Joe Biden's Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics is the most unlikely of campaign biographies: It's a ripping good read.
Forget all you've heard about Delaware's six-term US senator – that he's a policy wonk (apparently that's a bad thing), or that he doesn't know when to stop talking, or that he has just been around too long.
None of that explains why a first book with no sex scandals – and whose author/candidate has poll ratings in the single digits – quickly hit The New York Times Bestseller list. Here's why: Biden is a master storyteller and has stories worth telling. From conversations with President Bush and world leaders to overcoming personal tragedies and a childhood stutter, the book is paced to keep the pages turning.
Take the story that's a highlight of his current book tour: the cuff-link gambit. Biden is getting ready for an eighth-grade dance, but he's wearing his father's dress shirt and can't find cuff links. No problem: His mother, Jean, runs down to the basement and comes up with two pairs of nuts and bolts and fastens them to the borrowed French cuffs. Biden balks. "The kids will make fun of me," he says.
"Now look, Joey," his mom says, "if anybody says anything to you about these nuts and bolts you look them right in the eye and say, 'Don't you have a pair of these?' "So, is any kid mean enough to make fun of the new kid with nuts and bolts for cuff links? Duh. Recalling his mother's advice, Biden looks his tormenter in the eye. "You don't have a pair of these?" There's a silence, then the bully replies, "Yeah, yeah. I got a pair of these."
When he told this story at the National Press Club this month, he ended by holding up his own French cuffs to show a pair of nut-and-bolt cuff links. But this time, they were sterling silver from Tiffany's – a gift from his sister and longtime campaign manager, Val. Call it the "oooaaaah" moment of the speech.
If you felt as if you just saw that scene in a movie, it's because the book is framed like a documentary film. It's not a political science thesis with a few stories thrown in for color. The stories tell the story.
Some were already recounted in Richard Ben Cramer's 1992 book, "What It Takes: The Way to the White House," a detailed account of the lives of six 1988 presidential candidates, including Biden. At the urging of Cramer, Biden set out to write his own story. He began work on the book when Sen. John Kerry was still running for president – and his own hopes for a presidential run were at an ebb.
"We sat and talked for hundreds and hundreds of hours, trying to figure out the stories that were essential in his life and career," says Mark Zwonitzer, a writer and documentary filmmaker, who worked with Cramer on "What It Takes," and with Biden on "Promises to Keep." Biden's wife, Jill, family, and closest aides sat in on the discussions.
Biden says he learned life by watching his father, Joseph Biden Sr., get up every morning and go to a job he never liked. His father grew up around money and still had a polo stick in the closet, but lost that life. To his sons, he'd said: Get up. "The art of living is simply getting up after you've been knocked down."
Biden's own life includes unexpected victories, such as the upset in 1972 that made him one of the youngest to ever to serve in the US Senate, and shattering losses, such as the death of his first wife and daughter in a traffic accident later that year. His first presidential run in 1987 collapsed just as it was gaining traction.
Biden offers his own account of his '87 campaign and the plagiarism allegations that ended it – an incident particularly puzzling in the case of Biden, a man rarely ever at a loss for his words of his own.
It was simply a matter of omitting three essential words typically included in his stump speech, Biden says. "All I had to do was gather the reporters and say, 'Hey, folks, I want to make it clear, on the record, that was a bit I end my stump speeches with, and I should have credited [British Labour Party leader Neil] Kinnock. I didn't say, "as Kinnock said." I should have. I always do. It's his language.' "
"I wish I had," Biden writes.
Readers getting to know Biden better, or for the first time, through this book may share that wish.
• Gail Russell Chaddock is a Monitor staff writer.