Reversals of fortune never kept Joe Biden down

August 26, 2008|By PAUL WEST

DENVER - As Joe Biden tells it, there was a time his family was rolling in money.

His grandfather, Joseph H. Biden of Baltimore, was an executive with the American Oil Co. Joe's father spent summers with a cousin, Bill Sheen Jr., whose family estate was in the Baltimore hunt country.

"My dad grew up well polished by gentlemanly pursuits. He would ride to the hounds, drive fast, fly airplanes. He knew good clothes, fine horses, the newest dance steps," Biden wrote in Promises to Keep, a campaign memoir published last year.

That high life ended abruptly. A series of reversals left the family broke, about the time young Joe was preparing for school.

His father's early prosperity would come as something of a surprise to Joe, who found out much later about the man he called "the most elegantly dressed, perfectly manicured, perfectly tailored car sales manager Wilmington, Delaware had ever seen."

"My dad taught me the value of constancy, effort, and work, and he taught me about shouldering burdens with grace," wrote Biden. "He used to quote Benjamin Disraeli: 'Never complain. Never explain.' "

That dictum notwithstanding, Joe Biden had his share of grievances as a 2008 presidential candidate. One of the biggest had to do with money. Candidates who had it, like Barack Obama, could afford private jets that got them to events with a minimum of fuss. Lower-tier types, like Biden, wasted hours in airports flying coach to the same places.

Biden could have been a serious contender "if I played Powerball and won $100 million," he told a Baltimore Sun reporter exactly a year ago, when he was running far behind Hillary Clinton and Obama.

With trademark candor, Biden said that he actually preferred staying out on the road for as long as possible. That's because, he explained with a grin, if "you come home, and you're sitting there, you go, 'God, this is over. I mean, this is done.' "

A few months later, it was. The money never materialized. His home state of Delaware was too small. He never built a deep enough national finance operation and failed to grasp the Internet's importance as an organizing and money-raising tool.

By early January, after a dismal fifth-place finish in Iowa's caucuses, Biden was a two-time loser at the presidential game. He was now 65. His future, it seemed, would be as a senior Senate chairman or, perhaps, in a Cabinet seat of some future administration.

Instead, Joe Biden struck it rich.

He became, overnight, a partner in the most lucrative campaign cash machine that American politics has ever seen. Though Obama's lead over John McCain is modest in the latest polling, Biden could soon find himself a heartbeat away from an office he sought over more than two decades.

Biden would not be one to miss the small ironies contained within the ticket the Democrats are celebrating at this week's convention.

When he first sought the presidency, he was younger than Obama is today and regarded as a new-generation candidate. In his second try, Biden said in the interview last year, he considered it both "insulting and flattering" to be regarded now as the man who was the "Barack Obama of the Democratic Party" in 1988.

And yet it was his status as a silver-haired eminence that helped him win a behind-the-scenes campaign to become the vice presidential nominee, with his senior statesmanship offering balance to Obama's slender experience.

The fact that Biden hasn't generated personal wealth over a lifetime in public office - he's one of the poorest members of the Senate, and his wife, Jill, makes about $20,000 a year as a teacher - works to his political advantage. It puts him in a strong position to counter-punch Republican charges that Obama, who made millions from his writings and whose wife is on leave from a highly paid position at a Chicago medical center, is somehow an elitist.

Here in Denver, Biden's comeback has prompted some head-shaking amazement among those who have known him for a long time.

Bob Beckel, a strategist who had a hand in the 1978 campaign that returned Biden to the Senate for a second term, said Biden "is one of those guys who's got a lot of lives. Every time you think that a guy like Biden has become passe, he re-emerges. "It says a lot about his character," he added.

Voters around the country will hear a lot from Biden, and others, over the next few days and weeks, about Biden's character.

In his book and in campaign speeches, the senator traces it to his father, who died in 2002.

Joseph R. Biden Sr. was "a man of a few words," he wrote. "He'd been knocked down hard as a young man, lost something he knew he could never get back. But he never stopped trying."

On the day Biden was introduced as his party's vice presidential candidate, he recalled his father's words to his son, whom he called "Champ."

"My Dad repeated it and repeated it," Biden said. He "said, 'Champ, it's not how many times you get knocked down; it's how quickly you get up. It's how quickly you get up.' "

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