Biden against all odds

Did ya know that Joe Biden was once terrified of public speaking? Yes, that Joe Biden, the senator from Delaware and former presidential candidate. The one who talks - a lot.

It may be hard to believe, but the man House Speaker Nancy Pelosi dubbed “Mr. Sunday Morning” for his frequent appearances on political talk shows struggled as a child to overcome a debilitating stutter.

It got him excused from speaking during morning assembly at his Catholic high school and led his classmates to tease him with “Bu-bu-Biden.”

“It was like having to stand in the corner with the dunce cap,” Mr. Biden wrote in his 2007 book, “Promises to Keep.” “Even today I can remember the dread, the shame, the absolute rage, as vividly as the day it was happening.”

After trying everything from reciting poetry to shoving pebbles in his mouth, he conquered the fear in the same way he’s tackled everything in his life - with determination.

“I would memorize long passages of Yeats and Emerson, then stand in front of the mirror in my room … and talk talk talk,” he wrote. And of course he later realized, “What had terrified me in grade school and high school was turning out to be my strength … I found out I liked speaking in public.”

Mr. Biden, 65, opens his book explaining one of his father’s favorite phrases, which “has echoed through my life.”

“The world dropped you on your head? My dad would say, ‘Get up!’”

He used the philosophy when it seemed he’d been hit with things from which he’d never recover - the tragic death of his young wife and infant daughter, a scandal that crippled his first White House bid, and a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him. He’s adopted it now, nearly six months after ending his second presidential run, as he has transitioned almost seamlessly into the self-appointed role of Democratic foreign-policy point man.

Foreign-policy fighter

On the campaign trail, Mr. Biden would often say, “I can hardly wait to debate Mitt Romney or Rudy Giuliani on this!” He meant it. Though the nominee ended up being his colleague Sen. John McCain, Mr. Biden has taken the Republican on at full force.

Mr. Biden told The Washington Times he considers himself a “kind of truth squad” to take on Republican charges against Democrats and presumptive nominee Sen. Barack Obama.

“I don’t see how we win a general election for president unless the American public is convinced [we] have met the threshold requirement as someone they trust with confidence on national security,” he told The Times.

Mr. Biden heaps praise on Mr. Obama as someone “wise,” with the right judgment on foreign policy. And he has jabbed, and pushed, and prodded the Republicans every chance he gets.

As Foreign Relations Committee chairman when “the policies of the Republican Party have made us weaker than we have been in modern history,” Mr. Biden said feels responsible for exposing the “paucity” of GOP arguments on security and terrorism. Instead of taking GOP hits he will be “actually responding, every time they make some assertion about the Democratic Party or its candidates.”

Of course, Mr. Biden once thought his foreign policy experience would deliver him a surprise finish in the Iowa caucus that could catapult him to the presidential nomination.

He wore his gray hair with pride, reminding voters he had worked with “seven presidents” and bragging he knows most of foreign leaders by their first names. He campaigned on a scrappy budget and said Iowans from tiny town to tinier town offered the “only level playing field left in American politics.”

Microbiologist Dennis Wegner of Ottumwa, told The Times he was supporting Mr. Biden despite him being a longshot, saying, “If he doesn’t place third at least, I know I supported the right person. Win, lose or draw, I am so thankful for the gift of listening to Joe.”

But after a dismal caucus showing in his second presidential bid - the first was in 1988 - Mr. Biden ended his run.

Now that he’s back to work, his resume and unabashed criticism of Republicans makes his name increasingly mentioned as a potential Cabinet secretary or vice presidential pick for Mr. Obama.

Mr. Biden was fond of telling voters who suggested he was perhaps a better fit for secretary of state, “Are you ready to vote for anyone for president who is not smarter than their secretary of state?”

While many praise Mr. Biden for telling it like it is, it has earned him the label of gaffe machine. He took heat when announcing his own candidacy by saying Mr. Obama was “clean” and “articulate” and the first black candidate with a real chance to win.

Mr. Obama defended his rival during the final debate in Iowa when Mr. Biden was asked about the remark, saying he had no doubt the senator has a commitment to racial equality. “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,” Mr. Obama said.

Mr. Biden is both mocked and revered for his willingness to curse, speak his mind and - gasp! - tell the truth about political reality.

“One criticism our party gets is we tend to be too timid,” Mr. Biden told The Times. “They’re waiting for the truth.”

He even admitted on “Meet the Press” this month that if asked to be Mr. Obama’s running mate, “Of course, I’ll say yes.” That’s the kind of candor most politicians avoid.

“He’s pathologically honest to a fault,” said Larry Rasky, a longtime loyal Biden aide who helped with both presidential bids.

Character counts

Mr. Rasky said sometimes it was Mr. Biden’s chipper demeanor that kept everyone else going: “We woke up in some pretty crusty motels and some pretty out of the way places, and I never saw Joe Biden walk out the door of whatever place we were or whatever the situation was in the campaign without the ability to look at the glass as half full.”

Mr. Biden’s friends say he avoids taking cheap shots. As a 29-year-old county council member hoping for a miracle to unseat incumbent Republican Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, he skipped a chance to stump his rival by boasting the right answer to a debate question the senator didn’t know.

“I probably had better political instincts then,” he wrote in his book. “Today I’d probably win the point but lose the match because I’d be too busy ripping somebody’s head off with the facts. But I knew enough in 1972 to know that nobody in the audience wanted to see Boggs embarrassed.”

Missing from Mr. Biden’s lengthy speeches about Mr. McCain is the favorite Democratic attack line of late. Democrats have charged Mr. McCain wants a “100-year war” since he answered a town hall question by saying it was possible the United States could retain a presence in Iraq for “maybe 100” years.

Instead of reprising the attack in his speech, Mr. Biden said the Republican had taken “a lot of heat,” but explained, “the truth is,” and detailed what Mr. McCain meant. He still went on to call that scenario an unrealistic fantasy.

Even though he once turned in his badge as the school bus monitor in grade school rather than report his sister for bad behavior, the two are close friends. Valerie Biden Owens has long served as his campaign manager and advocated for her brother on the trail.

She helped him overcome his toughest personal challenge - losing his first wife Nelia and infant daughter Naomi in a car wreck in 1972. He learned the news while preparing to take his oath of office as a newly elected senator and didn’t know what to do.

Sen. John McClellan of Arkansas, then in his 70s, offered Mr. Biden some advice: “There’s only one thing to do. Bury yourself in work.”

That’s what he did, shaping his role in the Senate as its youngest member. In 1988 he mounted a bid for the presidential nomination, even though he worried that even with his years of service, “the idea of my being president seemed far-fetched.”

He had a few gaffes on the trail, but none worse than charges he had lifted elements of his stump speech from a British politician, a revelation that ultimately torpedoed his candidacy.

He returned to the Senate to complete the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork, which the Senate rejected with Mr. Biden helping lead the way.

Soon after, the headaches Mr. Biden felt on the trail went from bad to worse. Ending the campaign might have been the best thing - it turned out he had a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him. Following his dad’s “Get up!” advice after his recovery, Mr. Biden threw himself into his Senate career and later led the Democrats during the Supreme Court nomination hearings for Clarence Thomas.

He also became a foreign-policy champion, noting in his book one of his proudest moments was meeting with Yugoslav dictator Slobodan Milosevic and telling the rogue leader to his face, “I think you’re a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one.”

His role evolved years later, and even though he voted for the Iraq war he became a key point man on helping find a solution for a way to end it. His plan to partition Iraq and create a weak central government in Baghdad was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Senate last year.

Before he mounted his second bid, he realized he was “absolutely prepared” to be president, but recognized it would be tough getting his message through.

He was right about the campaign, but he’ll be talking for years to come.

About the Author

Christina Bellantoni

Christina Bellantoni is a White House correspondent for The Washington Times in Washington, D.C., a post she took after covering the 2008 Democratic presidential campaigns. She has been with The Times since 2003, covering state and Congressional politics before moving to national political beat for the 2008 campaign. Bellantoni, a San Jose native, graduated from UC Berkeley with ...

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