We were late leaving Tbilisi, Georgia, in July 2009, but the country’s then-president, Mikheil Saakashvili, asked then-Vice President Biden to squeeze in one last informal meeting with refugee children from South Ossetia who had fled their homes as a result of Russia’s invasion of Georgia in August 2008.
Saakashvili knew Biden. He understood that such an encounter would translate our abstract, geopolitical negotiations into a more emotional appreciation of the horrors of war. He was right. On the plane ride out of Georgia, Biden gave a passionate indictment of Russia to an American reporter, offending Moscow at the moment when Russian and American diplomats were negotiating a major arms control deal. Biden believes that morality must play a role in U.S. foreign policy, even when inconvenient.
But that doesn’t mean he can be manipulated. He’s too well-prepared for that. On a trip to Moscow in March 2011, I was part of the team that helped Biden get ready for his long meetings with then-Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Biden’s work ethic was something to behold. He doesn’t wing it.
Putin is intimidating. I’d met him before with other U.S. officials. In his meeting with Putin, Biden was polite but forceful and principled, seeking agreement on a limited agenda, but never friendship. Moments after leaving Putin’s office, Biden met with Russian human rights leaders, which annoyed some in the Kremlin and some in our own government. And that was just fine with Biden. Biden’s strategy of engagement with autocrats, as well as their critics, is exactly right.
Yet Biden also has higher priorities. We happened to be in Moscow during Ash Wednesday, so Biden’s team arranged for small, private Mass with a local Catholic priest. No press, no photo ops, just private prayer.
On the flight back home from our trip, Biden didn’t retire to his private cabin, but joined us staff in the back of the plane — not just for a few minutes, but for several hours. The more we talked, the more energized he became, covering everything from missile defense to the Violence Against Women Act.
At some point during the flight, his national security advisor, Antony Blinken, fell asleep in his seat, right across from Biden. When he woke up, I asked Tony how he could fall asleep in front of the vice president. Tony replied that if he didn’t, he’d never sleep on these trips, since Biden always had more energy and more interest in engaging with his colleagues than anyone else on the plane. Biden loves being part of the team.
Yet he also has an ability to work with people beyond his inner circle to get things done. In December 2010, I was there when Biden presided over the Senate’s ratification of the New START Treaty, reducing by 30 percent the number of deployed nuclear weapons allowed in Russian and American arsenals. President Barack Obama assigned Biden the job of corralling the required 67 votes. He secured 71. When the cameras were off, I saw the depth of the friendships Biden had developed with Republican senators, which he drew upon to enhance the security of all Americans.
In January 2012, on my last day working at the White House before deploying to Moscow as the new U.S. ambassador to Russia, I was sitting in the West Wing reception area, waiting with my family to say goodbye to Obama, when a Biden aide walked by and asked why my family happened to be there. After learning why, this aide came back several minutes later and ushered our family into Biden’s office.
Someone important had to wait for a while longer as the vice president rearranged his schedule to express his gratitude to my wife and two sons for agreeing to take on this assignment to represent our country in Russia. Biden focused in particular on my sons’ sacrifice, knowing well the burdens public service puts on families. Biden didn’t have to do this meeting; he wasn’t campaigning or doing anyone a favor. But both of my sons will be voting for Biden as well.
What presidents stand for matters. What they get done or fail to do in office also matters. But how presidents conduct themselves matters, too. Biden’s former colleagues quite often admire him the most. I cannot predict what a President Biden will accomplish. What I can say with certainty is that he will advance his agenda with passion, values and dignity, with a team he admires and who admire him. That’s the real Joe.
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