Posted: Jan. 5, 2007
THE SENIOR SENATOR FROM DELAWARE
By Celia Cohen
Thirty-four years ago today, in almost unbearable circumstances, Joseph R. Biden Jr. took his oath to become a United States senator.
Even without embellishment, it would have been a remarkable moment in Delaware as this most callow of political adventurers, barely 30 years old with all of two years on the New Castle County Council behind him, slipped into the country's most exclusive club after a preposterous upset on Election Day in 1972.
It became indelible because Biden was a grieving husband and father, hollowed by an automobile accident that had killed his wife and baby daughter 18 days earlier and hospitalized his two young sons. Democratic Majority Leader Michael J. Mansfield sent the secretary of the Senate to the hospital in Wilmington to administer the oath.
Now the extraordinary swearing-in on Friday, Jan. 5, 1973, at 12:50 p.m., has turned into a milestone for Delaware's Democratic senior senator.
Biden got where he is by ending the political career of J. Caleb Boggs, a sunny Republican whose 26 years as a senator, governor and congressman gave him the record at the time as the longest-serving statewide elected official in Delaware history. Boggs' defeat left the title to be claimed by William V. Roth Jr., a sturdy Republican who trudged with his Saint Bernard dogs to a new record of 34 years in the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Without anyone paying much attention, Joe Biden is passing Bill Roth.
"Hard to believe, isn't it?" said John D. Daniello, the Democratic state chair who has been in politics long enough to see all of it.
This historic marker comes at a time when Biden arguably is experiencing the most influence of his political life. In his sixth Senate term -- also a Delaware record -- he is the Foreign Relations Committee chair when foreign policy is more crucial than it has been for a generation and a second-time-around presidential candidate, usually ranked as the top afterthought in a Democratic field led by Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama and John Edwards.
No one, least of all Biden himself, would have predicted his longevity and his march from the fifth youngest senator ever, 100th in Senate seniority -- rock bottom from taking his oath two days late -- to sixth in the current Senate and 24th in Senate history.
"I wouldn't have," Biden said.
He was elected by 3,000 votes, barely more than 50 percent of the total, a Democrat in a Republican state that had not elected a Democrat to its three-member congressional delegation since 1964. It probably would not have elected Biden, either, if the Republican Party had not been caught napping in the Senate race as it focused on saving Gov. Russell W. Peterson, who was doomed to lose, anyway, while Biden feasted on the inattention until he had streaked out of reach.
"He was one of those really interesting accidents," said William Swain Lee, the retired judge who ran for governor and was the Sussex County Republican chair at the time. "Even when he was elected the first time, we thought we could take him out the second time. His election was so unpredicted. He got so much momentum going, and we couldn't stop him."
As incongruous as the politics of winning the election were, the personal calamity that followed was more of a barrier to going to the Senate. Biden nearly decided not to do it, reasoning that the state could get another senator but his two- and three-year-old sons could not get another father.
Mansfield talked him into trying out Capitol Hill for six months and arranged for Secretary of the Senate Francis R. "Frank" Valeo to go to Delaware to swear in Biden outside the chamber -- something that had not happened since 1943 when U.S. Sen. Carter Glass, a Virginia Democrat, was too ill at 85 to leave his Lynchburg home and never did get to the Senate before he died in 1946.
Glass, however, was at the end of a political career that began in 1899, and Biden was a political sensation who had never been a senator, the vanguard of a new generation.
"It was Mansfield's way of making sure I was sworn in. It probably shows my sense of duty to stay with the kids but also an ambivalence to being sworn in. After the accident, I didn't intend to take my seat. Here I am, 2007 and still in the United States Senate," Biden said.
It has been some ride. Biden has careened through a Shakespearean series of setbacks and comebacks, both political and personal and as perilous as his debut, all of it punctuated by talk, talk, talk, eloquent and flippant, his greatest gift and his greatest flaw.
People love him, or people hate him. While Delaware is a state that cherishes its familiarity with its officeholders and shies away from toxic campaigning, it is not unusual to hear politicians speak about the "Biden haters." By contrast, there was never a need to utter the phrase "Roth haters."
"Joe inspires his followers. He has an irreducible minimum that are going to vote for him. He's never going to win big because there are people who just don't care for him, but he has such committed followers. They are with Joe to hell-do-us-part," said James R. Soles, a political scientist retired from the University of Delaware.
He also gets on people's nerves. "He has a physical bearing and expressions that give him an aura of arrogance. Joe has a look and a way of saying things that put people down. When you've been put down, you never forget," said Bill Lee, the retired judge.
For every prescient thought -- for example, Biden's warning on Sept. 10, 2001, that "the real threat comes to this country in the hold of a ship, the belly of a plane" -- there is also a counterpoint like his "I really didn't like Princeton" tantrum during the confirmation hearing a year ago for Supreme Court Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr.
For all the divisiveness Biden generates at home, it is not regarded as his style in the Senate. He worked so well with U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond that he was asked to give a eulogy in 2003, and he delivered an ennobling farewell that explained the complex friendship between a Northeastern Democrat and a South Carolina Dixiecrat-turned-Republican.
For 28 years, Biden and Roth were Delaware's one-two punch in the Senate, one or the other in the majority. When Roth lost his seat in 2000 to Thomas R. Carper, the Democrat coming out of the governorship, Biden's staffers took Roth's staffers to lunch and Biden offered them jobs, not that any of them accepted.
Months later, at a tribute to Roth, there was a moment of vintage Biden. "I don't think there was a single Biden that voted a straight ticket the last time you ran," he blurted.
"At the staff level and at the member level, they were close. They saw issues differently, but they were both for Delaware," said Marlene B. Elliott, a top aide to Roth.
Biden's talent made him a 1988 presidential candidate and helped to send the state into political giddiness with former Gov. Pierre S. "Pete" du Pont running on the Republican side at the same time. Du Pont's campaign ended with a whimper, but not Biden's. It was a bang, a big bang.
Biden crumbled under charges of copycatting speeches and a display of one of those cutting put-downs in New Hampshire, fodder for a media frenzy. Not long afterwards, he was in Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington, close to death from brain aneurysms.
What followed was a long climb of convalescence for both his health and his political reputation. For six months, from February until August 1988, Biden was out of the public eye. When he returned, it was clear that the Senate he had entered so uncertainly had become a home as much as Delaware was.
"Having a place where you want to be makes a great difference, and having the feeling that if you come back to the place that you want to be, that you are going to be welcomed makes even more of a difference," Biden told his colleagues in September 1988 in a speech in which the Senate's own peculiar poetry ran deep.
Biden's 34 years have left his mark. His emergence at home began the transformation of the Delaware Democrats from a conservative minority party with Dixiecrat tendencies to a majority party attractive to middle-class suburbanites as well as city voters.
"In very lean times for the Democrats, he was our only voice. We've come a long way, baby," said Daniello, the Democratic state chair.
"He was the vanguard of the new Democratic Party. The Democrats had more conservatives than the Republicans did. The Democratic Party today is the party of Biden," Bill Lee said.
In a disorderly national Democratic Party, lacking a central figure, Biden often is cited as its voice on foreign policy. "I don't think there's a more thoughtful or knowledgeable voice on American policy in foreign affairs," Soles said.
If Roth's tenure had to be summed up in one word, it probably would be "pocketbook" -- for his sponsorship of the Roth-Kemp tax cuts, the Roth IRA and his chairmanship of the Senate Finance Committee.
For Biden, the summation likely would be "security" -- foreign and domestic and also in the home. Beyond his stature as the Foreign Relations Committee chair, he has worked to put more police on the streets and sponsored a Violence Against Women Act. It is a legacy looking as though it will outlast him, now that his son Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III has become the state attorney general.
Joe Biden says his focus on security is a manifestation of his core motivation -- to check the abuse of power, an elemental principle he believes was imbued in him from his father's sayings that he heard in early childhood. A man does not lift his hand to a woman. It takes a small man to hit a small child.
Unlike Boggs, unlike Roth, this milestone for Biden does not come at the end of his political career. He has two years left in his current six-year term, and he is pointing at 2008 as a presidential candidate or a senatorial candidate or possibly both, as the state constitution allows.
There is skepticism that Biden can make it to the White House or even the Democratic nomination. Clinton has more money, Obama is hipper, and Edwards is cuter. What Biden does have going for him is his command of foreign policy, the substance he lacked the last time when he sizzled out.
"This is basically a marathon. Who knows how this is going to turn out?" Biden said. "I really do think I am better qualified at the moment than any other of the people seeking the presidency."
Foreign policy may not get him the presidency, but it could get him somewhere else. "I think he had his year," Soles said. "He still might wind up secretary of state or some other Cabinet position. He's still probably the most prepared person in terms of foreign affairs, which are the terms we have to think in these days."
Like Boggs and Roth before him, the record may not linger with Biden. Tom Carper has 30 years in statewide office as a treasurer, congressman, governor and second-term senator, and he is about four years younger. Biden had his 64th birthday on Nov. 20, and Carper will turn 60 on Jan. 23.
Biden is likely to keep the record for Senate terms, where he is at six and looking at seven, although Carper is so competitive, it may be three or four decades too early to count him out.