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For Senator, Another Comeback

Barack and Michelle Obama, along with Jill and Joseph Biden, on the steps of the old Illinois statehouse in Springfield.
Barack and Michelle Obama, along with Jill and Joseph Biden, on the steps of the old Illinois statehouse in Springfield. (By Linda Davidson -- The Washington Post)
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His career as a senator had barely begun, but already he faced his first comeback.

In what would become a pattern over time, the adversity -- combined with Biden's resolve -- morphed into an asset. "You'd have to have a heart of steel not to want to help this guy," recalled Kaufman, who often accompanied Biden on his daily commutes between his sons in Wilmington and his new job in Washington. "You'd go for a period where everything seemed okay, and then, he'd come in some days, and you'd want to cry for him. He looked as if [the accident] had just happened. He'd get this despair."

To convince Biden to stay, Mansfield handed the newcomer a coveted seat on the Senate Democratic steering committee, where he helped determine Senate assignments. Biden sometimes daydreamed about moving to Vermont and starting a new life, he said later, but he came to enjoy the Senate. His sons recovered. Five years after the crash, Biden married Jill Jacobs, a schoolteacher, with whom he had another daughter.

As Biden gradually became more comfortable in Washington, his colleagues observed that his greatest strength as a senator was at times his greatest weakness. He was strong-willed, passionate and long-winded. Biden could talk his way through anything, colleagues said, sometimes delivering campaign speeches that brought crowds to tears, or undressing Republican opponents on the Senate floor with debate skills honed as a trial lawyer. Biden could also talk his way into a jam, exaggerating points for effect or upsetting colleagues with a shortage of tact.

In the 1988 presidential campaign -- the most public chapter of his life to date -- Biden showed both sides of his signature trait. His speeches on the trail were brilliant, colleagues said, and he used his working-class biography to forge a tight connection with voters. He raised more money than any other Democrat and led early polls for parts of 1987. Crowds in Iowa swooned for the charismatic senator.

"When he went into the campaign in '87, he was known as a great orator," said Larry Rasky, a longtime friend. "There was no skepticism about what it was he said."

But it was his rhetoric that helped end his campaign. The New York Times reported that during a debate, Biden had plagiarized a speech by British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock. Biden had used Kinnock's words in speeches before, always crediting him, but this time he didn't. More revelations followed. An old law professor said Biden had plagiarized sections of a paper in college. Newspapers alleged that he had used quotes from Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey without crediting them.

Biden suffered from constant headaches, friends said. He complained about long stretches on the road away from his children, who were then attending high school. One night, when a supporter asked him about his intelligence at a small campaign event in Claremont, N.H., Biden "lost it," he recalled in his 2007 autobiography, "Promises to Keep."

" 'I have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect,' I told him," Biden wrote. "And then I was off, talking about my college degrees and awards, my place in my law school class. I didn't feel any better afterward; what I'd said was a quick and stupid rant that I wished I'd never said. Worse than that, without realizing it, I'd exaggerated my academic record."

Biden ended his campaign in September 1987, so ashamed that he felt uncomfortable going out to dinner in his home town, he later said. He returned to the Senate and told colleagues he wanted to earn back his integrity. He presided over two Supreme Court confirmation hearings, for Robert H. Bork and Clarence Thomas, with mixed success. He wrote laws aimed at domestic violence and drug control. He weathered surgeries to repair two brain aneurysms in 1988, taking seven months off from the Senate.

In the 1990s, Biden began focusing on foreign policy, traveling regularly to war-torn nations and becoming a voice of authority on U.S. relations abroad. Presidents Bill Clinton and George W. Bush both courted his advice and support. He helped persuade Clinton to use military force to combat human rights violations. In his autobiography, Biden recalls that Bush called him shortly after Sept. 11, 2001, and asked: "How did I do?"

"He has a deep conviction and pride in the work he does, so failure doesn't always bother him," said Alan Hoffman, Biden's chief of staff in the Senate for most of this decade. "He always bounces back. Always. It doesn't even surprise me anymore."

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