For Senator, Another Comeback

By Eli Saslow and Amy Goldstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, August 24, 2008

As they watched Joseph R. Biden Jr. step on stage in Springfield, Ill., yesterday, a 65-year-old with white hair jogging to the lectern, many of his longtime friends and colleagues experienced a touch of deja vu: Once again, Biden had resurrected a career that appeared destined for decline.

Nearly eight months ago, Biden withdrew from the 2008 presidential race after winning less than 1 percent of the delegates in Iowa's Democratic caucuses. It was an ignoble failure for one of the most prominent and senior members of the U.S. Senate, and friends worried openly about Biden's psyche. Biden worried only about what he would do next.

That's how it has always been with Biden, Barack Obama's long-awaited choice for vice president. Setbacks are followed by successes, and the cycle repeats. A tragic car accident, brain aneurysms, a plagiarism scandal, two failed presidential runs -- nothing has permanently derailed him.

Biden has spent 35 years representing Delaware in the Senate, serving as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and the Judiciary Committee -- experience that will help counter Republican charges that Obama is untested. But it is Biden's resilience enduring the highs and lows of political life that could benefit Obama the most, advisers said.

"If you were to say, 'Who is the unluckiest person I know in the world?' I'd say, 'Joe Biden,' " said Ted Kaufman, Biden's chief of staff for much of his first 22 years in the Senate. "If you were to say, 'Who is the luckiest person I know in the world?' I'd say, 'Joe Biden.' "

The son of a homemaker and a Delaware car salesman, Biden went to Roman Catholic prep school and then played football at the University of Delaware, the first of four siblings to go to college. He eked through Syracuse University law school as a self-described slacker who graduated near the bottom of his class.

He took a job at a law firm in Wilmington., Del., and ran for county councilman on a whim in 1970. He was a promising Democrat in a tiny state dominated by Republicans, and the Democratic Party chairman immediately handed the 27-year-old newcomer a position on a statewide panel designed to improve the party's prospects.

Two years later, party leaders suggested that Biden run for Senate. It was a long shot, they admitted, but the Republican incumbent was nearing retirement. Why not take a chance on a fresh voice?

Biden initially demurred, thinking he would not meet the Senate's age requirement of 30 years. He double-checked the math, realized he would qualify by five weeks and asked his sister Valerie to become his campaign manager. As he traveled through Delaware with his wife, Neilia, and their three young children, voters sometimes asked if he was campaigning for his father. But he came from 30 points behind in the polls to win by 3,000 votes.

"It was an insane campaign," said John Martilla, a friend who worked on Biden's behalf.

Biden traveled to Washington to start interviewing potential staff members while Neilia prepared for a celebratory Christmas at home. One afternoon, while Biden was setting up his office, a friend called and told him to rush back to Delaware. Neilia and the children had been in a car accident while shopping for a Christmas tree, the friend said. Biden arrived in Wilmington two hours later to learn that Neilia and their baby daughter, Naomi, were dead. Their sons, Beau and Hunter, were severely injured.

Devastated, Biden decided he would not take his Senate seat. The Senate majority leader at the time, Mike Mansfield (D-Mont.), called Biden incessantly at the Wilmington hospital, begging him to change his mind. Biden finally relented and said he'd try the job for six months. He took his oath of office from his sons' hospital room.

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."

By the beginning of 2005, Biden had refurbished his image well enough to mull another presidential campaign. He built a staff filled with loyal friends -- people who knew all too well that a Biden campaign would inevitably have highs and lows -- and united the group by repeating a message: Finally, it was his time.

But Biden's trademark tendency to make off-the-cuff remarks resurfaced almost immediately. On the day in January 2007 that he announced his candidacy, he told an interviewer that Obama was "the first mainstream African American [presidential candidate] who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

Biden later called Obama to assure him he had meant no offense. But the remark still haunted him during a presidential debate last December. "It may be possible, because I speak so bluntly, that people misunderstand," Biden said that night.

The following month, after his anemic showing in the Iowa caucuses, he gathered his campaign staff to break the news that he would drop out of the race. His aides were dejected, a former Senate chief of staff recalled. But Biden told them not to worry. Better things would come, he said.

And sure enough, when Obama introduced his running mate yesterday at Illinois' old statehouse, to the strains of Bruce Springsteen's "The Rising," Biden came running up the steps.

Staff researchers Lucy Shackelford and Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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