Posted: Aug. 5, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

No one masqueraded as Hillary Clinton or Dick Cheney. Whole families did not stake out the book store a day early. Children did not squeal when the book was theirs and hug it to their little chests like a puppy.

Joe Biden was no Harry Potter, but he still caused a stir Sunday morning when he showed up for his first Delaware book signing at Browseabout Books & Cafe, a mainstay in Rehoboth Beach.

The final Harry Potter book was like the arrival of the Beatles and the Millennium rolled into one. Biden was maybe more like a snowfall on Christmas Eve, but certainly peppier than the annual release of the federal budget.

The first guy in line got there about an hour early, and a crowd snaked through the store, keeping Biden a half-hour or so beyond a signing session meant to be two hours. Cameras were everywhere, and the store gave away crumbly slices of pumpkin and date bread.

Promises to Keep, a presidential-esque book that Random House brought out Monday amid Biden's campaign for the Democratic nomination, was a happening at home, about 400 books sold, at least a thousand people trooping through the store.

The scene was all about Joe, although the book itself is agreeably readable throughout its 365 pages. It is as though somebody said, "Hey, Joe, how ya been?" and he finished his answer a week and a half later. Vintage Biden.

The book itself seems bifurcated, the first part focusing on Biden the man and the second on Biden the policy maker. The divide coincides with a critical fault line in Biden's life in late 1987 and early 1988 -- the folding of his first presidential campaign and the brain aneurysms that nearly killed him.

It comes across as an acknowledgement of the criticism of Biden's first presidential race as too much sizzle, not enough steak, followed by his 20-year effort to atone for it. Nothing focuses a man like a near-death experience, first in politics and then in life itself.

A funny thing happened to Biden along his way to be taken seriously, though. With all of those weighty appearances on the Sunday talk shows, he overcompensated. The steak got to be more than the sizzle. This book is his way of getting it back.

"I hope what it does is give people a fairly honest glimpse of who I am," Biden said during an impromptu press conference after his book signing. "The public knows me, but they know me as the guy standing behind the podium who is the expert in foreign policy, was born secretary of state, they think who went to Yale and comes from money -- which is about as far from who I am as you can imagine."

This book resurrects who Biden is -- the tuition-challenged kid at Archmere, the excuse-me student at the University of Delaware and Syracuse law school, the world-is-his-oyster senator-elect whose wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident, the stricken widower who rebuilt a family and the presidential washout who nearly died and painstakingly refashioned his political standing.

Promises to Keep was written with Mark Zwonitzer, a PBS documentary maker, who took Biden's taped dictations and transformed them into chapters. Zwonitzer also did a lot of fact checking.

"The one thing I could not afford to do is mistake any facts in here," Biden said.

The book was conceived in 2004 as Biden's views on foreign policy and then switched to this mixture of personality, politics and policy. Of course, Biden switched, too -- from someone on the short list for secretary of state if John Kerry became president to a presidential candidate himself.

The title's promises to keep are not explicit, but they are easy to discern. There is the Biden family promise to get up!! -- because being knocked down is not embarrassing but staying down is. There is the unspoken promise to Neilia, his first wife, for him to make something of the raw, unformed man-child she believed in. Biden's account of their love-at-first-sight romance is probably the most vivid imagery in the book.

The crowd at the bookstore did not seem like one that was buying the book because it needed a tutorial on Biden.

One person had an original campaign button from Biden's first Senate race in 1972. Another remembered seeing Biden that year at Return Day, the post-election celebration in Georgetown. Some chatted with Jill Biden, Joe's wife, as longtime friends do.

Even Steve Crane, who co-owns Browseabout Books with his wife Barbara, goes way back with Biden to his pre-Senate days as a lawyer. Biden gave him advice in a custody fight.

Party affiliation was not an issue on this day. The crowd included Abby L. Betts, the Kent County Democratic chair who came with her mother, because Betts volunteered for Biden's phone bank in Milford in 1972 when she was a seventh grader, and her mother had to drive her there.

The crowd also included Sussex County Councilman Vance C. Phillips, a conservative Republican who had thoughts of running against Biden in 1996. "He is my senator, you know," Phillips said, although he could not resist quipping, "Keep your friends close . . . "

For these book buyers, the suspense was not in reading the pages. This was no Harry Potter moment to find out how the book turns out. They came because they care how Joe Biden turns out and want to be a part of it, too.