When Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del.) first entered office in 1973, he met legendary Sens. Jacob Javits (R-N.Y.) and Stuart Symington (D-Mo.). Naked.
The two nude lawmakers were in the Senate’s “old-guy gym,” where steam baths and massages triumphed over treadmills and weights. The uncomfortable situation wasn’t the only that would occur during Biden’s freshman year. At age 30, Biden was the youngest Senator — a fact that got him constantly mistaken for a staffer.
More than three decades later, he’s now chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee and a presidential candidate. And, like many politicians before him, he has released his memoirs, titled “Promises to Keep.”
But Biden didn’t set out to publish an autobiography — he originally intended to write about foreign policy, comparing Bosnia’s situation in the early 1990s to Iraq today. In trying to explain his beliefs, Biden ended up writing about his personal life, beginning with his Irish Catholic upbringing and childhood stutter.
“It took me on a journey I never, never intended to go,” he said in an interview. “It literally took me back to my father’s kitchen table, my fifth-grade nun and my stint in the hospital. It ended up being a lot more about my life than what I’d intended.”
Biden wrote the book in his own casual voice, recalling personal history and legislative milestones. Both intermingle, with Biden sometimes recalling a conversation with family members that changed his professional perspective. That’s because his legislative decisions, he says, are influenced by his values: mainly, that one should be honest and intervene when someone’s in trouble.
“The underlying idea that I think I’m trying to communicate in the book is that you’ve got to have faith in yourself,” he said. “You’ve got to have a value set in order to have the kind of faith that you can actually change things.”
Raised in a close-knit Irish family, Biden recalls listening to his Grandpop Finnegan talk about local and national politics. He relives his mother’s insistence that everyone be treated with respect. And he remembers his father’s belief that a man’s worth is how often he gets up, not how many times he has been knocked down.
He also relives those events in which getting back up seemed impossible. After he won his Senate seat in 1972, his wife and infant daughter died in a car accident, leaving him as a single father to his two young sons. (He later remarried.) He describes the uphill battle to continue in the Senate after their deaths, when suicide seemed a “rational option.” Then, in 1988, he suffered an aneurysm and underwent two risky surgeries over several months.
But decades later, Biden hasn’t given up. After a failed presidential campaign in 1987, he is running again. With fundraising low and the media focused on fellow Democratic Sens. Hillary Rodham Clinton (N.Y.) and Barack Obama (Ill.), Biden often is perceived as being at the bottom of a crowded field. But Biden said he is confident that his expertise and substance will win out in the end.
“I have faith. I really believe I’m going to win this,” he said. “You look at the numbers and polls and money, but ultimately in my view … people intuitively know this is the single most important election. … I just believe at the end of the day, they are going to get deadly serious about who they’re going to hand that power over to.”
Biden also believes that his unique view on Iraq will win out over the two primary choices given today: withdraw or stay. He is somewhere in the middle, supporting an end to the war but insisting that the U.S. help Iraq’s government. With parties fighting against each other rather than debating issues, Americans ultimately will decide they want a reasonable solution from an experienced candidate, he said. And Biden has a long history with foreign relations: In “Promises to Keep,” he follows his first hopes for the Bush administration after Sept. 11, 2001, to his eventual distrust of its policies. Unlike before the Iraq War, Americans now realize that what happens elsewhere affects the United States, he said.
“Up to this point, people were figuratively looking in the mirror,” he said. “Now they’re all looking out a window because now they know what happens out there is going to affect them more than anyone else, going to affect their children.”
America also is a symbol to the rest of the world, he said. In his book, Biden details a trip to a camp in Chad that was home to Darfur refugees. After he got off the plane, an aid worker gave him a tour through the camp. Their eyes showed expectation, he writes, “as if America could make a difference in their lives.”
“When that kid looked at me, and the rest of the other workers, they weren’t looking at a bunch of middle-class guys getting off a plane,” he said in an interview. “I could have been the Statue of Liberty.”
Biden will talk about his book at 12:30 p.m. Wednesday at the National Press Club.