Twenty five years ago (when Paul Ryan was 18 years old) I spent a lot of time with Joe Biden as he pursued the presidency. He's a force of nature still going strong. Here's what I found those many years ago, not much different than what you see and what you get today. -- Join me on my blog Thursday night for our comment thread watching the Vice President debate Ryan.
By Craig Crawford, The Orlando Sentinel (Sept. 6, 1987) -- Talking to Joe Biden is a physical contest. First, he stands practically on your toes, stares right between your eyeballs and says loudly, "So what's up?"
While you're fumbling for an answer, the 44-year-old Democratic senator from Delaware turns on The Smile, a disarming ear-to-ear grin with the power of a floodlight.
About the time you take a breath, the verbal assault begins. The non-stop barrage of politician-chatter leaves aides, reporters and others within range drooping, their eyes glazed over.
Biden relies on sheer pushiness, oratorical flourish and a fiercely loyal family to succeed. Indeed, if this trim, balding racquetball enthusiast becomes president, then Mikhail Gorbachev had better start practicing his eye contact and verbal skills.
Critics say Biden is all talk and no substance, that he is inclined to make the ill-considered statement that later haunts him. They say his legislative achievements pale in comparison to his rhetoric. Those complaints have provoked even longer, more detailed Biden speeches, replete with lots of facts and figures about his 15 years in the Senate.
The son of an Irish Catholic car salesman who liked to discuss history and politics at the family dinner table, Biden pokes fun at his own reputation for long-windedness.
When an aide passed him a note during an Aug. 15 talk to some uncommitted Florida Democrats in Orlando, Biden said, "He's telling me to shut up." The group laughed, but then the candidate talked for another eight minutes.
This month Biden will be squarely in the limelight when the Senate Judiciary Committee, which he chairs, takes up the controversial nomination of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court.
True to form, Biden has already seized the gauntlet and loudly begun fighting the Reagan administration on Bork -- after first having to explain away his rash statement that he would vote to approve the nomination.
Biden, who got his first date with his wife, Jill, by getting her to break another date, attributes his aggressiveness to a zeal for sports while growing up in a middle-class neighborhood in Wilmington, Del.
He played basketball, football and baseball in high school, though his father made him quit sports at the University of Delaware to improve his perennial C average.
"I was always the little guy on the team," said the 6-foot-tall Biden. "I guess that made me more competitive."
The eldest of four children, Biden was the neighborhood leader -- class president, the all-purpose athlete, the guy who got the girls, the fellow so popular he never really had a best friend.
Politics was a natural progression for the local golden boy and his outgoing family. Friends remember the Biden clan referred to his political forays as "our career" or "when we win." His sister, Valerie Biden Owens, has managed all his campaigns, including the presidential bid, and his brothers are key fund-raisers.
After a short time practicing law, the 27-year-old Biden was ready for politics. Family members set their sights low for the first outing: He was elected to the New Castle County Council in 1970.
Having gotten a taste of victory, they immediately tackled what to many others seemed a ridiculous goal: the U.S. Senate. Just two years later, the 29-year-old Biden ousted a two-term incumbent Republican. He was sworn in a few weeks after turning 30, the constitutionally required age.
The charmed life took a tragic turn when his first wife, Neilia, and their 13-month-old daughter died in a car wreck shortly after Biden's Senate election. After some years of despondency -- he often sat in his den and stared at the wall until dawn -- Biden regained his single-minded will to succeed.
Senate colleagues admire his alertness, but they also get weary of his talkativeness.
"He's very bright, very articulate," Sen. Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, said. "His major defect is that he goes on and on."
Biden's harshest critics say he is a phony, an ambitious charmer calculating his rise to national prominence.
"I have nothing but contempt for him," said Walter Berns of the American Enterprise Institute, a conservative think tank in Washington, D.C. "That grin makes my teeth grate. I can see the nefarious plotting behind it."
Biden knows his style doesn't sit well with many people.
"I cut against the grain," Biden said in response to Berns' comments. "I find myself at odds with liberals and conservatives. But I believe that people most want to see strength and conviction in a president."
Those hard-charging qualities are definitely what Biden likes people to see.
At the head table of a luncheon two weeks ago in San Francisco, Biden whipped out a pad and feverishly worked on a Judiciary Committee memorandum. Preoccupied with the task, he nearly missed his own introduction.
Yet when he took the microphone, he had refocused. He treated the audience of lawyers to an all-out attack on the Bork nomination, complaining that the federal judge has left conflicting signals about his views on critical issues, and shouting, "Let's stop pussyfooting around and find out what Judge Bork really thinks."
Brashness has long been a Biden trait.
"Joe was a hothead on the ballfield," said Marty Londergan, a Wilmington dentist who played football with Biden. "Sometimes he taunted our opponents so much that we'd be lucky to get out of there with our shirts on."
Despite his legendary motor-mouth, Biden once stuttered so badly that in grade school he was exempted from talking in front of his class. To get rid of the handicap, he practiced reading aloud and talking to neighbors while collecting their soft drink bottles to make money.
Valerie Owens believes that the experience fueled much of her brother's determination to excel. "I remember him coming home after some of the kids had made fun of the stuttering," said Owens. "But instead of going to a corner and crying, he went into his room, shouting: 'Damn it. I'm going to speak and I'm going to speak directly because that little creep will not make fun of me again.'
"That's the great fire in him we see today," she said.
Owens disagrees with political observers who say that Biden's tendency to shoot from the hip will get him in trouble.
"Some people say hothead, but I say passion," Owens said of her brother. "Joe feels. He has definite opinions and commitment. You know where you stand with him."
Biden doesn't shrink from public displays of his passion. Last spring during a televised Senate hearing he lambasted Secretary of State George Shultz for "lacking moral backbone" in handling South African policy. "That was Joe," said Owens. "He didn't lose his temper, but he was adamant, committed and mad. Some people may be looking for politicians who are sterile and bland, but that's not real."
Growing up, the Biden children were a noisy clan encouraged to express themselves. They would come home from school, get a plate of cookies or a piece of cake and tell their mother, Jean, and father, Joe Sr., whatever was going on in their lives.
"We were raised not to feel silly kissing, hugging and talking," said Owens.
The Biden children also were known for their extraordinary confidence.
"My mother and father always reinforced the notion that there wasn't anything I couldn't do," Biden said during an unusual calm in July between appointments in his Senate office.
"Success was especially important if other people had a stake in it," he said. "For example, it would bother them a great deal if you didn't do your best in a baseball or football game and the team lost because of it. But it wasn't so important in a track meet, or an activity where I was the only one who suffered."
Talking about history and current events was standard fare in the Biden household.
"Dad was not a college-educated man, but he was very well read," said Biden. "He always had newspapers around. He read everything from the soup can label to historical biographies."
Joe Sr. made sure that all his children went to college.
"He loved to discuss our history classes," said Biden. "You could get a perspective from Dad that wasn't in the textbooks. He always had an insight." The Biden house was a neighborhood gathering place, which furthered the younger Joe's reputation as the guy to hang out with.
"The door was never locked," said Biden. "You could walk into my house and never know who would be there. Maybe 20 other kids grew up in our house and a hundred others passed through."
Jean was a favorite counselor for neighborhood children. They would spend hours at her kitchen table, spilling their troubles. "We would say, 'Mom is hearing confession again,' " said Biden.
Despite their outgoing style, the Biden family is a tight unit, keeping control of the elder brother's political career to themselves.
When Biden considered marrying Jill Jacobs in 1977 after a two- year courtship, his brothers Frank and Jim took her out for dinner and discussed the future. They explained the family's plans for a presidential campaign one day.
Jill, 36, said she could handle such soaring goals but thought "it was so far in the future, who knew what could happen?" They were married later that year.
Now a teacher for emotionally disturbed children, Jill is raising the two teen-age boys from Biden's first marriage and a 6-year-old daughter. She is also attending graduate school in English literature.
Biden is just as determined to maintain a family life as he is about everything else. Until recently he rode the train every workday between Washington and Wilmington, just to be near Jill and the children. Now that a national campaign schedule has nixed that routine, they travel with him whenever possible.
Despite his many roles -- devoted family man, candidate, embattled Senate leader -- Biden believes he can do it all, just like his parents told him he could.
"I'm very comfortable," he said, flashing that smile. "It just seems natural."
(Reprinted with permission from The Orlando Sentinel)
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