A cross between a memoir and a campaign manifesto, “Joe Biden” by Evan Osnos is an engaging book of interlude. An interlude that spans more than three decades and separates two presidential bids, extreme in both their outcome and impact. At the time of going to the press, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr was yet to take oath as the 46th President of the United States of America. He had however been anointed as the undisputed Democratic nominee for the race to restrict Donald Trump to just one term. Biden’s emergence as the frontrunner raised more than a few rankled eyebrows. For a young and restless generation that was beginning to tire of the gerontocracy that had permeated the political decision making apparatus, the choice of a man who, if elected would be the oldest man to assume the mantle of the President in the illustrious history of the world’s oldest democracy, would be a slap on their collective faces. However, as Osnos demonstrates in his book, there are more facets to the man than has been ordinarily and otherwise understood, or rather misunderstood.
As Osnos sets out in this stirring portrait of his protagonist, adversity seems to be Biden’s handmaiden. The tragedies that have befell the man make the phrase a litany of woes seem downright mild. Yet he has shown a resilience that is not just remarkable, but preternatural almost, to get his way. As Osnos writes, “Biden’s friend Ted Kaufman told me, “If you ask me who’s the unluckiest person I know personally, who’s had just terrible things happen to him, I’d say Joe Biden. If you asked me who is the luckiest person I know personally, who’s had things happen to him that are just absolutely incredible, I’d say Joe Biden.””
The books starts on a sombre note with Joe Biden collapsing in a hotel room in 1988. Investigations reveal brain aneurism, recovery from which takes seven agonizing months. For many, such a near death experience would have been sufficient for life, to be rendered listless or at least pessimistic. But disaster was not done yet with Biden. He lost his wife and infant daughter, courtesy a horrendous car crash in 1972. His lawyer son Beau Biden with whom he shared a very close bond, was felled by brain tumour in 2015, when he was only 46. How Biden manages to put indescribable personal grief away and yet attend to his professional duties and political aspirations makes for the bulk of Osnos’ book.
Even Biden’s political career has had more embarrassing misses – arguably – than memorable hits. A predominant degree of the former, purely due to his own making. Never known for exercising reserve in his speech, Biden has had some spectacular blow ups. To quote Osnos, ‘Even in Washington, the windbag Mecca, he distinguished himself. When Obama, newly arrived in the Senate in 2005, heard Biden hold forth in a meeting of the Foreign Relations Committee, he passed an aide a three-word note: “Shoot. Me. Now.” ‘ At times, exhibitions of uncontrolled exuberance have also landed Biden in a spot. When emotions were running high and nerves were frayed over implementation of the Affordable Care Act, in 2014, Biden while chatting reporters in Scottsdale, Arizona. spotted a young woman on a bench and strode over to obtain her enlistment for the Act, extolling the features of the same to her. “Do it for your parents! Give them peace of mind!” Biden pleaded. As Osnos hilariously writes, “she nodded gamely, but, after he had moved on, she conceded that she couldn’t sign up because she was a tourist visiting from Canada. (“I just didn’t know if I should say.”).
Biden has himself acknowledged that reticence is not his greatest virtue. He has also worked on inculcating a bit of it too. As Osnos illustrates by way of an example, Biden once held forth in the Senate on a topic regarding oil wells. An opponent duly called him out. “Senator Biden, have you ever seen a stripper well?” Determined not to get caught on the wrong foot again, he started preparing before every talk with a vengeance. He even went to the extent of writing to Hannah Arendt, the political theorist who explored the roots of authoritarianism, once, having been piqued by a paper she read out at the Boston Bicentennial Forum. But he was still a long way away from being the suave, sophisticated and serene speakers such as an Obama or a Clinton. He was also nursing what had almost become a perennial insecurity, in the form of having worked hard to overcome a stutter. He was not comfortable with a teleprompter. He got into the habit of reeling out quotes without attributing them to their rightful originator/s. During his failed Presidential campaign, he quoted British politician Neil Kinnock, but making the quote, on rising from humble origins, sound as if it was his own story. “Around Capitol Hill, people joked, “The Kennedys quoted the Greeks; Biden quoted the Kennedys.” He was getting a reputation as a pompous blowhard, and congressional staffers circulated a spoof résumé with Biden’s picture and accomplishments, including “inventor of polyurethane and the weedeater” and “Member, Rockettes”
But in spite of all the mishaps and misfortunes, Biden punched above his weight in the role of Vice-President to Obama. Occupying a position that has been more derided than deified, Biden elevated it to the status of topical relevance. In fact, Osnos states that Biden was to Obama what Walter Mondale was to Jimmy Carter. John Adams had once proclaimed that the Vice President’s job was “the most insignificant office that ever the invention of man contrived.” Biden used the full spectrum of his experience in dealing with foreign leaders and Obama reaped the full benefits of such an association. Even within the United States, Biden had accumulated the support of formidable allies. ‘His alliances were so varied that he was the only senator who was asked to speak at funerals for Strom Thurmond, the former segregationist, John McCain, the Arizona Republican, and Frank Lautenberg, the Democratic senator from New Jersey, who called Biden “the only Catholic Jew.”’
Even during his presidential bid, Biden’s reputation was attempted to be tarnished by his opponents who used his son Hunter Biden’s business proclivities and an addiction to drugs as weapons to beat Biden with. Hunter’s association with Burisma, one of Ukraine’s largest natural gas producers almost handed Biden in hot water. But typical of the man, he overcame this hurdle as well, thereby going on to become the 46th President of the United States.
Still the oldest, but ever the indefatigable!