Upon awakening Saturday morning to hear that Barack Obama’s choice was indeed Joe Biden, I immediately went to "What It Takes", journalist Richard Ben Cramer’s Pulitizer Prize-winning epic that looked at six presidential candidates (four Democrats, two Republicans) in 1988.
One of them was Joe Biden, then making his first bid for the presidency. It seems so long ago. The 65-year-old Delaware senator will now become the oldest Democrat on a national ticket since vice presidential candidate Lloyd Bentsen (67) in 1988. At the time of his first campaign, Biden was only 45. His candidacy flamed out after release of a film in which he lifts verbatim the words and life story of British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Son Beau Biden was then graduating high school and about to enter Penn. Today, Beau is attorney general of Delaware and, First State pols agree, his father’s successor in the Senate if the Obama-Biden ticket triumphs.
But the portrait of him that emerges from Cramer’s pages still resonates today. And it’s powerful.
As "What It Takes" shows, Biden’s role as a liberal gladiator in the Senate was shaped by the Senate fight over Robert Bork’s nomination to the Supreme Court. The evolution of Biden’s abortion position, and the difficulties campaign managers had in putting Biden under discipline were put under Cramer’s microscope and painted vividly for the reader to see.
One wonders if Barack Obama had read What It Takes before choosing his colleague from Delaware. If not, he should have.
Biden and Bork
The liberal passion that Biden shows in his signature orations on the Senate floor and on the stump was first fueled by his role in fighting Ronald Reagan’s judicial nominees.
Cramer recalled how, when interviewed about the prospect of Robert Bork being named to the Supreme Court, Senate Judiciary Committee member Biden told Larry Eichel of The Philadelphia Inquirer in 1986: "Say, the administration sends up Bork, and, after our investigation, he looks a lot like another Scalia. . . I’d have to vote for him. . . and if the [liberal] groups actually tear me apart, well, that’s the medicine I will have to take."
A year later, with Democrats winning control of the Senate and Biden now chairman of the Judiciary Committee,the conservative scholar and jurist Bork was actually nominated to the Supreme Court. Biden was reminded of the reply to Eichel by presidential campaign press secretary Larry Rasky, and he sang a different tune.
"That was different," Biden protested, as Cramer reported it.
"All he meant was," Cramer reported, "he was going to do it his way. All he meant was he wasn’t going to be their [expletive deleted] Ted Kenndy! But he couldn’t say that. Why the hell had he said anything? What could he say now?"
As it turned out, Biden did become the leader of the successful move to deny Bork confirmation. In so doing, he not only worked with the liberal groups ("Biden always thought the liberal groups were a pain in the ass", wrote Cramer) but organized meetings and guided them.
"[H]e told them he would decide the strategy–it wasn’t going to be a single-issue campaign," according to What It Takes, "That was a shot across the women’s bow, to let them know they would lose this fight (and lose him) if they make this a vote on abortion."
On the day he met with Bork in his office, Chairman Biden assured the nominee "there’d be punctiliously fair committee hearings." He had "doubts" about Bork, all right, "but he would keep an open mind," Cramer reported. That same day, he met with civil rights groups opposing the nomination and within hours, "The New York Times was calling. Ken Noble, the reporter, wanted to know why Biden said he would keep an open mind–and then promised the civil rights groups that ‘he’d lead the fight against Bork.’"
In leading the charge that eventually brought down Robert Bork, Biden bought himself weeks of national publicity for his embryonic bid for the presidency. "Joe, just the name recognition," Cramer has Biden campaign adviser Tom Donilon (who "was always talking opportunity: national TV, for weeks") exclaim to the candidate during the days of the Bork battle.
For a time, Biden did bask in the media limelight. But there were others who said his role in the Bork nomination showed a side of him that was opportunistic and perhaps craven. Syndicated columnist Mark Shields, himself a Democrat, put it best: "By seeming in the Bork nomination to be the prisoner of liberal pressure groups, neither Biden nor anyone else will fit that bill of change."
Biden And Abortion
Author Cramer suggests that Biden’s steering of liberal groups to oppose Bork on issues other than abortion also revealed a potential Achilles heel on an issue near and dear to them.
"Biden couldn’t afford that fight," he wrote, "[H]e didn’t have the kosher national Democratic pro-choice position–couldn’t support public funding for abortions, for instance. What he mostly did on the issue was duck. He was a Catholic. He never wanted a vote on abortion."
The Delaware senator, of course, is not alone in adapting his own distaste for abortion and government funding it to a party in which pro-abortion forces have grown progressively stronger. The platform that Obama and Biden will run on, for example, proclaims support for Roe v. Wade and calls for making abortions "safe and legal." (This is a change from the so-called "Bill Clinton language" that has been in the party manifesto since 1992, calling for abortions to be "safe, legal, and rare.").
As of 2007, the National Abortion Rights Action League (NARAL) gave Biden a rating of 100%. But there were still some scent of the "old Biden." Alone among his party’s presidential hopefuls in 2008, Biden had voted for the 2003 ban on partial birth abortion signed by President Bush. When the Supreme Court upheld the partial birth ban in 2007, Biden–who usually has a statement on every subject–put out no press release or comment.
In the months he spent up-close with Biden, journalist Cramer captured one of the candidate’s biggest stumbling blocks: organization.
"It wasn’t that Joe really had a plan," he wrote, "What he had was a speech, and he always felt better when he knew what he was going to say. ‘Biden is speech-driven,’ his guys would explain. But that was just guru-talk for the fact that Joe often didn’t know what he thought until he had to say it. Then, too, there was the sorry corollary: sometimes Biden spoke before he thought."
This was at a time when, as the Bork fight raged in the Senate and Biden was on television almost nightly, the Delaware Democrat was taking off in the Iowa caucuses. "In Iowa, he could feel it turning, he could see it," reported Cramer, "[H]e’s supposed to have thirty people at a coffee shop, a hundred show up. That packs the place, changes the feel. . .changed Joe’s feel. But he still couldn’t figure out exactly, why?. . .He couldn’t feel the connect, the thump in his gut, the way he had to have it."
That "thump in his gut" came in August of 1987, when pollster-political analysist Bill Schneider "showed up with a tape of a long, lovely, TV ad for Neil Kinnock, the British Labour Party leader who was running against Margaret Thatcher. Kinnock had some beautiful stuff about what the Labour Party meant to working folk. To Joe, that was exactly why he was running: to give people a platform on which to build their futures. He grabbed that tape and took it home; he inhaled the thing. It was like when Barbara Streisand came on the radio–Kinnock was singing Joe’s song!"
The rest, as they say, is history. Biden knew "that stuff from the Kinnock tape like a song in his head" and, in four or five speeches, quoted it. In every case, he identified who Kinnock was and told audiences "he said something that I think is important." And it worked great, until Biden spoke at the state fair in Iowa and adapted Kinnock’s words and life to himself.
"It was only in Washington, in front of the TV, the gurus looked at each other," according to "What It Takes", "Someone had to tell Biden . . .he’d better credit this stuff, or he’d get his ass in trouble."
He did. John Sasso, political adviser to Biden’s chief rival Michael Dukakis, saw a tape of the remarks Biden had made and "he couldn’t believe it. Sasso knew the Kinnock ad–where the hell did Biden get off, using it word for word? It was like he was borrowing Kinnock’s life? Did he think no one else in the country had seen it?. . . Why didn’t anybody write that?"
Sasso, of course, put together a tape slicing Biden’s words and Kinnock’s and made sure somebody wrote it. A lot did and Biden soon concluded "that I will stop being a candidate for President of the United States."
In the closing pages of "What It Takes", author Cramer recalls how he saw Biden in early 1992, as the next round of presidential campaigning was heating up. "People were trying to get him to run, too," he wrote, "Joe didn’t even nibble. He was doing what he wanted."