Posted: Sept. 19, 2007


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Joe Biden is doing most of his campaigning in Iowa these days, but one of his stops brought him back home where his wandering for the White House began, where it really all began.

As Monday evening darkened into night, Biden held a book signing for Promises to Keep, his personal and political memoir, at the Elsmere fire hall. It was more than a return to Delaware, it was a return to the district that elected him to his first public office on the New Castle County Council in 1970, two years before he soared into the Senate as an audacious 29-year-old Democratic upstart.

No presidential-size entourage here. Biden came in through a side door with only a press secretary trailing behind. If he had been anyone else, he would have been unobtrusive, but he was a walking, breathing homing device to this crowd, which keyed on him and instantly broke into applause.

Biden looked punched out.

He had spent Sunday in Iowa at Sen. Tom Harkin's Steak Fry, one of the most famous Democratic events in the state that holds the first presidential caucuses, along with Hillary Clinton, Barack Obama, John Edwards, Chris Dodd and Bill Richardson. He had another political appearance Monday morning in Chicago, then flew home and headed for Elsmere, taking only some time to pay a condolence call on a former staff member before arriving.

Biden looked around the hall. There were about 200 people, eventually upwards of 300. Even with the workday over, they had dressed for respect in office clothes, sports jackets and the occasional tie. Although it is not uncommon to find Delawareans who worked on Biden's first senatorial campaign, here were folks who went back to the council race, not to mention family whom he had not had even a moment to see, his wife and his son-the-attorney-general along with his family.

"Hi, everybody. Holy mackerel, I am home," Biden said. "Hey, there's my wife Jill. How ya doing? How are ya? It's like a family reunion. Beau's here."

The adrenaline was working now. Biden spied Catherine Mancini, who was in Democratic politics even before the council race. It triggered a jolly reminiscence about the advice she gave him the time he barked at someone -- "Back in the old days when Biden had a temper, you know Biden doesn't have a temper anymore" -- at a local meeting.

Shortly after his squabble, a hand grabbed him. It belonged to Mancini, who gave him some sage political advice that stayed with him ever after. "She said, sometimes it's better not to show up than to show up," Biden quipped as the crowd laughed.

"I hope this is one of those times it's better to show up. Hey, folks, it's good to be here," he said.

"What I want to say to all of you, to many of the people in this room is, you are the book. You are the most important parts of my life. I look around this room. I've done these book signings because of a commitment I made to the publisher that I would do them, but this is a little different. A lot of you in the room made me who I am."

Biden is constitutionally incapable of resisting a crowd. His preferred method of speaking is to wander through its midst, but in this case, the play of emotional waves pushed him behind a table, set up for him to sign books, so he could collect himself.

The showman reappeared. Biden re-approached the room, where the atmosphere had turned into more of a mini-rally than a book signing, to acknowledge the Democratic politicians who knew there would be plenty of hands to shake if they dropped by.

Among them were Treasurer Jack Markell, running for governor, Wilmington Council President Ted Blunt, running for lieutenant governor, state House Minority Leader Bob Gilligan and Minority Whip Helene Keeley, trying to become the majority leadership, state Democratic Chair John Daniello, who was going off the County Council as Biden was going on, and even a Republican or two like Norm Veasey, the state's former chief justice.

Biden really was tired, though. After running through a list of names, he asked, "Is there any other elected official here?" People shouted, "Beau Biden!"

Signing the books took four hours. The queue was more of a receiving line, everyone patiently waiting to spend a minute or two with Biden, who seemed to know every last one of them. They wanted not just his signature, but poses for their cameras and his embrace.

An hour or so into the signing, two nuns, dressed from their wimples to their shoes in white habits, showed up from the Little Sisters of the Poor and worked the system. The booksellers who were present would not accept the nuns' check, so they stood flustered and helpless until someone realized heaven was hanging in the balance and bought their books himself.

Then the nuns cajoled their way to the front of the line because, really, they had to get back or the convent doors would be locked. Before they left, they papered the place with brochures for the "Nun Run," a 5k race to benefit their order's home for the elderly near Christiana. It can be good to have a Catholic senator.

Biden signed and signed and signed. People brought him single books, four books, six books, even a bagful of 13 books. He conscientiously personalized his inscriptions and listened as they unburdened their sorrows onto him, the spouse with Alzheimer's, the parent with cancer.

One man teared up at Biden's memories of his late father, who served with the fire police, and a woman exclaimed as she walked away, "Did you see my hug?"

Biden likes to quote Irish poetry, but this journey to his political roots was pure American verse from the poet who also gave him the title for his book.

Back in a time made simple by the loss of detail, Robert Frost wrote.

Here are your waters and your watering place.

Drink and be whole again beyond confusion.