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 Saturday 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
Already the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and a senior member of
Foreign Relations, Biden said he was coming 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 winter. 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 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 own 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 TV 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