- The Washington Times - Monday, January 19, 2009

Joseph R. Biden Jr. is finally coming to Washington.

For all his years serving as Delaware’s U.S. senator - he was sworn into his seventh term earlier this month and resigned last week - Mr. Biden has never lived in the nation’s capital.

Mr. Biden on Tuesday caps a journey that seems almost as unlikely as Barack Obama‘s, and the man who took the Amtrak to work for decades will take the oath of office to be the 47th vice president of the United States.

Mr. Obama asked Delaware to allow Mr. Biden, 66, to leave, but promised the vice president would never forget his roots.

“Joe is still the scrappy kid from Scranton whose family moved here to Wilmington in search of a new beginning,” Mr. Obama told a crowd gathered at the train station to see off the new administration Saturday.

“Delaware has sent Joe Biden to Washington for 36 years, and Washington hasn’t changed him. Joe Biden has changed Washington,” the president-elect said, his next words drowned out by cheers as he added: “I’m asking Joe to take one more ride to Washington.”

An Amtrak conductor paid tribute to the vice-president-elect Saturday, his voice cracking as he said Mr. Biden has long been his friend.

Conductor Gregg Weaver said Mr. Biden sometimes would rush to make the morning train, but assured his friend he need not worry about missing the Whistle Stop express to the inauguration, calling him “Amtrak’s No. 1 commuter.”

“I know you’ll always be fighting for the right thing; I know you’ll always be fighting for us,” he said.

Biden fan Annie Thomas told reporters in Wilmington it’s “not really a goodbye” as she was among thousands gathered for the chilly send-off.

Indeed, the vice president-elect made a promise to the thousands who gathered to wish him well.

Mr. Biden noted “for the first time in 36 years, I’m going to have a home in Washington,” and quipped at the train station he was glad to have found “public housing,” referring to the vice president’s official residence at the Naval Observatory.

He promised that every once in awhile, “We’re coming home,” telling Delaware residents, “I would not be taking this journey were it not for you.”

Quoting author James Joyce’s line “Dublin will be written in my heart,” Mr. Biden said, “When I die, Delaware will be written in mine.”

Mr. Biden has never been timid about showing his emotion - voters and reporters have witnessed anger, tears and belly laughter, and his farewell to the Senate on Jan. 15 was no exception.

After serving so many years among men whose names were later inscribed on buildings, sitting at a Senate desk next to one used by the legendary Daniel Webster, Mr. Biden said it is once again a time that will witness great change.

“I firmly believe that this, too, can be the era of legends, of giants,” he said. “For this much I know: Our nation desperately needs it to be.”

He will be sworn in Tuesday by Justice John Paul Stevens, the longest-serving member of the Supreme Court. Justice Stevens hails from the liberal side of the court, but was appointed by President Ford, a Republican.

The path to the vice presidency was long and winding, and it’s a job he never expected.

Mr. Biden beat back a terrible stutter as a child, fighting a fear of public speaking to eventually become one of the top talkers on Capitol Hill.

On the hustings as a presidential candidate in 1988 and 2008, Mr. Biden detailed the ethics and family pride instilled in him as a young man in the working-class neighborhoods of Pennsylvania and Delaware.

He told voters how his father always taught him to “Get up!” when he was challenged and that he knew hard work was the best way to achieve his dreams.

Mr. Biden and his family got a new puppy after winning the election, naming him “Champ” in honor of his now deceased father’s nickname for him.

An upstart serving on a county council in the 1970s, Mr. Biden rocketed to political fame in 1972 by defeating a Republican incumbent U.S. senator and winning the seat before he was even old enough to legally serve.

As he celebrated his 30th birthday, cutting a big cake in front of news crews, he prepared to move to Washington and take the oath of office. The future was bright.

“The next day, there would be a story in a local paper that I was surely headed for the White House. I wasn’t even sworn into the U.S. Senate yet,” Mr. Biden wrote in his 2007 autobiography, “Promises to Keep.”

“I remember thinking that this wasn’t good. This couldn’t be good,” he wrote. “Maybe it was nerves finally kicking in, but it seemed like my future was coming at a full rush, and I wasn’t sure if I was ready.”

Everything he cherished came crashing down just weeks later when his wife, Neilia, and infant daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car wreck that severely injured his two sons.

Mr. Biden wanted to give up but recalled his father’s advice and listened to the Senate colleagues who would become like family. So he became a senator but never made the move to Washington.

Instead, he commuted via Amtrak from Wilmington so that he could be home with his boys and sister Valerie every night.

Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada detailed the story in a tribute recently and said Mr. Biden was courageous in the face of adversity.

“I’m not sure many could have had the strength that he had to conquer this tragedy,” he said.

Over the years on Capitol Hill, Mr. Biden established himself as a fighter unafraid to speak his mind and even ruffle some feathers.

He eventually rose to chairman of the prestigious Judiciary Committee, becoming a nationally recognized figure while leading the hearings for Supreme Court nominees Robert H. Bork and Clarence Thomas.

He is still praised for his Violence Against Women Act and legislation that put more police on the streets.

Along the way, Mr. Biden worked with seven presidents and got to lead the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

Despite voting for the war, Mr. Biden regularly challenged President Bush’s Iraq policy and made frequent trips to visit troops abroad.

His son, Beau, is serving in Iraq in the Delaware National Guard but will be on hand Tuesday to witness his father’s swearing-in as vice president.

Mr. Biden’s friends in the Senate call him a regular guy with a big heart.

Sen. Thomas R. Carper, Delaware Democrat, said his colleague was “the glue that holds this place together.”

Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat, told The Washington Times there is no one with more judgment and intelligence in the Senate than Mr. Biden.

“He knows the huge amount of confidence his colleagues have in him,” Mr. Levin said. “He’s got a very good, deep nature in his heart as a person, and that helps a lot around here.”

Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, Kentucky Republican, noted he and the vice president-elect are the same age, but that when the Kentuckian arrived in Washington, Mr. Biden had a 12-year head start in years of service.

He said Mr. Biden will be missed because he is a friend to everyone in the chamber.

“He can have a good, rip-roaring debate without being disagreeable,” he said.

Biden staffers were spotted crying in the gallery above the Senate floor as Mr. Biden resigned his seventh term, calling himself one of the chamber’s “old bulls.”

Mr. Biden, knowing full well his reputation for verbosity, told his colleagues there has been just one time he was “speechless” during his long career, when he saw the names of Henry Clay and Webster inscribed inside the desks on the Senate floor.

“I am still awestruck by this chamber,” he said.

“I never believed serving this chamber was my destiny, but it always was a big part of my dreams,” he said. “The United States Senate has been my life.”

Sen. Bob Casey, Pennsylvania Democrat, has known Mr. Biden for decades but would not have predicted the man would reach such great heights.

“No one did, how could we know,” he said. “We’re very proud of him for so many reasons, though there’s some sadness he’s leaving the Senate. The good news is he’s one of the best-prepared people to serve as vice president in this modern era.”

Mr. Biden often boasted of his decades of experience, saying in his 2008 presidential bid that he was the most qualified of the eight-person field.

His 1988 run ended early after he quoted Neil Kinnock during a debate without giving him credit, despite frequently crediting the British politician on the campaign circuit. It was the final straw of what had been a bumpy ride, and soon after he dropped out of the Democratic primary Mr. Biden’s headaches he experienced when running worsened.

He learned later he had a brain aneurysm that nearly killed him.

The recovery was not easy, but he again remembered his father’s advice and returned to the Senate as soon as he was able.

Years later, he decided he would give a White House bid another try.

Mr. Biden told his wife, Jill, early in the race there was “something different” about the presidential bid.

He recalled the conversation in “Promises to Keep,” and reflected that he could see himself sitting in the Oval Office and his hypothetical first decisions as commander in chief.

“In 1987, I couldn’t yet visualize myself doing the job of a president, but by the end of that campaign I could picture in my head how I’d get the nomination,” Mr. Biden wrote. “When I started to campaign in 2005, it was the reverse. Doing the job I could see. I was absolutely prepared for that. But I wasn’t yet entirely sure how to get my message through the media din that surrounds voters.”

He was right, and Mr. Obama and front-runner Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton attracted most of the news media’s attention as celebrity candidates.

But Mrs. Biden assured her husband that it would “work out fine.”

“You’re going to go out there and run for the right reasons, and tell people why you should be president,” she said, according to his book. “And we’ll be OK.”

But the same night Mr. Obama dominated the Iowa caucus last January, Mr. Biden made a dismal showing and was again conceding a loss.

When ending his presidential bid in Des Moines, Mr. Biden told the crowd there was “nothing to be sad about.”

He asked them to “be proud of what we fought for,” and assured Americans “I ain’t going away.”

“We decided to do this for the right reasons,” he said, adding the nation’s citizens “need a government as good as they are.”

Instead of joining his colleagues who were choosing sides between Mr. Obama and Mrs. Clinton, Mr. Biden frequently spoke to both candidates. He offered them advice when they needed it and remained neutral until the long primary season ended in June.

As the Obama team was vetting him in the vice-presidential selection process, the famously talkative Mr. Biden kept his mouth shut.

He downplayed rumors he was on the shortlist, and was rewarded for his discretion.

Mr. Obama introduced his vice-presidential pick to the world in August as someone with “a distinguished record and a fundamental decency.”

“Joe Biden is what so many others pretend to be - a statesman with sound judgment who doesn’t have to hide behind bluster to keep America strong,” Mr. Obama said at that rally in Springfield, Ill.

Mr. Biden’s performance and sometimes colorful language and spirit on the campaign trail helped attract blue-collar Democrats, and he wooed bigger crowds than ever.

The same day that Mr. Obama won the presidency, Mr. Biden was re-elected to his Senate seat, a post he would hold for just a few weeks before stepping aside to become vice president.

Longtime Biden aide and friend Larry Rasky told The Times that he thinks Mr. Biden will blaze his own trail and remain true to himself in Washington.

“He’s going to fit comfortably in that role and exercise his greatest strength - his intellectual curiosity and prowess,” Mr. Rasky said. “This was a guy who, were he not such an adept public speaker, could have been a policy wonk.”

Mr. Biden is well-known for quoting Irish poets, often evoking Joyce or Seamus Heaney.

“History teaches us not to hope on this side of the grave. But then once in a lifetime now that longed for tidal wave of justice rises up and hope and history rhyme,” Mr. Biden would say on the trail, reciting Heaney.

He said as an addendum when dropping out in Iowa last year, “My prayer for you is, my plea to you is make sure it does, make sure it does, because we have the capacity, we have the capacity to make hope and history rhyme.”

Even though they campaigned against each other and he sometimes criticized Mr. Obama as inexperienced, Mr. Biden long expressed admiration for his younger senate colleague, once saying he was like “catching lightning in a jar.”

In his Senate farewell, Mr. Biden said he was humbled and optimistic to serve with Mr. Obama.

“I came here to fight for civil rights. In my office now sits that grand conference table that once was used to fight against civil rights, and I leave here today to begin my service to our nation’s first African-American president,” Mr. Biden said. “The arc of the universe is long, but it does indeed bend toward justice. And the United States Senate has been an incredible instrument in ensuring that justice.”


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