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Biden’s ascension to elder statesman

- The Washington Times - Monday, August 25, 2008

RE-POSTED FROM AUG. 24

When Joe Biden was a junior in high school, he looked through a book listing members of Congress and he knew he wanted to grace its pages one day.

His early ambition earned him a reputation as a young Democratic up-and-comer, taking the Senate oath as a 30-year-old (the youngest permissible age), a shining star among his colleagues remarkably similar to Sen. Barack Obama's quick rise from state senator to presumptive Democratic presidential nominee.

Now, the senator from Delaware is known as a statesman, and he will be the running mate for Mr. Obama, a man 18 years younger and of whom Mr. Biden once said was "like catching lightning in a jar."

As a young man, Mr. Biden marveled that the politicians in the congressional book "were from wealthy and well-established families. The ones who got there on their own hook were almost all lawyers."

"So that set my course," he wrote in his 2007 autobiography, "Promises to Keep."

Mr. Biden, 65, detailed in the preface to his book his long experience on the national stage.

"As a United States senator, I've watched (and played some small part in) history: the Vietnam War, Watergate, the Iran hostage crisis, the Bork nomination, the fall of the Berlin Wall, the reunification of Germany, the disintegration of the Soviet Union, 9/11, two wars in Iraq, a presidential impeachment, a presidential resignation and a presidential election decided by the Supreme Court."

On the stump during his own White House bid, Mr. Biden would boast to Iowa voters he had worked with "seven presidents" and helped negotiate the Dayton Accords that sealed the end of the war in Bosnia. He would brag he knows most of foreign leaders by their first names.

When some suggested he might be better suited for a lesser role, he would counter: "Are you ready to vote for anyone for president who is not smarter than their secretary of state?"

Despite his extensive experience, Mr. Biden's candidacy never gained traction amid the historic nature of Mr. Obama's run and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton's bid to become the first female president.

One reason may be that he stumbled out of the gate by making comments some viewed as derogatory about Mr. Obama.

Mr. Biden, who entered politics with a passion for civil rights, told the New York Observer, "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

The story exploded and overshadowed the merits of his presidential bid, but the Delaware senator said he'd meant it as a compliment.

"Barack Obama is probably the most exciting candidate that the Democratic or Republican party has produced, at least since I've been around," Mr. Biden said when clarifying, adding Mr. Obama is a "superstar, and that is the only point I was trying to make."

Mr. Obama defended his rival during the final debate in Iowa when Mr. Biden was asked about the remark.

"I have absolutely no doubt about what is in his heart and the commitment that he has made with respect to racial equality in this country," Mr. Obama told the moderators. "I will provide some testimony, as they say in church, that Joe is on the right side of the issues and is fighting every day for a better America."

Now partners, the two were on different sides of the Iraq war - which Mr. Obama as a U.S. Senate candidate blasted as a "dumb war" and which saw Mr. Biden argue for the war resolution's passage in the Senate.

They also differed last spring, when Mr. Obama voted against a troop-funding bill because it did not include a timetable for troop withdrawal.

Mr. Biden said he "refused" to cast the same vote even though he knew it might earn him liberal applause because the measure included funding for MRAP (Mine Resistant Ambush Protected) vehicles for which he had fought after several visits to Iraq.

Despite their difference in voting records, Mr. Biden will be able to serve as a truth squad against Republicans who try to exploit Mr. Obama's shifts on foreign policy.

"I ran against Barack. I know exactly what he's been saying all along," Mr. Biden said in July, noting that his former rival had been "totally, thoroughly, absolutely consistent."

A lawyer and professor, Mr. Biden is a leading voice on Iraq policy. As chairman of Foreign Relations Committee since the Democrats retook control of Congress in November 2006, he has held extensive hearings about the best way forward and was also a chief critic of Mr. Bush's surge of troops to Iraq. He also has pushed a plan to partition Iraq into three parts, one each mostly Sunni, mostly Kurd and mostly Shi'ite.

When introducing Mr. Biden to the nation as his running mate Saturday, Mr. Obama talked about the strength his friend displayed following the tragic car wreck that killed his young wife and infant daughter in 1972, and noted he suffered a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him in the 1980s.

Mr. Obama also told the little-known story that Mr. Biden - now known for his verbosity - once suffered a debilitating stutter. He was teased, called "buh-buh-Biden," as a child. But he taught himself to overcome the impediment by reciting poetry in front of the mirror.

In his speech to the nation and 35,000 people Saturday, Mr. Biden praised his wife of 31 years, Jill, as "drop-dead gorgeous."

She teaches English at the Delaware Technical and Community College in Wilmington. One of her passions is educating high school girls about proper breast care to prevent cancer.

Mr. Obama also cited Mr. Biden's character, one of the first thing friends and colleagues mention when talking about the longtime senator.

"He's pathologically honest to a fault," Larry Rasky, a longtime Biden aide who helped with both presidential bids, said earlier this summer. "He doesn't like sugarcoating."

Republicans are attempting to use Mr. Biden's primary criticism of Mr. Obama as an attack, though the elder senator was never very aggressive on the topic, instead pointing out his own strengths.

"I make no apologies for saying I believe I am the best-prepared of all the candidates," Mr. Biden said when announcing his candidacy. "President Bush will leave the next president with no margin for error."

The Democratic ticket's rivals will also surely exploit the scandal that ended Mr. Biden's first presidential run.

After declaring his candidacy in June 1987 at a train station in Wilmington, Del., Mr. Biden appeared well-situated to make a formidable run for the office, mainly because of his moderate image and the fact that he initially raised more money than any of the other candidates, including the presumed front-runner Gary Hart, a former Democratic senator from Colorado.

Political analysts also noted at the time that he had gained a following in the black community when he openly challenged then-Secretary of State George Shultz during a rancorous, televised Senate hearing over the Reagan administration's opposition to sanctions on apartheid-era South Africa.

But in September 1987, Mr. Biden's presidential aspirations took a dive when his Democratic rivals circulated a debate tape of him using phrases from Neil Kinnock, then-leader of the British Labor Party. He defended himself at the time by saying he had attributed the Kinnock statement in prior speeches, though he did not do so during the debate.

He also had falsely claimed to have graduated in the top half of his law class, when he actually finished 76th in a class of 85, and that he had not earned the three degrees he claimed. He withdrew from the race on Sept. 23, 1987.

"The fact of the matter is, I was lazy. The fact of the matter was I was arrogant about how I went about it. I hope I've learned something from that in the last years," Mr. Biden said in 2006 when asked if he was considering a new run for the presidency.

Mr. Biden huddled with his family soon after Sen. John Kerry, Massachusetts Democrat, lost the 2004 election, and they surprised him by urging him to seek the White House.

In "Promises to Keep," he detailed their sentiment: "I want you to run this time. It's up to you, but we'll support it."

He asked why. "We think you can unite the country. We think you're the best person to pull the country together."