All Aboard for the Senator
Wednesday, August 27, 2008
WILMINGTON, Del., Aug. 26 --
The strangest thing happened Monday morning at the train station here.
"Joe came in here with a motorcade," says Daniel Thorpe, 44, a cab driver at the Amtrak station. A motorcade? For ol' Joe? Everybody here is used to seeing Joe Biden by himself, on his way to and from the train -- used to being able to go up and shake Joe's hand, talk about the grandkids.
Anyway, on Monday there he was. Big photo-op and a huge crush of press and Secret Service all around. Joe won't be taking the 7:35 a.m. Acela to Washington for a good long while, so he wanted to drop in and say goodbye.
He talked to the shoeshine man. "Sorta like a farewell," says Robert L. Jones, 63. "He told me, he said, don't stop speaking when he comes into the station." By which Joe meant, I'm still Joe. Which is pretty much how Jill Biden put it to the cashier at the newsstand when she ducked in to buy a copy of Newsweek with the newly announced Democratic ticket on the cover: Barack Obama beaming, Joe with that squinty grin.
"I'm going to miss seeing your husband," the cashier, Joanne Johnson, 44, says she told her. "And she said, 'You know he's the same ol' Joe.' "
The ticket agents? They know Joe. The guys in the Primo Cappuccino? They know Joe. (There's a local news story up on the wall of the coffee shop, about Joe's taste in fashion. "Very Ralph Lauren," a stylist is quoted as saying.)
Biden's been commuting from this station to his job in the Senate, and back again, for more than 30 years, an hour and a quarter each way. The Obama campaign and everyone covering it have been talking up this fact a ton since Obama's veep-pick announcement Saturday. As a metaphor, the daily train commute works for the Democrats in a number of ways. Joe Biden: the old Washington hand who gets out of Washington each night. Joe Biden: man of the people. Joe Biden: committed father and husband.
"He never moved to Washington," Obama said Saturday in his speech introducing Biden as his running mate. "Instead, night after night, week after week, year after year, he returned home to Wilmington on a lonely Amtrak train."
A lonely train? With Joe Biden on it?
"A seventy-five-minute trip passes really quickly when you're talking with Joe," says Rep. Rob Andrews (D-N.J.), who commutes back and forth daily from Haddon Heights and often sits with the garrulous senior senator from Delaware. Sen. Arlen Specter (R-Pa.), who calls Biden "one of my very best friends," says much of their friendship was forged through those long Amtrak rides.
"Some mornings he would ride down on the train and literally buy the entire car and conductors coffee," says Claire DeMatteis, who worked for Biden for 10 years and sometimes rode the train with him. He'd get up and say, " 'Anybody want coffee?' And anybody who wanted got coffee."
He talks to passengers. He talks to the folks who take his tickets. He talks policy and family and everything in between. If he's waiting for a train, he talks to the folks at the ticket counter and to the shoeshine guy and the redcap guy and to Johnson, the newsstand cashier -- which is why, when Johnson found out Joe was joining Obama's ticket, she called her mother to brag about "my friend."
He throws parties for retiring conductors, and once had a crewman serenaded by bagpipes. For Biden's first day back at work following two operations for brain aneurysms in 1988, he took the train, naturally. "The engineer saluted him with a longer-than-usual toot of the train's whistle," UPI reported at the time.
"He used to have a picnic at his house for the train crews," says Rep. Rush Holt (D-N.J.), another frequent Amtraker.
The story of Biden and Amtrak starts with Biden's election to the Senate in 1972, which in turn starts with tragedy. Six weeks after he won the election, while Biden was in Washington interviewing potential staffers, a truck hit his family's station wagon. His wife, Neilia, and his baby daughter, Naomi, died. Their young sons Beau and Hunter were hospitalized. Biden, 30, considered dropping out of the Senate altogether; ultimately, he decided to go through with it and was sworn into that august body at the hospital, where his sons were recovering.
He came home every night to be with his sons. (Early on, recalls longtime friend and adviser Ted Kaufman, Biden got a car phone and insisted on driving every morning and night so his sons could reach him at any time. When the boys got a little older, he started taking the train.) For the last three decades the ritual has continued: out early in the morning, reading his briefing book on the train. Home every night to see the boys -- and, in time, his new wife, Jill, whom he married in 1977, and their daughter, Ashley.
"I've seen him take the 10 p.m. train home and take the 7 a.m. train the next morning," Kaufman says. "Just so he could sleep in the bed with his wife and see his kids in the morning."
Most often in recent years, Biden has taken the No. 2103, which leaves Wilmington at 7:35 a.m. and pulls into Union Station -- barring delays -- at 8:55 a.m. (Amtrak has become a recurring character in the hearings Biden participates in. "Gentlemen, I apologize," he told a Judiciary Committee hearing in 1996 when he showed up late. "One of those things that I keep telling my colleagues: If they fully funded Amtrak, I would not be late. [Pause.] And some suggest that's why they don't fully fund Amtrak.")
On Tuesday morning, the 2103 is filled, as usual, with laptop-toting commuters. The train's conductor is Gregg Weaver, 55, who's known Biden for decades, and who says, a little mournfully, "I'm not going to see him like I used to." Weaver can remember many years ago when the senator occasionally took Hunter with him to work -- back when "Hunter was about this big," Weaver says, his hand at his hip. Over the years, Weaver has told Biden about his aging parents, and Biden has told Weaver about his growing grandchildren. "Regular guy," that Joe, Weaver says. He recalls Joe telling him he'd fixed up a playroom in his house.
"He calls it grandchildren-bait," Weaver says.
The passengers know him, too. How could they not? Part of it's just that Delaware is tiny. And the other part of it is Joe. You want to hear a story? asks a passenger named Tim Brown, approaching a reporter who's been roving the herky-jerky aisle of the moving Amtrak train, talking to people about Joe Biden.
"I remember one time asking him specifically, 'So what do you think about Iraq?' and getting a 20-minute detailed analysis of the pros and cons," says Brown, who does public relations in the energy industry. "It was like a foreign policy lesson right there in the Wilmington train station."