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Vetting Joe Biden: My Conversation With His Classmate

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One summer, while visiting the Boardwalk at Atlantic City with a small group of friends, Joseph Biden, then the student body president at Archmere Academy, one of them asked what he was planning to be when he grew up. His answer: "I'm going to be president." His friends were skeptical. As a childhood friend, Maggie C. Martins puts it, "We all kind of laughed. 'Yeah, yeah. Okay, we know you're going to do something, but president?' He said it could happen to anybody. When he went to run for Senator, I thought, okay, he's doing what he was saying he wanted to do. Not that he was running for president then but I'm going to do something big so that I can help everybody.'"

While still committed to running for president during the start of primary season, Biden gave every indication that he would not accept any slot for Secretary of State, (as he currently serves as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), or the vice presidency. His reasoning: if a person, (Biden), is qualified to be president, then why would you want the person to run for a lesser position? However, that was back when he was in the race for the presidency, when such a statement could land him some coverage by a news media absorbed with the frontrunners. The true intention of the statement was obvious: I am committed 100% to running for president, so vote for me.

"If the candidate asks me to be vice president, the answer is I got to say yes. But he's not going to ask me. Unlike most other people, I'm being straight with you. If asked, I will do it. I've made it clear I do not want to be asked," Biden said that just two months ago. In other words, he is willing to take any post the presumptive Democratic nominee offers him.

Why should a politically ambitious man refuse? One year after he graduated from Syracuse University College of Law, Biden won election to the New Castle County, County Council. He served for two years before his successful Senate bid in 1972, turning the required age of 30 shortly before the swearing in. But Delaware's Senator-elect would face a more difficult challenge soon after his election, when a drunk driver struck the car carrying his family, killing his wife Neilia and daughter Naomi and severely wounding sons Hunter and Beau. "There was a question as to whether he wanted to continue on [and become senator] because it affected him so much," recalls Martins. Biden reconsidered accepting his Senate seat, but eventually took his oath of office at his sons' hospital bedsides. As a senator, he began his habit of taking the 250-mile roundtrip commute from Washington, D.C. to Wilmington, Delaware to see his sons, who would go on to make full recoveries. Nevertheless, Biden's trademark commutes from his home state and back, as well as his support for Amtrak, have continued to this day.

"His family is most important to him. And then his friends. And then, constituents," says Martins. "The person that's he's dealing with is more important...He'll always have the time for the everyday, average person...If he was talking to you and someone would say, 'Senator, so and so needs to talk with you right now, he would say, 'I'll be there in just a minute, I'm not finished.' So he makes the people that are his constituents feel very important because he gives them time."

Biden is one candidate who does not always stick to the script, preferring to speak his mind versus rehearsing talking points. That does not always help him. Shortly before launching his 2008 presidential campaign, he repeated his infamous 'Dunkin' Donuts' joke in front of a television crew, commenting on the growing number of Indian-Americans who own convenience stores, a remark perceived as racist. Soon after he announced that he was running for president, he made yet another gaffe when he called the future top-of-the-ticket, Barack Obama, who was then a possible presidential rival, "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." However, perhaps the most notable campaign misstep occurred in 1987, in his first bid for the presidency, when he used parts of a speech by then British Labor Leader Neil Kinnock without citing the source. Even though Biden had cited Kinnock in previous speeches and regretted the one incident where he did not, he withdrew from the race amidst allegations of plagiarism and the subsequent media frenzy.

The six-term Senator has spent more time in elected office than John McCain himself and has spent four of the last eight years as Chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. He also has his list of domestic accomplishments to tout, having written and sponsored the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act and the Violence Against Women Act.

"He's going to tell you what he's thinking...If he makes a mistake and it's a blunder in the way it sounds; he's going to explain it later," says Martins. "But I don't think you'll ever get him to be another person."

Biden's version of straight talk will make him the greatest liability for the Obama campaign. Would American accept a blunt, gaffe-prone, policy wonk for president, seeing that past "know-it-alls" Dukakis, Gore, and Kerry have failed to capture the presidency? Are the Democrats back to winning people's minds over their hearts, a type of campaign that almost never wins them an election? Can we go through the remaining election season without hearing a single controversial statement from the senior senator of Delaware? We will have to wait and see.