Jules Witcover's biography of Joe Biden, reviewed by Matthew Dallek

Friday, November 5, 2010; 12:19 PM


A Life of Trial and Redemption

By Jules Witcover

Morrow. 536 pp. $27.99

Joe Biden has been an irrepressible force in American politics for much of the past four decades. He has defended the Obama administration's stimulus agenda, chaired the president's middle-class task force and overseen the troop withdrawal from Iraq in recent months.

Veteran Washington columnist Jules Witcover has published a biography of Biden that amounts to a celebratory recitation of the major private and public moments of the sitting vice president's life. Biden's rich and sometimes controversial career mirrors the policy achievements and political failures of the Democratic Party in modern times, and "Joe Biden" can also be read as a meditation on his Party's troubled and occasionally triumphant trajectory since the 1960s.

In 1972, at age 29, Biden won a U.S. Senate seat from Delaware after defeating GOP incumbent James Caleb Boggs; his victory was based on a platform of generational change and opposition to the unpopular Vietnam War. Biden mobilized so many young people that his run felt "more like a movement than a campaign," as one supporter said, and his first Senate race eerily presaged the turn-the-page and hopeful themes that were featured in Obama's 2008 White House run. As Biden prepared to enter the Senate, his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car wreck. This aspect of Biden's biography - especially his decision to keep his Senate seat - is well known; what's been less known is how much his subsequent career was enmeshed with the broader push to revitalize the Democratic Party in the wake of George McGovern's failed 1972 presidential bid.

Despite having acquired a shaky reputation as a liberal gasbag, Biden actually embraced the politics of Democratic centrism throughout much of his Senate career before Bill Clinton became a major force. Biden was a vocal foe of school busing, even though he supported civil rights. He crafted his image as a Joe Sixpack, reminding his constituents that his Irish-Catholic, working-class origins - the hero from Scranton, Pa. - remained in his blood.

He championed Jimmy Carter's 1976 White House run as a moderate and later joined Clinton's centrist Democratic Leadership Council. He adopted law and order as a signature policy theme - endorsing stiffer drug penalties, working to pass the Violence Against Women Act and helping Clinton put 100,000 new cops on the beat in the 1990s. Biden also struggled to transform himself and his party into a more hawkish voice in foreign affairs. In an era when Democrats were often attacked as being soft on national security, his career reflected both his party's achievements and its political and ideological shortcomings in this realm. He opposed the first Persian Gulf War, predicting it would become Vietnam redux, which it didn't. In 2002, he voted to authorize the use of force against Iraq - another major decision he (and many of his Democratic colleagues) didn't get right.

Biden did better on other national security challenges. He was a prescient advocate of using air strikes to roll back Serbian aggression in the 1990s, and in more recent times he became a fierce and unrelenting critic of President Bush's conduct of the Iraq War.

Biden's career, this biography also shows, included a series of paradoxical moments ranging from his (and his party's) heady successes to their searing failures in modern times. Just as sex scandals damaged both Gary Hart's and Bill Clinton's careers, Biden's almost ended when, during his 1988 presidential run, reporters revealed that he had plagiarized words and elements from British Labour leader Neil Kinnock's life. He quickly withdrew from that race but didn't resign from the Senate. While that debacle unfolded, he led the Senate Judiciary Committee hearings that ultimately sank Robert Bork's Supreme Court nomination - a Democratic achievement in Reagan's America. This wasn't the only extraordinary moment in Biden's uneven personal and political record. He placed fifth in the 2008 Iowa Caucuses, but his debate performances helped earn him a spot as Obama's running mate. Biden survived two brain aneurysms; decades later he has become one of the most vital spokespersons in a relatively youth-dominated White House.

"Joe Biden" has a pro-Biden tilt that even sympathetic readers may not find persuasive. But the book illuminates the shifting character of the Democratic Party, highlighting its fluctuating fortunes in the last third of the 20th century and beyond. Ever since Richard Nixon defeated McGovern in a landslide, Biden has been trying to pick up the pieces from that scarring defeat. Now that his party has suffered its latest significant electoral setback, it's clear that this underrated aspect of Biden's life's work is a long way from being finished.

Matthew Dallek is writing a book on the Roosevelt Administration and civil defense during World War II.

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