This nation has been built by men and women who were strengthened by adversity and learned from their mistakes. At the beginning of this presidential election year, I want to spend a moment on a man who is -- contrary to his own expectations -- not running. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. (D-Del.) is a healthy reminder that there are victories that are not measured in votes.
In the view of this longtime skeptic, Biden has grown up tremendously in the four months since he withdrew from the presidential race amid a swirl of controversy about his exaggeration of his academic record and his alleged plagiarism.
The Biden I saw in a two-hour interview last week had no time for self-pity or self-justification. He was excited about the trip he was about to begin to Western Europe and the scheduled meetings with the leaders of Britain, France, West Germany and the NATO forces. He was looking ahead to a Senate year in which he will share the gavel in the hearings on the Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces (INF) Treaty and later conduct hearings on the War Powers Act and the procedures for committing U.S. forces in nonnuclear conflicts.
In his hard-earned wisdom, Biden readily 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. Instead of reentering the race, with the hope that voters will forgive and forget anything, as Gary Hart has done, Biden has chosen the harder path, working to gain greater respect in his present job.
He has begun impressively by running the Judiciary Committee hearings on the Supreme Court nominations of Judges Robert H. Bork and Anthony Kennedy with skill, tact and fairness that earned bipartisan praise. In leading the effort that defeated Bork and set the stage for confirmation of Kennedy, Biden rose above partisanship and narrow ideology.
He does not exaggerate when he says those hearings helped educate the nation on the qualities that are vital in a Supreme Court justice and the proper role of the Senate in filling court vacancies. They also made it clear to everyone, including the Supreme Court, that a national consensus exists on the civil-rights gains the high court certified during the past generation.
After listening to him, I believe that Biden is just as well prepared to use the 1988 Foreign Relations Committee hearings for a similar educational purpose: ''to reestablish an essential bipartisan center . . . that can sustain foreign policy on a stable basis.''
That is an ambitious goal, but Biden has managed to formulate the fundamental questions that need to be answered in considering the INF Treaty and the war-powers legislation: How should the Atlantic alliance organize its security and ensure cohesion in an era when nuclear forces are progressively being reduced, not increased? Under what circumstances and through what processes should the United States commit its own forces in a limited war?
Biden looks at these questions now in a perspective that is broader than the rhetorical framework of his aborted presidential campaign. Last year, candidate Biden was forever praising the special qualities of his contemporaries who came of age in the 1960s. This year, Biden is cautioning ''people in my generation not to forget that we have had more than 40 years of peace in Europe, and nuclear weapons have been part of it.''
''That doesn't mean we have to cling to nukes,'' he said. ''But as we reduce the nuclear arsenals, we better have a plan in place that will assure the security and peace of Europe for the next 40 years.''
The same enlarged perspective applies to his own role in politics. Biden has not changed his view -- expressed in so many of his eloquent, passionate campaign speeches -- that ''the next five years can be as important, for good or ill, as the first five years after World War I or World War II.'' Given the changes in the Soviet Union, China and the world economy, that is probably no exaggeration.
But now that he is out of the presidential race, Biden is able to see that his campaign hymns to ''presidential leadership'' begged the question. To lead, you must have a sense of direction. Biden now says -- convincingly -- that he understands it is not enough to say, as he often did, ''I can move a generation.''
''If you can 'move a generation,' people will see it. You talk about where you want to move -- not how good you are at moving,'' he now declares.
Comments like that make me believe Joe Biden really has thought through what happened to him in 1987, that he did in fact ''learn a hell of a lot of lessons from my short-lived campaign.''
As gifted as he is at 45, I think the Democrats will find him far better presidential material at 49 or 53 or 57 or 61. And meantime, Delaware and the nation have a senator who is providing no small service by taking on some of the most important challenges we face.