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Biography Traces Political Mistakes And Personal Scars That Shaped Joe Biden

When his wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972, Joe Biden struggled to acknowledge his grief publicly. "He didn't want to become a symbol of human vulnerability," Evan Osnos says. "But it was thrust upon him and he had to decide whether to embrace it."
Saul Loeb
AFP via Getty Images
When his wife and young daughter were killed in a car accident in 1972, Joe Biden struggled to acknowledge his grief publicly. "He didn't want to become a symbol of human vulnerability," Evan Osnos says. "But it was thrust upon him and he had to decide whether to embrace it."

As a young man, Joe Biden was fixated on a singular goal: "On his first date with his future wife, he told her mother that he wanted to grow up to be president," New Yorker writer Evan Osnos says.

Osnos, who writes about the Democratic presidential candidate in his new book, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now, notes that the 2020 election represents Biden's third bid for the presidency.

In 1987, during Biden's first run, "he was regarded as a bit of an arrogant guy, a bit of a blowhard in a town, after all, that is known for blowhards," Osnos says.

That campaign ended abruptly after Biden was accused of plagiarizing a speech by British politician Neil Kinnock.

"The joke became that Joe Biden was not an authentic person," Osnos says. "It took him a while to acknowledge that it was, as he later put it, his own arrogance that cost him that race."

Within a few months of dropping out of the race, Biden nearly died from two brain aneurysms. He was rushed to the hospital, where the doctors called in a priest to deliver last rites. Biden survived brain surgery but spent months in recovery.

Osnos points to a connection between Biden's failed 1988 presidential bid and his prognosis following the aneurysms: "Had he been on the campaign trail, he might not have survived, because he would not have gone to see a doctor about the symptoms," Osnos says.

More than 30 years later, Osnos sees a candidate who has come to terms with the tragedies and mistakes that have shaped his life.

"If you talk to the 77-year-old Joe Biden now, he's a man who is at peace," Osnos says. "He's at peace from a series of hard-won scars. And it's a very different mindset than he had back then."

Interview Highlights

/ Simon & Schuster
Simon & Schuster

On writing about Biden in a fair way

From the very beginning, actually, Joe Biden was, I think, treated with some skepticism by a lot of the press because they looked at his some of his mistakes on the trail. They would say he seems out of touch. He may not be aware of what it is that voters are really looking for in 2020. He would ... bungle the address for his fundraising text message campaign, things like that. And actually, I think that from a reporter's perspective, the challenge was that our responsibility has to be to hold Joe Biden and the other Democratic candidates to the same level of scrutiny that we have subjected Donald Trump to over the last 3 1/2 years. Because if we're not doing that, we're not going to generate trust from our readers and from voters, and we're not really doing the job. But it's hard, because the reality is that there is one candidate who is overtly hostile to the press — that's the president. And then you have another candidate who is in many ways a more conventional candidate and is doing things like releasing his tax returns and making his personal history more available. But it is challenging because you can't look like you're going soft on one guy and hard on the other.

On how Biden was defined by the tragic death of his wife, Neilia, and baby daughter, Naomi, in a car accident in 1972

When it happened, the reality is that Joe Biden did not expect to take his seat in the Senate. He thought that period of his life was over. He didn't see practically or spiritually how he could go on. The reality was he considered suicide. Some older members of the Senate said to him, "You need to do this not only because it's the right thing to do for your voters, but it's also the right thing to do for you personally, because if you don't do something, you will cave in." His sister Valerie told me that one of the ways that they were able to get him off the floor, in effect, was by telling him, "You have two boys at home now who have no mother. And if you collapse, then they have nobody."

Biden struggled in that period with what it meant to become this kind of public symbol of grieving. And what surprised me was he really bridled against it.

Biden struggled in that period with what it meant to become this kind of public symbol of grieving. And what surprised me was he really bridled against it. He didn't like that. That was the public image that people were imagining for him, that they were thrusting upon him, the sort of grieving widower and father. His image of himself was that he was the college football player who'd been elected to the Senate and in his 20s, and that's what he wanted to be. And he sort of had this idea that he could become a great foreign policy statesman. That's what he wanted to be. He didn't want to become a symbol of human vulnerability. But it was thrust upon him and he had to decide whether to embrace it or rebel against it or something else. ...

It was only later in his life, really, it was after the death of his son Beau in 2015 when Biden kind of came to accept more fully that that's something that people wanted from him as a political person. They wanted actually somebody in politics to talk to them about something like suffering and like vulnerability. And he kind of embraced it, but he didn't come to it quickly. It took a long time for him to acknowledge that.

On what Biden stood for in his early years in the Senate

In his very early years as a senator, he was kind of a moving target politically. I mean, to be blunt about it, he was more concerned about being reelected than he was about specific policy items. The most acute example of that is that he had run for office as a progressive candidate on the side of civil rights, and he had played a bit part in some desegregation efforts in Wilmington, Del. And he got to the Senate, and he was representing a district that had a large white suburban contingent who were very wary of court-ordered busing. And they told him so. And there was a famous meeting that he went to in which parents in the suburbs, most of them white, of course, attacked him for being in favor of integration and civil rights efforts. And he turned on that issue and became the Senate's most forceful Democrat against court-ordered busing.

On Biden's work on domestic issues

On the domestic front, one of the things that he defined himself by was being active on issues of law enforcement and crime and punishment. He was one of the authors of the Violence Against Women Act, and he was active very much in the crime bill of 1994. So these became some of the issues that he was best known for. He was chairman of the Judiciary Committee, which is a very powerful position. And all of those began to give him more stature as a kind of technician in the ways of Congress. He was somebody who knew how to get things accomplished. He would work the cloakroom ... and he took pride in that. Later, when he was tapped to become vice president, part of it was because he was somebody who believed in a functioning Senate. He thought you could get things done if you knew how to do it. And the Obama administration wanted some of that.

On Biden's role in Justice Clarence Thomas' 1991 Supreme Court confirmation hearings, and his decision not to allow other women to testify alongside Anita Hill

Biden imagined himself in that period as being somebody who was a Democrat, but who treated Republicans seriously, tried to maintain the standards of the Senate, which was that you give the other side credence and allow them to have a serious hearing for their ideas. ... In some ways, what he tried to do was to try to pay respect to the Republican side of the process by allowing Republican senators to question Anita Hill very intensively, harshly in some cases. And then he also did not allow these other accusers to testify in person. They were allowed to testify in written form, which ultimately meant it didn't really have any impact on the proceedings. And Biden came to regret that. He said later that the mistake was that he gave Clarence Thomas more credence than he deserved. ...

But to be precise, [Biden] doesn't say that he made an error. What he says is that he wished Anita Hill had been treated better. And I think that's a key distinction because if we're trying to understand the ways in which Joe Biden is capable of self-reflection and what are the issues on which he has expressed his clear regret and no, he has not gone as far as Anita Hill wants him to in saying that ... he was wrong about handling that case.

On Biden's role in drafting the 1994 crime bill, which contributed to mass incarceration

The crime bill of 1994 was inspired most of all by the crack epidemic, which was at that point, it was raging through American cities, and there was this surge of political activity and demands to try to do something about it by raising the consequences, by imposing steeper sentences and making policing tougher. And interestingly, it wasn't just coming from Joe Biden and other white politicians, but it was coming from the Congressional Black Caucus. Many Black members of Congress were in favor of the crime bill in particular. ...

If you talk to Joe Biden about it today, Biden says the mistake we made, and it was a serious mistake, was that we believed this idea that crack was somehow different, that it was an order of risk that was unlike other things that we'd seen in the drug war or in the world of law enforcement. And it had to be treated with extraordinary force. And that was the reason why they undertook these, what turned out to be very punitive and damaging steps.

On deciding whether to write about allegations concerning Hunter Biden's business activities in Ukraine

I was not going to simply amplify the allegations for the sake of amplifying them. I'm going to stick to what we know to be true. ... As a technical matter, by the time the book was done, the Giuliani conspiracy theory about Hunter Biden had not yet come out, or at least it was not as detailed as it is now. So it was not a particularly hard call. I mean, what I talked about in the book was Hunter Biden's involvement in Ukraine as a board member of the gas company. I talked about the impact that that had on Joe Biden in the sense that Hunter Biden apologized to his father for creating an issue in the campaign and has promised not to have any business with foreign sources of income if his father is elected. As far as I was concerned, those are the known facts. It's not a known fact that anything [Trump lawyer and former New York Mayor Rudy] Giuliani is talking about is real, and therefore I was not going to give it the credence of reality.

Sam Briger and Thea Chaloner produced and edited the audio of this interview. Bridget Bentz, Molly Seavy-Nesper and Meghan Sullivan adapted it for the Web.

Copyright 2021 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

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