Not long after John Kerry went down to defeat in 2004, I spend a couple of delightful hours with his colleague and rival, Joe Biden, for a New Yorker article on the Democratic Party's national security deficit. Biden told me many interesting stories, several of which were true. Others, not so much. Like this one, which was meant to convince me that Kerry was clueless on the subject of terrorism. Here's a key excerpt:
"I'm listening to the radio," Biden said. " 'Today' "--here he adopted a radio announcer's voice--" 'the President of the U.S. said dah-dah, dah-dah, dah-dah, and he said he's sure Senator Kerry agrees with him. Senator Kerry, unable to resist a dig'--that's what the announcer said, that was the phrase--'said today had we acted'--I'm paraphrasing--'had we acted properly in Tora Bora, we wouldn't have this problem.' "
Biden continued, "I'm on the phone, I e-mail, I say, 'John, please, say three things: "How dare bin Laden speak of our President this way." No. 2, "I know how to deal with preventing another 9/11." No. 3, "Kill him." ' Now, that's harsh. Kerry needed to be harsh. And it was--Jesus Christ." Here Biden threw up his hands. "He didn't make any of it. Let's get it straight. None of it. None of those three points were made."
This was not quite the case. In Kerry's first comment, made during an interview with a Milwaukee television station, he criticized Bush for missing an opportunity to kill bin Laden at Tora Bora, as he often had during the campaign. But, not long after that, Kerry spoke to the press, saying, "As Americans, we are absolutely united in our determination to hunt down and destroy Osama bin Laden and the terrorists. They're barbarians, and I will stop at absolutely nothing to hunt down, capture, or kill the terrorists wherever they are, whatever it takes, period."
Biden, apparently, did not actually reach Kerry until that night, so Kerry made this statement without Biden's help. In any case, Biden failed to recount the dénouement; leaving it out better served the point of his story, which concerned the troubles that faced the Kerry campaign and, by extension, the Democratic Party--a party that Biden hopes to see revived. It was then, Biden went on, that he realized Kerry would lose the election.
"That night, I got off that trip, from Scranton, I got off the plane, Wilmington airport, only private aircraft, get off, pick up a phone, call a local place called the Charcoal Pit before it closes. They have great steak sandwiches and a milkshake. Triple-thick milkshake. And I hadn't eaten. I'm going to pass it on the way home. They're literally sweeping the floors. A woman, overweight, forty years old, a little unkempt, had a tooth missing in the side, not in the front"--he showed his flashing white teeth, to demonstrate--"walks up to me to give me my steak sandwich. 'Senator Biden, I'm so glad you're here. I've got a problem.' And I take out a piece of paper, maybe Social Security for her mother, and she said, 'I heard you're for Kerry.' And she said, 'You're so strong and he's so weak.' "
Biden looked at me, to make sure I understood what he seemed to think was a point of considerable nuance. "I'm gonna tell you why I'm going to vote for someone," he said, addressing the woman of the story. "Look, you're working here tonight. If the Republicans have their way, you won't get paid overtime. When you stay here tonight, you're already closed. Besides that, what they want to do with your health care." Then he quoted what the woman had replied: "But you're so strong, and he's so weak. And President Bush--he seems strong."