Familiar Faces at Biden's Side
Many in the Candidate's Close-Knit Team, Including Old Friends and His Sister Valerie, Have Been His Political Guides for Years

By Shailagh Murray
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, July 21, 2007

FRANKLIN, N.H. -- One might think that a politician whose career was nearly ruined by plagiarism would avoid other people's words at all cost.

Yet there stood Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. before a group of small-town retirees, riffing on Seamus Heaney's poetry: "We got a shot to making 'hope and history rhyme.' " Followed by Plato: "The penalty good people pay for not being involved in politics is being governed by people worse than themselves." And then bons mots from the late senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan, the poet Dylan Thomas and John F. Kennedy.

Watching impassively from the back of the room was Larry Rasky, a campaign aide who was present at a Democratic debate in Iowa 20 years ago when Biden famously left the impression that he was claiming British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock's life story as his own, and his presidential bid began to unravel.

Yet micromanagement has never been part of the Biden campaign style, not in 1987 and not this year, as the senator from Delaware makes one last White House run with the same mishmash of family members and old hands who have shared his presidential dreams for much of his long career. The polls could scarcely look worse, and Biden's quirky ticks -- like all those run-on paragraphs -- are more pronounced than ever. But inside the campaign, there is an unusual, if slightly eerie, calm.

"It's kind of like riding a bucking bronco," Rasky shrugged, trailing his unsupervised candidate through a small-town carnival, a C-SPAN camera recording Biden's every move. "If you want to be in complete control, this is not the place for you."

Few other 2008 candidates have such a long political résumé: 34 years in the Senate, chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, former chairman of the Judiciary Committee. None carries Biden's baggage: the personal tragedies, the Kinnock humiliation, the long slog back to credibility -- and now the bitter prospect that his moment may have passed.

One reason Biden is able to cope with all this is that he has surrounded himself with an exceptionally loyal inner circle. He is running for president in the company of his best friends, and he actually seems to be enjoying himself. People such as Rasky are the glue that has held his disjointed career together, and their long history and easy repartee gives the Biden campaign a fun, old-school flavor.

"I'd make you walk, but I'm afraid I'd lose ya," Biden teased as Rasky, now carrying a few extra pounds, climbed into an overcrowded SUV between campaign events. Rasky took the only remaining seat, forcing Biden to share with another aide.

Biden's closest confidant is his sister Valerie Biden Owens, the linchpin of all his campaigns. She helped her brother overcome a childhood stutter and played surrogate mother to his young sons after the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident.

Two other insiders, Ted Kaufman and John Marttila, worked on Biden's first Senate campaign in 1972. Others who came aboard during the 1970s and '80s, when Biden was a rising Democratic star, include Rasky, Mark Gitenstein, Ron Klain and Thomas E. Donilon.

David Wilhelm ran Iowa for Biden in the campaign for 1988, managed Bill Clinton's campaign in 1992 and served as Democratic National Committee chairman. Biden's decision to run this year seemed a more or less quixotic attempt to recapture that pre-Kinnock magic. But Wilhelm signed up without hesitation, choosing his first boss over Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Sen. Barack Obama (Ill.), to whom he also has political ties.

"Joe Biden in a very real way gave me my first big chance, believed in me early," Wilhelm said. "Why are people loyal to him? I think there's a sense that he would be loyal back."

One person missing from the lineup is Biden's 1988 campaign manager, Tim Ridley, who died in October 2005 at age 50. Biden remained close to his old friend as he struggled with alcoholism in his final years, and he delivered the eulogy at Ridley's funeral.

Another is Pat Caddell, a member of the class of 1972, who vanished after the plagiarism meltdown. Many senior Biden aides blamed Caddell for leading the candidate astray, and the relationship is the only prominent one in the Biden narrative that ended in an ugly way.

"I hope he's doing okay," Biden said of Caddell, who lives in California and appears occasionally as a Fox News commentator. "I don't know anybody who sees him. I ask all the time, 'Anybody seen Pat?' "

'This Is All Personal'

Biden's inner circle refers to itself as "the family," and for better or worse, that's how it operates. The group meets about once a month for a marathon session and confers daily by phone and e-mail. They hash out big questions, such as how to spend Biden's limited resources, and prep the candidate for debates and important speeches.

"The strategy for this campaign is not particularly complicated," Marttila explained. As an established foreign policy expert, Biden aims to convince Democratic voters that he is the candidate best equipped to end the Iraq war and deal with its aftermath.

The longevity of the Biden campaign team appears to be highly unusual in politics. Jonathan Bernstein, a political scientist at the University of Texas at San Antonio, examined 90 campaign consultants who were named rising stars in 1988 by Campaigns & Elections magazine. Only 4 percent worked with a single candidate for 10 years or longer, and just 17 percent stuck it out for at least five years.

"I think it ended up this way because I started so young," Biden said. "A lot of people I started with were my age, and they became my friends." He thought for a moment and continued: "I kind of have to like the people I work with. When you get into this stuff, this is all personal. I admit, I rely on these guys a lot. I trust their judgment, mainly because they know me. They know me, warts and all."

Over the years, the Biden insiders have served up their share of questionable advice. The seeds of the Kinnock disaster were planted while the candidate and aides were driving to the 1987 debate. Biden told Wilhelm he was unhappy with his closing remarks, but rather than discouraging last-minute changes, the 30-year-old aide suggested that Biden substitute the Kinnock material that he had been using in recent speeches.

"One of my great moments," Wilhelm said wryly.

When the debate was over, Rasky, Donilon and Biden discussed the fact that he hadn't credited Kinnock and concluded that reporters would shrug it off as a harmless mistake. Not issuing a clarification would prove a fatal miscalculation, the beginning of the end of the campaign.

Nor has anyone managed to curb Biden's tendency to talk too much. Biden kept his answers notably tight during the first three Democratic debates this year, answering one question with a simple "yes" and another time stopping in mid-sentence when told his time was up. But those are rare exceptions.

Hours after his Jan. 31 announcement, Biden was forced to explain why he described Obama as the "first mainstream African American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean."

This time, Biden aides responded swiftly with mea culpas. "The hard part about being in the middle of a storm is reminding people that storms are temporary," Rasky said, 20 years after the Kinnock lesson. "They don't necessarily have to blow you away."

A Family Affair

When Biden decided to run for New Castle County Council in 1970, he asked his sister Valerie, a former University of Delaware homecoming queen, to manage his campaign. "We didn't know anyone in politics," she explained. "Also, I was the only one who took him seriously."

Two years later, when Biden launched a long-shot bid to unseat the popular GOP Sen. J. Caleb Boggs, he again put his family in charge: Valerie; his wife, Neilia; his parents; and his brothers Frankie and Jimmy. One of the few high-level outsiders was Kaufman, a DuPont Co. marketing official and the Democratic chairman of Biden's GOP-leaning council district.

Biden spent all day meeting voters, deferring to his sister on virtually everything else. Kaufman served as Biden's state party liaison and the architect of his voter turnout program. He also hired two people who would become Biden fixtures: Marttila and Caddell.

On Labor Day, Biden trailed by about 35 percentage points. On Election Day, he won 51 percent to 49 percent.

On Dec. 18, Neilia and 13-month-old Naomi Biden were killed in a car accident, and the couple's two toddler sons, Beau and Hunter, were seriously injured. Biden added a room to his house, and Valerie moved in until she married Jack Owens, Biden's best friend from law school, in 1975. Kaufman took a one-year leave of absence from DuPont and agreed to run the Senate office from Wilmington.

In those early days, as he battled crushing grief, Biden seriously considered giving up his Senate seat. But Valerie never believed he would quit. "I knew he was down," she said. "But he wasn't down for the count."

Running -- and Stumbling

From the very beginning, there was a buzz in Washington about Biden. His youth, gripping personal story and stem-winding speeches made him a favorite on the Democratic Party dinner circuit.

Biden and his team first discussed a White House run in early 1980. He decided he wasn't ready. The group gathered again four years later, this time for a more serious round of meetings. Paperwork for the New Hampshire primary was prepared, and a plane was reserved to take Biden to Concord. But at the last minute, the senator decided to pass.

He did give the gang, led by Kaufman, Marttila and Caddell, the go-ahead to prepare for 1988. Marttila arranged for Rasky to meet Biden in December 1986 at a John F. Kerry fundraiser. "It was sort of like love at first sight," recalled Rasky, who resigned his job as a cable television executive to become the campaign's communications director.

The most passionate believer of all was Caddell, who viewed Biden as a new-generation Democratic leader, inspirational but not particularly ideological, with a charisma that was lacking among other hopefuls.

Despite Biden's 15 years in the Senate, he remained cloaked in a beyond-the-Beltway innocence. He didn't mingle with the political establishment or kibitz with the national press corps. As soon as he was done voting, he caught the train home to Wilmington.

By the summer of 1987, his campaign had swollen to an unwieldy mass, with multiple voices and conflicting priorities. Biden had become Judiciary Committee chairman in January 1987, and his Senate staff, led by Gitenstein, wanted him to focus on Robert H. Bork's pending Supreme Court nomination. But campaign staffers, including Wilhelm, wanted him in Iowa.

Consequently, there were lots of days like Aug. 23. Biden spent the morning in his Wilmington office, discussing Bork with Senate aides, then flew to Iowa for that night's debate, cramming on the plane with two political advisers. After the event, and oblivious to the storm ahead, he turned his attention back to Bork, whose confirmation hearing would begin Sept. 15.

In the meantime, John Sasso, campaign manager for Democrat Michael S. Dukakis, leaked to reporters a videotape comparing Biden's debate remarks to the original Kinnock speech. An older Biden speech surfaced with an unattributed Robert F. Kennedy quote; text had been added by Caddell without Biden's knowledge, as the campaign would later clarify. And a C-SPAN camera caught Biden exaggerating his academic record to New Hampshire voters.

On Sept. 22, Kaufman met with Biden and urged him to drop his primary bid. He compared Biden's plight to Winston Churchill's failed effort to take control of the Dardanelles Straits during World War I.

"He was a very young man," Kaufman said of Biden. "I reassured him, and I genuinely believed, that he could come back from this."

New Attitude, New Campaign

The following February, Biden suffered the first of two aneurysms that required highly risky brain surgeries. Twice, his skull was carved open and then stitched back up like a baseball. He disappeared for six months.

At the end of his convalescence, Biden gathered his family and aides for a spaghetti dinner to discuss the next phase of his career. He would return to Washington and focus on the Senate. He would stop giving political speeches and pare down his television appearances. "I wanted to establish that I was a serious guy," Biden said.

He had learned a hard lesson in 1987. "I was the John Edwards, the mini-Barack Obama. I was the candidate of passion, and I didn't like that. The fundamental mistake I made was buying into a rationale for a candidacy that I didn't agree with. I just didn't feel comfortable. And I should have listened to my own instincts."

The gang had long scattered when Biden called everyone together last year to announce that he would take another shot at the presidency. Rasky put his work at his Boston firm on hold and resumed his old communications job. Kaufman had retired from Biden's Senate office on Dec. 31, 1994, but had turned down lobbying jobs in case Biden summoned him again. Klain, Donilon and Wilhelm, who had all become Clinton people, returned to the Biden fold, as did Marttila, who had most recently advised his old friend Kerry's 2004 campaign.

There are new faces, too, including campaign manager Luis Navarro, political director Danny O'Brien and Antony Blinken, a former Clinton national security official who advises the senator on Iraq along with Donilon. Biden acknowledged a touch of friction between the old and new camps. "Everyone knows the people you're going to call in a crisis," he said. "In a sense I can see somebody who is the next Marttila saying, 'Hey, man, do I have to go through them?' "

Longevity has its pros and cons, said William Mayer, a Northeastern University political scientist who has studied presidential campaigns. Aides who are personally close to their bosses may be more effective at delivering bad news. On the other hand, "when you've been with a candidate for years, you've got a friendship there that could make it harder," Mayer said. And he added, "Even if they're not very good, it's difficult to fire people who you like."

Biden's campaign, O'Brien said, has been "a mom-and-pop operation and now it's growing into a conglomerate, but the character is still family." Referring to the old guard, he said: "These guys know his moves, know the way he thinks. They have a mature understanding of his limitations and his strengths, and how to play to his strengths. It doesn't mean we don't have it out. But you just have more consensus."

Gitenstein, battle-tested by the Bork hearings, was summoned to help Biden write a speech early this year to the Democratic National Committee, a critical moment that came shortly after the Obama flap. The address was warmly received, and afterward, Gitenstein raced off to catch a flight to California for the birth of his first grandchild. Before he arrived at the hospital, the phone rang. It was Biden, eager for details.

"I worked for Sam Ervin for a while, which was sort of like working for Abraham Lincoln," Gitenstein said, referring to the late North Carolina senator. "I liked the guy, but it was not personal with him. He never let his hair down. Joe Biden doesn't have a lot of hair, but with Joe Biden, it's like your friend is there. I think he knows it, and we know it."

View all comments that have been posted about this article.

© 2007 The Washington Post Company