Having been largely unable to settle into nonfiction books for the past several months, it’s been a pleasure to dive back into a book recommended by one of my favorite librarians in the Senate Library. During my time in the Senate, I developed a taste for biographies of past Senators to learn more about the individuals and personalities who have shaped the government. One of my Christmas presents was Promises to Keep written by Joe Biden when he was running for Vice President. His election campaign obviously shaped the message of the book, but I still enjoyed hearing about his career from his own perspective.
In any good small independent bookstore, there is almost always a shelf that includes stories that are written about that area. Thus on Cape Cod, there will be mysteries set in that location. I think the appeal is that for someone who lives or visits the area, the mental pictures are far more vivid than is the case for someone who must rely entirely upon imagination. I find that to be the case when I read stories of the Senate. Biden writes of the scrum in the Well of the Senate chamber during votes, of taking the train between the office buildings and the Capitol, and of the caucus room in the Russell building, which was just down a floor from where I worked. In each case, I found myself mentally supplying the architectural details, the color of the marble, and the backdrop of staffers hustling from one meeting to another. The book is ever so much richer because I have seen all of the sights in person.
In 1972 at the age of 29, Joe Biden became the second youngest person to be elected to the Senate. Unlike Henry Clay, who didn’t reach the Constitutionally required age of 30 to be a Senator until over three months into the post (no one commented on the situation so it wasn’t a problem), Biden’s birthday fell several weeks after the election to make him legal. His obvious youth predictably caused challenges for him since he was constantly mistaken for staff by the operators of the Senators-only elevators as well as a memorable run-in with Henry Kissinger who likewise didn’t recognize the young new senator from Delaware.
Biden almost didn’t take his oath of office as a Senator because shortly after his 30th birthday that December, his wife and daughter died in a car accident that also left Biden’s two young sons in the hospital for months. The gentle but relentless persuasiveness of Majority Leader Mike Mansfield along with the warm caring and collegiality of his fellow senators carried him through his grieving process and eventually allowed him to engage in his new office whole-heartedly. In his memoir, Biden comments on the personal friendships among senators that characterized most of his time in office. I’ve heard repeatedly how much past and present senators of both parties regret the loss of civility by which they could disagree upon ideals but still offer each other personal support.
If Joe Biden had been my student, he probably would have driven me a bit nuts. He obviously had great capacity, but he rarely applied it during his school years. I appreciated his humanity in presenting his faults in an unvarnished fashion and being honest about his screw-ups in not correctly attributing sources in an early law school paper or in a campaign address. In contrast, he wrote extensively about his comprehensive preparation as Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee for the confirmation hearing of Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. I remembered only that there was a considerable kerfluffle about Bork as a potential Justice, but now I understand much more thoroughly why there were issues with that nomination. Biden understood just how important it was to do a good job on the hearing and ultimately probably sacrificed his 1988 Presidential bid because he spent so much time mastering all of the material about Bork.
Two of my favorite stories occurred between Biden and Senator Eastland of Mississippi, who had strongly opposed the passage of Civil Rights. On one occasion, Biden asked Eastland what was the greatest change in Washington during his time in office. “Air conditioning,” was the response. “Air conditioning?” Biden asked. Eastland explained that because Washington gets so hot in the summers, Congress used to go home over the summer to beat the heat. With the introduction of air conditioning, Congress now stays in Washington year round… so they can really mess up the country. As Biden was approaching his first re-election cycle at the end of his first term, Eastland also demonstrated his approval of his young colleague and offered, “I’ll campaign for ya or against ya, Joe. Whichever way you think helps you the most.”
When Senator Biden became the Vice Presidential running mate for Barack Obama, his name really meant nothing to me, but I remember that he was supposed to bring foreign policy experience to the ticket. I now appreciate that Biden had been a member of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations for much of his long tenure in the Senate and chaired the committee starting in 2007. He was deeply involved in the war in Yugoslavia, advocating for American action years before it actually happened. Having read some of this background in Madeleine Albright’s autobiography, it was interesting to see how they both pushed for action from their different positions.
One of the new understandings that I gained from my Congressional experience was that there are numerous bills that get reauthorized on a regular basis. One of those bills that passed during my fellowship was the Violence Against Women Act (VAWA). I particularly remember that there was a single staffer in our office who handled gun control, immigration, and VAWA, and there was considerable action on all three issues simultaneously. I don’t think he slept much. Having been around when VAWA was reauthorized most recently, I was intrigued to learn that Senator Biden, as then-Chair of the Senate Judiciary Committee, drafted the initial legislation that eventually passed and was signed into law by President Clinton in 1994. Years later when Biden was writing a particular speech, he realized that the foundation of all of his legislation and the issues that were important to him involved the abuse of power in its many forms. He considered VAWA to be one of his greatest legacies.
During my fellowship year, I always got a thrill when Vice President Biden arrived to preside over the Senate. When I was present in the gallery for the historic vote on immigration, there was a palpable transition when he replaced the freshman senator who had been sitting in the presiding chair. Suddenly instead of one of the most junior members of the body, the chair was occupied by the true Vice Presidential power who was intended to sit there. I had the sense of a man who had been part of the Senate for so long that the procedures and processes were second nature to him. Certainly his facility with relationships among the senators has made him a valuable asset to President Obama, whose own limited time in the Senate was not sufficient for him to truly understand how legislation gets made. One of my greatest thrills was to be sitting in the staff gallery on the Senate floor shortly after Senator Markey was sworn in as the new Massachusetts senator. Vice President Biden walked out the door not ten feet away from me. He passed through the chamber with the ease and comfort of a man who served his state for 36 years and justifiably felt right at home.
I’ll add one last story. Because Delaware is so close to Washington, Senator Biden generally commuted home via Amtrak every night after the Senate session ended. He became a staunch supporter for Amtrak, and in turn, they would often hold the train a few minutes if he was on his way. He would hold an annual picnic for all the people who worked on his leg of the Amtrak line, and I believe that the Wilmington, DE station where he got on and off every day has been renamed in his honor.