How Joe Biden became a steady hand amid so much chaos

The New York Times
Washington, United StatesWritten By: Lisa Lerer © 2021 The New York TimesUpdated: Jan 21, 2021, 01:01 PM IST
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Through a nearly half-century-long political career marked by personal tragedy and forged in national upheaval, Biden’s struggle with his own words has remained a central fact of his professional life and of the ambition he harboured for nearly as long: the White House

As a child, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. wrestled with words, grappling with a boyhood stutter. Years later, as a young politician, he could not stop saying them, quickly developing a reputation for long-winded remarks.

It was words that undercut his first two campaigns for the White House, with charges of plagiarism ending his 1988 bid and verbal missteps that hampered his 2008 outing from nearly the first moments. And it was his self-described penchant for being a “gaffe machine,” as he once put it, that would cement his vice-presidential nickname of “Uncle Joe,” the endearing relative who prompts the occasional wince.

Through a nearly half-century-long political career marked by personal tragedy and forged in national upheaval, Biden’s struggle with his own words has remained a central fact of his professional life and of the ambition he harboured for nearly as long: the White House.

Yet over the course of the 2020 campaign and especially in the two months since his victory, Biden, the nation’s 46th president, has transformed himself into a steady hand who chooses words with extraordinary restraint.

The self-described “scrappy kid from Scranton,” Pennsylvania, who called former President Donald Trump a “clown” and told him to “shut up” during their first debate, refused to take the political bait laid by Trump for weeks after the election with his attempts to overturn the results. Rather than get sucked into the Trumpian chaos, Biden focused on announcing his Cabinet and helping his party win two runoff races in Georgia. And with a second impeachment trial looming in the Senate, Biden, 78, has maintained his steadfast faith in the political center, positioning himself as a champion of all Americans and a deal-maker between the left and the right.

There is “more of a sense of a calm resolve now,” said Rep. Lisa Blunt Rochester, D-Del., who has known Biden for decades and served as a co-chair of his campaign. “Even the words that he uses that are fiery are very intentional now. He is where he is supposed to be at this moment.”

The coming year will test Biden’s self-discipline, as he takes office amid urgency from his own party to make a decisive break with the Trump era by pushing through an aggressive policy agenda in the face of a Republican Party that is looking to come together around a new opponent. Biden and his aides are staking much on his ability to find the right words to restore America’s reputation, win bipartisan support in Congress and unite an anxious nation.

Much of Biden’s inaugural address Wednesday centered on calling the country to come together in the midst of many challenges, with some of his first words as president focused on issuing a plea to those who did not support his candidacy.

“Hear me out as we move forward. Take a measure of me and my heart,” he said. “Yet hear me clearly: Disagreement must not lead to disunion.”

Biden's ability to steer and stay the course calmly through turbulence is a testament, say friends and family, to both Biden’s unabashed optimism and his deep belief in the importance of American political norms and traditions. The man who came to Washington at age 30 as one of the youngest senators in history now enters the White House as the oldest president in history, with more experience in government and legislating to guide his path than any leader in decades.

“He’s been around so long that now that he is going to be the leader of this country, he knows he must conduct himself with presidential composure,” said Chuck Hagel, a longtime friend of Biden’s who served as defense secretary in the administration of former President Barack Obama and before that as a Republican senator from Nebraska. “He knows the only way we’ll be able to start to climb out of this hole is for the leader of the country to be seen as fair and open and not dwelling on the negative.”

That Biden finds himself in this role at all is an unlikely turn of events for a man whose political career seemed to have stalled or ended so many times, including when tragedy struck just after he won his first election to the Senate in 1972. But after 36 years in the chamber and eight years as vice president, he became a familiar figure in the country’s political consciousness. When Americans sought a way back to stability after four years of tumult, Biden felt like a comfort to many voters. As Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C. and one of Biden’s most important supporters in the primary race, is fond of saying and repeated in an interview Tuesday, “We know Joe, and Joe knows us.”

To Biden’s friends and family, his success at winning the White House is proof that there is something fundamentally reassuring about his character — his loyalty, his empathy and his experience — that Americans want after four years of an unpredictable and chaotic administration. Even when he misspeaks, they argue, it underscores his authenticity, the journey of a man who moved through the darkness of the losses of his young wife, baby daughter and adult son to remain optimistic about politics, the country and his own destiny.

“He has a backbone of steel. He has a tremendous amount of empathy, and he seeks the better angels in humankind,” said Valerie Biden Owens, Biden’s sister and closest political adviser. “His word is his bond.”

Biden’s remarks during his presidential bid did not always set as decisive a tone. A campaign trail refrain that “words matter,” a line intended to be an attack on Trump, seemed at times like a reminder to the candidate. Often rambling and spotted with verbal tics — Bidenisms like an indignant “c’mon man” and a gentle “God love 'em” — his comments careened between dense policy proposals, praise for long-deceased political leaders, minor flubs and the occasional factual inaccuracy.

Republicans pounced on his rhetorical style, caricaturing Biden as too mentally frail for the job. Even some in his own party pointed to comments like his praise for segregationists and overly friendly interactions with women as a sign that Biden was out of step with the times.

Throughout a long campaign, a pandemic, a racial reckoning and a riot at the Capitol, Biden’s central message of moral and political restoration never wavered: Renew American decency. Return to good governance. And heal a divided nation. From snowy Iowa cornfields to socially distanced debate stages, the former vice president offered his “word as a Biden” that he could fulfill his campaign promises.

In the end, after a crowded primary packed with Democratic candidates pushing for structural transformation and a general election against a president determined to upend government, Americans selected a new president but rejected sweeping change.

While Biden has pivoted left with his party, he remains a centrist at his core, determined to unite a frayed body politic and persuade some Republicans to support his agenda. For much of the past half-century, Biden has found himself in the literal middle of American politics: in the central seat on the Judiciary Committee, in the center of policy debates in the Obama administration, at center stage in the presidential debates and now at the White House. He is a man both of and apart from Washington, deeply immersed in the mores, manners and maneuvering of the Capitol even as he spent decades commuting home to Delaware on Amtrak.

“He has the most unique insight into what motivates politicians and how they think than anyone since Lyndon Johnson,” said Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa., who first met Biden as a young man. “He just spent so many decades engaging with politicians.”

More essentially, said Ted Kaufman, Biden’s longtime chief of staff and short-term successor in the Senate, Biden is a “healer” determined to bridge seemingly unbridgeable divides.

The political traits that would come to define Biden were present from the start. A Catholic son of Scranton and Wilmington, Delaware, he has long mythologized his childhood in stump speech tales of “Grandpop Finnegan” and virtuous sayings from his father, a car salesman who struggled to find work.

Even in the 1960s, Biden was something of an institutionalist in a blow-it-up generation. In penny loafers and sports coats, he rambled around the University of Delaware and Syracuse University College of Law, a middling student with little connection to the civil rights movement and the other social activism of the time. He received five student draft deferments during the Vietnam War and was kept from service after a physical exam in 1968 because he had asthma as a teenager, according to his campaign.

“I’m not big on flak jackets and tie-dye shirts,” he told reporters in 1987, distinguishing himself from some politically minded contemporaries. “Other people marched. I ran for office.”

After marriage, graduation and a brief stint at a Wilmington law firm, Biden won a seat on the New Castle County Council. Shortly after his election, one of his colleagues quipped that Biden “was the only man he knew who could give an extemporaneous 15-minute speech on the underside of a blade of grass.” The local paper called him a “compulsive talker,” and his underdog race for the Senate in 1972 was labeled “Mr. Nice vs. Mr. Mouth.” Biden was, of course, the mouth.

He entered office just weeks after the death of his wife Neilia and daughter Naomi in a crash with a tractor-trailer. Reeling from the tragedy, Biden would make only a six-month commitment to the Senate, taking the oath of office from the hospital bedside of his two young sons. Mentored by Sen. Mike Mansfield, then the majority leader, he eventually found himself swept into the business of the body with a plum seat on the Foreign Relations Committee — an early move that would later cement his reputation as an expert in U.S. foreign policy.

In Washington, Mouth found much to discuss. A legendary profile by future celebrity biographer Kitty Kelley in 1974 featured Biden openly discussing dating, sex and his late wife. (Biden would later talk about that period in his life as a haze of rage and anger, saying he felt like a “sucker” for sharing so much.)

His personal life stabilized after his marriage to his second wife, Jill, and the birth of a fourth child, their daughter Ashley. But his political career continued along an uneven course.

Biden’s greatest early failure and biggest success intertwined in 1987: the humiliation of a failed presidential bid and his victory as the new chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee in stopping Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. Biden announced his campaign was over during a break from the hearing, where his strategy focused on persuading Republicans to block President Ronald Reagan’s nominee.

Four years later, Biden would again make overtures to his Republican colleagues during Justice Clarence Thomas’ confirmation hearings, allowing harsh and invasive questioning of Anita Hill, the law professor who accused the nominee of sexual harassment. Biden would later express “regret” for the treatment she endured but insist he did not mistreat her.

“If you go back to what I said and didn’t say, I don’t think I treated her badly,” he said in an interview shortly after beginning his presidential bid in April 2019.

As he progressed through what would ultimately be six terms in the Senate, Biden became known for his willingness to reach across the aisle to craft legislation like the Violence Against Women Act and the 1994 crime bill and as a crucial voice in U.S. conflicts overseas. The Senate became his professional home, reinforcing his unshakable belief in the value of personal relationships — the power of his deal-making words — in the service of bipartisan compromise.

Another presidential bid in 2008 ended in failure, marked by impolitic comments like calling Obama, who was then one of his rivals in the primary, “articulate and bright and clean.” But his years on Capitol Hill and in foreign policy and his connection with white working-class voters later won him a place on Obama’s presidential ticket.

During the Obama administration, Biden settled into the role of elder statesman and experienced voice on foreign policy. He led negotiations with Sen. Mitch McConnell and congressional Republicans over the economic stimulus plan and budget deals. Still, some of his most memorable moments grew out of unsanctioned honesty — like breaking with the administration’s official position by saying in 2012 that he was “absolutely comfortable” with same-sex marriage.

In 2015, Biden mulled making a third bid for the White House, but the death of his son, Beau, from brain cancer that May was a devastating blow that Biden said left him emotionally unable to mount an effective campaign.

By the time Obama awarded him the Presidential Medal of Freedom in a surprise ceremony at the end of his second term, praising his vice president as a “lion of American history,” the event seemed to mark a tearful end to Biden’s political ambitions.

In the end, it was that faith in his own character and experience that persuaded Biden to make a third run at the White House. Five months before announcing his bid with a 3 1/2-minute video casting the election as a national emergency, Biden described himself as the “most qualified person” for the job. When confronted by a moderator with a list of his possible political liabilities, he dismissed them all as minor issues compared with the huge problems faced by the country.

“I am a gaffe machine, but my God, what a wonderful thing compared to a guy who can’t tell the truth,” he said during a stop on his book tour in 2018. “The question is, what kind of nation are we becoming?”

That sense of history was not lost on Biden on Tuesday when he made an emotional goodbye to his home state. With remarks recalling the national unrest before his Senate victory in 1972, his trip to Washington for his 2009 inauguration as vice president and memories of his deceased son, Biden teared up before even uttering a sentence.

“I’ll always be a proud son of Delaware,” he said, choking up as he drew on a phrase from James Joyce and the tears began to flow. “Excuse the emotion, but when I die, Delaware will be written on my heart.”

Presidents rarely utter such pointed words about their own mortality. But the moment was classic Biden, sharing his pain as he sought to connect with others.

The next president wiped his eyes once more and headed to Washington.