A Candidate At Home In Scranton
DENVER -- I cannot believe that it has been more than 20 years since I interviewed Sen. Joe Biden about his reflections on his first presidential race, but the date on the column is irrefutable: Jan. 6, 1988.
The man chosen by Barack Obama as his running mate was as self-critical as any politician can be -- as tough on himself as John McCain was about his involvement with a savings-and-loan operator in the 1980s that made him one of the "Keating Five."
Biden's campaign was cut short in 1987 when an operative for the eventual nominee, Michael Dukakis, leaked word to Maureen Dowd of the New York Times that a seemingly autobiographical passage in Biden's campaign speech had been cribbed word for word from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock. A C-SPAN video of the speech was played endlessly, and while Biden explained that he had usually been careful to attribute the language to Kinnock, the embarrassment was so great that he was forced out of the race.
Four months later, when I sat down with him, Biden was making no excuses. As I reported, he "acknowledges responsibility for most of the mistakes and misjudgments that led to his early departure from the race, saying he was 'cocky,' 'immature' and 'naive' about the demands of a presidential campaign."
Already chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a senior member of Foreign Relations, Biden said he was going back to the Senate determined "to demonstrate the staying power and the seriousness a lot of you [reporters] doubted that I have."
Twenty years later, few of his colleagues in either party would dispute that he has done that. With his Republican partner, Richard Lugar of Indiana, he has rehabilitated the reputation of the Foreign Relations Committee and made it a vehicle for exceptionally thoughtful examinations of U.S. foreign policy.
A consistent critic of Bush administration policy in Iraq and Pakistan, Biden has had more impact on the thinking of other decision makers than he ever did on voters when he returned to the campaign trail as a presidential candidate last year. He did well in the Democratic debates, but with Obama, Hillary Clinton and John Edwards soaking up all the media attention and the votes, there was simply no running room left for Biden.
A month ago, I sat down with him again, mainly to hear how he and Lugar hoped to revive bipartisan support for the foreign policy of the next president -- whether McCain or Obama. Inevitably, the conversation turned to politics, and while Biden insisted that his sometimes critical comments on the course of Obama's campaign be placed off the record, I think I can say this without violating our agreement:
If Obama is honest in saying he wants a vice president who will be direct in stating his views, and will not worry about offending the president, he has found the right man.
Biden brings a blue-collar sensibility that has been lacking in Obama's campaign, reflecting his background in Scranton, Pa., and Wilmington, Del. I know of Democratic governors who fear that Biden's prolix rhetoric will go right over the heads of their constituents. But he has worked hard at shortening his answers to questions, and -- as David Brooks noted in his New York Times column urging Biden's selection -- this is a guy whose authenticity and heart-on-the-sleeve passions are real.
The message he surely has brought to Obama is: Your background looks elitist to many of the people I represent. The way to overcome that impression is to be in their neighborhoods, talk directly to them in small groups and show them you really understand the struggles in their lives. Biden surely does that.
For a foreign policy maven who has mingled for years with the leaders of allied nations, Biden has an unpublicized side as an urban politician. His imprint has been heavy on all the anti-crime legislation passed in the past two decades, and his civil rights credentials are impeccable.
His personal relationship with McCain is close enough that even in recent months, they have been able to talk politics and policy with each other on a basis of mutual trust. But as Biden demonstrated in his first appearance with Obama on Saturday, he will not be inhibited about taking the Democratic case straight at the Republican ticket.
In picking Biden, Obama has raised the bar for the choice McCain will soon make.