Obama back and agreed to be vetted. “But here’s the condition,” he said. “Even if you pick me, I’m not prepared to accept it unless you and I have some very long conversations.”

Which is why months later, on August 6, 2008, when the list of prospective running mates had been whittled down to two or three, Biden flew to Minneapolis for a secret meeting with the Democratic nominee. A private jet picked him up at the small Wilmington airport. (“A Learjet, or something like that,” Biden said. “I sure would like to have had one of those when I was campaigning.”) He was smuggled into the candidate’s hotel through an underground garage. They talked for three hours.

The political logic in choosing Biden was plain. He was the picture of a traditional American elder statesman, a perfect balance to the newcomer at the top of the ticket with the dark skin and foreign-sounding name. Biden’s decades of experience would add heft to Obama’s slender résumé and, at the same time, his Joey-Bye-Bye-from-Scranton persona might be able to shore up Obama’s weakness with white, blue-collar voters—a vulnerability Clinton had revealed and exploited.

But even if choosing Biden made sense for Obama, did it make sense for Biden?

According to an account of that Minnesota conversation Biden gave to The New Yorker, the two men discussed everything from “foreign policy and possible appointments to the federal courts to the legislative strategy that would be needed to pass an Obama agenda.” Obama questioned Biden about some of his successes in the legislature, and asked if he might be more interested in a Cabinet post than a spot on the ticket. (He was not.) Discussing the job of vice president, Biden said that he would not want to be handed a sweeping, open-ended task to go off and manage on his own, like Vice President Al Gore’s charge to reorganize the federal government. He wanted to be in the inner decision-making circle for all major issues, the last person in the room to have Obama’s ear. If he was to tackle any specific assignments, he wanted them to be limited ones with an end date.

Not long after that session, Obama picked Biden. Axelrod said that in addition to satisfying the obvious considerations—is he qualified to be president if it comes to that? does he balance the ticket politically?—Obama believed that Biden’s long experience in Congress would be an asset on the ticket and would help him govern. Beyond those factors, Obama was swayed by a more immediate practical consideration.

“Senator Obama felt strongly that Joe understood the challenges and rigors of a national campaign,” Axelrod told me. Obama “had learned from his own experience. He felt that it had taken him four to six months of campaigning to get comfortable with the demands.” The other candidates on Obama’s short list, reputed to be Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, would have been as new to a national campaign as Obama had been a year earlier. Biden, who had impressed Obama during their primary debates, would not need months to hit full stride.

“At the last meeting … there were all these high-powered lawyers in my Capitol office’s so-called hideaway,” Biden told me. “And so they’re all sitting there, eight, nine of these lawyers, and at the end, Jim Hamilton”—a Washington lawyer who assisted with the vetting of potential VPs—“Jim says, ‘Well, just one last question, Mr. Chairman.’ He said, ‘Why do you want to be vice president?’”

“I don’t,” said Biden.

“And he looked at me—you can ask him—he looked at me and he said, ‘No? Why?’”

“Guys,” said Biden, “I’m not asking to be vice president, okay? If the president wants me to be vice president—our nominee wants me to be vice president, needs the help— obviously I’m not going to be able to say no. But if you’re asking me why do I want to be—I don’t want to be vice president.”

“Is that really your final word, like, you know, your final answer?” Hamilton asked.

“Yeah, that’s my final answer,” said Biden.

“But I had decided by then, if he were to ask me, obviously I’d do it,” Biden told me. “If, in fact, they could show me that, (a) I could actually help him win in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, etc., and if (b) in fact he really did want me to help him govern, what the hell do you say? But I never—swear to God—I never, ever, ever, ever thought that I’d be asked, and I never contemplated being vice president.”

Donilon’s argument had prevailed. Obama’s skills were evident, but beyond them was a narrative that reached back to the founding of America. Here was an African American candidate poised to write, not an ending, but a triumphant new chapter to one of the central and most troubling threads of the American story.

“And it was driven home to me on the 17th of January”—inauguration weekend—Biden told me. “I’m standing on a platform [at the train station] in Wilmington, Delaware. If you looked to the northwest and the southeast, it was no-man’s-land back in 1968. That’s the part of the city that got burned down … when Dr. King was assassinated … And here I am, 40 years later. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m standing there on a cold day, waiting, and all of a sudden I’m looking out … And I thought to myself, Son of a bitch. I’m standing here waiting for the first black man in the history of America to pick me up to ride 110 miles to be sworn in as vice president of the United States with the first African American.”

He recalled seeing enormous crowds of cheering black citizens along the route, as the train moved slowly south. One man in particular—“I knew him,” Biden said—held a child up so close to the train that Biden worried for his safety. “I came back five days later, I’m home, and I run into him at a thing they did for me,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘What the hell were you doing, holding the baby up like that?’ And he said, ‘Joe, I wanted my grandson to be able to say “I saw it. I saw it. It’s real. It’s real.”’ So that’s what I mean. The two things I cared about most in my career were the civil-rights movement, and foreign policy and these wars, and here I am with a guy who in one fell swoop”—Biden clapped his hands—“changes everything.”

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Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent. His most recent book is The Finish: The Killing of Osama bin Laden. More

Mark BowdenMark Bowden is a national correspondent for The Atlantic, and a best-selling author. His book Black Hawk Down, a finalist for the National Book Award, was the basis of the film of the same name. His book Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's 2001 Cornelius Ryan Award as the book of the year. Among his other books are Guests of the Ayatollah, an account of the 1979 Iran hostage crisis, which was listed by Newsweek as one of "The 50 Books for Our Times." His most recent books are The Best Game Ever, the story of the 1958 NFL championship game, and Worm, which tells the story of the Conficker computer worm, based on the article "The Enemy Within," published in this magazine.

Mark has received The Abraham Lincoln Literary Award and the International Thriller Writers' True Thriller Award for lifetime achievement, and served as a judge for the National Book Awards in 2005. He is a 1973 graduate of Loyola University Maryland, where he also taught from 2001-2010. A reporter and columnist for The Philadelphia Inquirer for more than 30 years, Bowden is now an adjunct professor at The University of Delaware and lives in Oxford, Pennsylvania. He is married with five children and two granddaughters.

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