Joe Biden: TV-era style belies long experience
Portsmouth, N.H. — THE Yugoslavian dictator, Marshall Tito, said no. But after much cajoling, American diplomat W.Averell Harriman finally got an appointment with Tito at his summer residence on the Adriatic Sea. Accompanying Mr. Harriman was a young, wide-eyed United States senator, Joseph R. Biden Jr. It was 1979. During the 2-hour meeting that ensued, the Democratic senator from Delaware sat spellbound between the two historic figures. Tito and Harriman reminisced about World War II and traded views on the cold war, communism, and Stalin.
``Every once in a while, Harriman would say, `Tell him what the young people think, Joe,''' Senator Biden recalls. But mostly he was there to listen.
``Tito was talking about S-t-a-l-i-n,'' Biden says, pronouncing the name as Tito did, as a low, slow growl. ``Every time he mentioned Stalin's name, his neck got red. It was like I was there on the program `You Are There,' with Edward R. Murrow.''
Biden told this story as we drove along a highway in New Hampshire, scene of the nation's first 1988 presidential primary. The senator was out scouting for support before the official start of his White House campaign tomorrow.
The Tito-Harriman experience was testimony to Biden's longtime interest in foreign policy. But his comment about Murrow's TV show illustrated something equally important: Biden is one of a new breed of young presidential candidates in 1988 - a group raised during the Television Age.
Biden talks as easily about the hottest rock groups, like U-2, or the latest Hollywood movies as he does about arms control policies or defense spending.
And that explains why some Washington insiders predict this yuppie-in-a-hurry from Wilmington has a good shot at becoming the next president of the United States.
Biden fascinates young audiences. His words have an '80s ring. He speaks the language of now. He's up to date. This is no tradition-bound Democrat living in the shadow of Franklin D. Roosevelt's New Deal, `a la Walter Mondale. Biden's youthfulness, his iconoclastic style, his use of TV, cinema, and rock music as benchmarks give him the perfect entree to America's new political powerhouse: the baby-boom voter.
Biden isn't the only young candidate in 1988. But US Rep. Les AuCoin (D) of Oregon says Biden's oratorical abilities and his positions make him stand out from the current field:
``Biden is the only candidate who can spell out his agenda, lay it out, state it in ways that the American people will want to move, want to march,'' Representative AuCoin says.
Few American voters know Biden. Fewer than one in five recognizes his name. But already he's becoming a familiar figure here in New Hampshire and in Iowa, scene of the first presidential caucuses.
Voters find that Biden combines a Kennedyesque style with a surprising amount of experience for someone born during the first year of World War II.
Although he's still one of the youngest United States senators, Biden has served nearly 15 years in the upper chamber. In foreign policy, he ranks second in seniority among Democrats on the Foreign Relations Committee. In arms control, he played a key role in support of the SALT II treaty. In the field of law and the courts, Biden now serves as chairman of the Judiciary Committee.
But despite his platform appeal and his quick rise in the Senate, Biden has become controversial.
Friends and foes alike agree that Biden can be a warm, likable pol of Irish-Roman Catholic background who enjoys political schmoozing, who makes great speeches, and who deeply loves his family. He's smart, ambitious, and talented.
Yet Biden has serious foes. They call him loud-mouthed, brash, aggressive, and rude, a man of little substance. While he has great feelings for his family, foes say he shows little understanding for his political opponents, or the feelings of their families.
Three years ago, John M. Burris, a Delaware businessman, ran against Biden for the Senate. Mr. Burris concluded that the only way Biden could be beaten was to make the public see the senator's abrasive side.
Burris offers this summary, looking back on their 1984 race:
``I probably know Biden better than anyone. I've looked him in the eye during debates. And I would echo what everyone says on the positive side.
``Biden is very effective with people. He has a winning way, which he sometimes puts at risk with arrogance. He's inner-city, Irish, Catholic, arrogant - like the Boston Celtics. Brash. But people love him in spite of it.''
Burris says: ``Our whole strategy was to get him to blow his cool. But we only got him angry once, at a debate at a Unitarian church, and there was no TV.
``I had asked why Biden, as a member of the Foreign Relations Committee, was against the Grenada invasion in the morning, but [when he saw how public opinion was running] switched in favor of Grenada in the afternoon....
``Biden came up out of his chair [and] began screaming at me. When his trigger goes, and his staff is not there to protect him, that is his weakness.''
Iowa Lt. Gov. Jo Ann Zimmerman strongly supports Biden, and she takes issue with Burris.
Although Biden had an early reputation as the enfant terrible of the Senate, Ms. Zimmerman notes that there have been only two instances in 15 years of Biden showing his temper in public.
In one, Biden made a personal attack on Attorney General Edwin Meese III, calling him ``beneath the office'' of attorney general, while admitting Mr. Meese had committed no violations of law or ethics. In another instance, Biden admits he lost control and shouted at Secretary of State George Shultz during a hearing on South Africa.
Biden says he has passion on the issues, and defends his performance:
``There's this thing out there today that ... unless you are antiseptic, unless you are clinical, then in fact you are not thoughtful, you are not deep.''
If one has to keep his feelings bottled up to be elected president, ``then I won't be elected president,'' Biden told an interviewer.
But Biden thinks American voters, particularly baby-boomers, are looking for passion. Of the baby-boom generation, generally defined as Americans born between 1946 and 1964, he says:
``We're very different, all of us, whether we're liberal or conservative, Democrat or Republican. There's a cultural affinity. ... Within that I think there is a latent idealism that can be tapped. That's real. That's genuine. I think people do care.''
That passion has given Biden a liberal voting record, with one or two notable exceptions. Although adamant on civil rights issues, for example, Biden led the fight against school busing, a policy he thinks has failed. Biden also has moved toward fiscal conservatism.
In other areas, Biden has voted: against chemical-weapons production; for the Martin Luther King Jr. holiday; against the MX missile; against school prayer; for cutting military aid to El Salvador; against retention of tax indexing; against ``star wars'' research.
Part of Biden's reputation in Washington comes from his early years there. They were tough years for Biden, who was elected at the age of 29, the second youngest senator in history.
Only a month after his victory, Biden's wife and daughter were killed in an auto crash, and his two sons were critically injured. At first, Biden did not want to take the oath of office. He admits that his performance during those first months in Washington left much to be desired.
The senator still commutes daily - two hours each way by train - to his home in Wilmington. He has remarried, and has a young daughter. His sons are doing well in high school.
During our drive, Biden was asked what gives him his strength during times of crisis in his life.
``My family,'' he said. ``I know you are supposed to say your God. But my family. It's kind of blood of my blood. It's an embodiment of everything. It's an embodiment of my values, my faith, my sense of identity. It's my family. They're a pretty incredible bunch. They're always there. They have always been. It's not a joke to say in our family that if you have to ask, it's already too late.''
Does Biden - the family man, the man of passion, the orator, the brash Senate upstart - have a chance in '88?
Even Republicans, like Bill Prickett, admit that Biden has great political skills. Mr. Prickett, a Delaware attorney, gave Biden his first job out of law school. He calls Biden ``a consumate politician.''
Prickett says Biden has a reputation in Delaware for being a quick study - but without great depth. Yet Prickett concedes that Biden is ``a very nice guy. He's very careful to do his homework. Nothing offends him.''
If Biden has a saving grace, Prickett says, it is ``good judgment on the people he gets around him'' - a quality that could prove vital for the man in the White House.