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.
More
Michelle Asselin/Contour by Getty Images

“Shermanesquely, No”

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.

Getting “Bidened”

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.

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.”

Crossing the Rubicon

In March, the vice president gave an informal speech at a fund-raiser at an opulent home in northwest Dallas, standing behind a podium in a large room decorated with modern art. He began by talking about Barack Obama.

“I didn’t know how good he was until I joined the outfit,” Biden said. “And then I realized why it was I did not win. So for those of you who endorsed me first, you all made a mistake.” It’s not unusual for Biden to give several speeches a day, so most of the things he has to say, he says more than once. This comment about the president, and variations upon it, is repeated often.

Biden’s unqualified respect was not always there. Like many of those who sought the Democratic nomination, Biden felt early on that the press was giving Obama a free pass, in part thanks to his race. But after more than a year and a half in office, any doubts about Obama’s talents have disappeared. Biden is not given to downplaying his own gifts, but he clearly regards Obama as something of a phenomenon.

In part, this transcends Obama’s personal qualities. “Look, I ran for president,” Biden told me, “because I honest-to-God believed that for the moment, given the cast of characters and the problems of the country, I thought I was clearly the best-equipped to lead the country … But here’s what I underestimated: I had two elements that I focused on, which made me decide to run. One was American foreign policy, and the other was the middle class and what’s happening to them economically. If Hillary were elected or I were elected, and assume I did as good a job as I could possibly get done, it would have taken me four years to do what [Obama] did in four weeks, in terms of changing the perception of the world about the United States of America. Literally. It was overnight. It wasn’t about him. It was about the American people … It said, these guys really do mean what they say. All that stuff about the Constitution, and all about equality, I guess it’s right.”

But Biden has been impressed by Obama the man as well. “He has a backbone like a ramrod,” the vice president told me. “He sits there, he gets handed the toughest damn decisions anyone has since Roosevelt, and he sits there and he wants an opposing view. He wants to hear all of it, and he’ll sit there and he’ll listen. He’ll ask really smart questions, and he’ll decide. And it’s like he goes up, he goes to bed, he doesn’t re-litigate it. I mean, the guy’s got some real strength. And the thing about him is—what I find impressive is—he really starts off almost everything from a moral and ideological construct, knowing exactly who he is … He knows what he thinks. When he talks about [the theologian and political theorist Reinhold] Niebuhr, it’s not because he’s trying to impress. He really does think about the social contract. I mean, the guy’s thought it through.

“He reminds me of [Bill] Clinton. I don’t think he’d like it, and maybe Clinton wouldn’t like it, but whenever you’re with Clinton … he was never afraid to say to you, ‘I don’t understand that. Explain that to me.’ Or ‘I didn’t know that.’ Because he knew you’d never walk out of the room thinking you were smarter than he was. Barack has the same internal confidence.”

That said, it’s clear that Biden feels he has the superior people skills—not that he puts it that way. He says the skill set he brings is “different,” but it’s a difference he values, and one that he sees as part of his contribution to the administration. Obama’s “personality is more reserved,” Biden said. “He has the ability to touch large audiences, but he is a little more buttoned-up. I’m a little more Irish. I’m more old-school. What used to be normal. [Bill] Clinton and I are more similar, whereas [Obama] and probably some of the newer candidates are more similar, in terms of the way they went through the system.” It is just a difference in style, Biden says, but it works. “I think we complement each other.”

There was some initial worry in the White House over Biden’s looseness in front of cameras and microphones. Most of his slips have proved minor—such as the one that earned a withering presidential look and nudge on Day One, when Biden, standing beside Obama behind a podium, poked fun at Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for flubbing his recitation of the oath of office at the inauguration. But some have been more troubling. During the swine-flu epidemic of 2009, when the administration was treading a delicate line between stressing caution and triggering a panic, Biden told a Today show audience of millions, in a nutshell, to avoid air travel. “I would tell members of my family—and I have—I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” he said. “If you’re in a confined aircraft and one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That’s me.” The air-travel and tourism industries reeled. Visibly annoyed, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs found himself before the pressroom podium trying to explain what Biden had “meant to say.”

But while Biden’s batting average for such bloopers is unquestionably high, the administration has come to see it as a feature, not a bug. Gibbs explained to me, “It is true [Biden] has earned a reputation, and he definitely has a tendency to say whatever is on his mind when it is on his mind, and that has been much, much more of a plus for us than a detriment. Not just in public. The president wants to know what people really think, what their opinions are, and he has benefited a lot by listening to the questions the vice president asks in meetings. His experience and his candor are valuable things for us. When you look at the two of them side by side, they share none of the same background or experience. In some ways, they could not be more different. But they complement each other powerfully.”

Judged strictly by appearances, the black, youthful Obama is without question the least likely man ever to occupy the Oval Office. Biden, on the other hand, is close to what you might get if you digitally blended the portraits of the 43 white men who have been president. Where Obama is cerebral, Biden is emotional. Where the president is methodical, the vice president is steered more by his gut. And where Obama is famously disciplined both in public and in private, Biden is—well, you know.

On March 23, minutes before the national health-care-reform bill-signing, Biden famously greeted the president behind the podium by saying, “Mr. President, this is a big fucking deal.” Some alarmed White House aides showed the incriminating video to Gibbs. “The sound is not that good on my office computer,” Gibbs told me, “and one of the guys said hopefully, ‘I think he might have said “This is a big freaking deal.”’ I said, ‘Have you ever actually heard the vice president use that word?’ Later, when [Biden] talked to me about it, he said that he didn’t think he could be heard. I said, ‘You were standing in front of a podium in the White House with a microphone and the whole world watching!’” Still, in the end, Gibbs couldn’t deny that Biden had a point, tweeting, “And yes Mr. Vice President, you’re right … ” It was a big fucking deal.

If the White House is still worried about Biden’s verbal blunders, there’s little evidence of it. He is being encouraged to speak more in public, not less, and is regularly trotted out to the Sunday-morning TV interview shows, where his loose verbal style has long made him a favorite, and where he can mix it up with the administration’s critics while allowing the president to remain above the fray. There are some weeks when the vice president is more the public face of the administration than his boss.

And Biden has grown accustomed to the constant ridicule. He is a regular target for the late-night talk-show hosts—“Joe Biden is living proof that people can give up sensitive information without being tortured,” quipped David Letterman in May 2009. On Saturday Night Live, cast member Jason Sudeikis regularly portrays him as a cheerful, loud, fast-talking buffoon, wincingly tolerated by the more sober, judicious Obama. “It’s always been that way,” Biden said. “I think it’s the nature of the office When you come to be vice president, it is clear that all you are is an appendage of, you know, a part of—it’s not a bad thing, it’s just—by nature, it’s a diminishing office.”

I watched Biden on his visits to Warsaw, Bucharest, and Prague last fall, as he arrived with all of the pomp and circumstance of a head of state— the red carpets, the ceremonial bands, the squadrons of security—and I wondered how it felt for him to have landed so close to his life’s goal, and yet short of it.

“I crossed the Rubicon about not being president and being vice president when I decided to take this office,” he told me. “The only power you have is totally, completely, thoroughly reflective. There is no inherent power. And so it depends totally upon the relationship you have with the president.”

Biden is pleased with that relationship, and seems to be enjoying the perks of the office. The biggest change, he says, is his mode of travel, which has both its pleasures and its drawbacks. On the one hand, he has helicopters, jets, and fleets of armored SUVs at his fingertips, and he often brings members of his family along with him on state trips. He and his wife now live at the official Vice President’s Residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory during the week, but travel back to Wilmington most weekends. During his first year in office, he insisted on taking the train home, which was troubling for his security detail.

“First time we get on, one of the conductors sees me and he goes, ‘Joey!’ and he grabs my cheek,” Biden said, grabbing a thick pinch of flesh to illustrate. “He’s an Italian kid from North Jersey. And, swear to God, Secret Service was going to take his arm off because he reached out for me and he grabbed my cheek. So it drives them crazy.”

Security concerns have since prevailed: Biden now usually makes the commute on a small jet. But when he’s home in Wilmington, he insists that his Secret Service detail maintain a very low profile. “It’s so easy to get bubble-ized,” he said. “I told them, ‘Guys, look, I’ll do whatever you tell me I’ve got to do in Washington and in other states, but in Delaware, no limos, no police escort, and I don’t want any goddamn ambulances following me.’”

One weekend, he and Jill decided they wanted to go see a movie, so they went to their usual multiplex near Route 202, the Regal Brandywine Town Center 16. The vice president and his wife got in line to buy tickets and, when they reached the window, learned that the movie they wanted to see was sold out. Disappointed, they turned to leave.

“And the Secret Service says, ‘What do you mean?,’” Biden said, chuckling. His escort felt an exception should be made for the second couple of the United States. “I said, ‘Look, no, no, no, no. Do not do this. They’re sold out, they’re sold out.’

“In Delaware,” Biden said, “there’s a semblance of reality. I still go to the drugstore. I still go to the hardware store. I still go to the haunts that I go to, and restaurants. Because after all these years, in Delaware, I’m Joe.”

Mark Bowden is an Atlantic national correspondent.
Jump to comments
Presented by

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.

Get Today's Top Stories in Your Inbox (preview)

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.


Elsewhere on the web

Join the Discussion

After you comment, click Post. If you’re not already logged in you will be asked to log in or register. blog comments powered by Disqus

Video

Adventures in Legal Weed

Colorado is now well into its first year as the first state to legalize recreational marijuana. How's it going? James Hamblin visits Aspen.

Video

What Makes a Story Great?

The storytellers behind House of CardsandThis American Life reflect on the creative process.

Video

Tracing Sriracha's Origin to Thailand

Ever wonder how the wildly popular hot sauce got its name? It all started in Si Racha.

Video

Where Confiscated Wildlife Ends Up

A government facility outside of Denver houses more than a million products of the illegal wildlife trade, from tigers and bears to bald eagles.

Video

Is Wine Healthy?

James Hamblin prepares to impress his date with knowledge about the health benefits of wine.

Video

The World's Largest Balloon Festival

Nine days, more than 700 balloons, and a whole lot of hot air

Writers

Up
Down

More in Politics

More back issues, Sept 1995 to present.

Just In