Biden Struggles With Tragedy in ’88 Decision

Times Political Writer

Almost every night after his Senate chores are done, Delaware’s Joseph R. Biden Jr. makes his way to Washington’s Union Station and boards the train to Wilmington, headed home to his wife and three children.

The nearly four-hour round trip reflects the 44-year-old Democrat’s extraordinary commitment to his family. It is a relationship he cherishes all the more because it was built from the ashes of a shattering tragedy--the loss of his first wife and their daughter in an auto accident a month after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972.

This complex of emotions helps explain why Biden is struggling as he decides whether to run for President in 1988. Thanks to his soul-stirring oratory, Irish charm and only moderately left-of-center record, many Democrats regard him as prime presidential timber. But life for Biden, he says, “begins and ends with family. Everything else comes second.”

Struggle Is Illuminating


Biden says he will make his intentions clear by early next month. Whatever his decision, his struggle to make up his mind illuminates the strengths and limitations he would bring to the presidency.

Some party professionals, who note that Biden has a reputation for sparing himself some of the tedium of Senate business, speculate that he may be hesitating because he wants to avoid the grind of the campaign trail.

Others guess that Biden simply may fear that his candidacy would flop. Gary Hart, the Democratic front-runner, is far better known, they point out, and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, if he enters the race, would threaten to draw off much of Biden’s potential support among Catholics and dry up his sources of funds.

But Biden professes to be unfazed by the competition. “I think I have as good a chance of winning as anybody else out there,” he said. “I’ve been out in the field with political people for over a year and a half. By most people’s standards, I think I’m competitive.”


Rather, Biden contends that his indecision stems from a highly personal conundrum in which his sense of obligation to his family is linked to his understanding of himself and the burdens of political leadership.

The political leaders Biden trusts the most, he said, are “those at peace with themselves. They’re the leaders who I think are least likely to let their own insecurities impact on the well-being of the nation. It’s the difference between a Harry Truman and a Richard Nixon.”

With his own peace of mind dependent on the welfare of his two sons, ages 17 and 18, and his daughter, 5, Biden wonders: “Am I more of a whole person, am I going to be more at peace with myself and consistent with my values” by waiting until his children are older to confront the burdens of running for President?

“You work as a parent, as everybody knows, so damn hard to get them this far,” he said. “And you say to yourself, ‘Am I going to let my ambition get in the way of what I say are my values that I say I believe so deeply?’ ”


Impressive Presence

On the stump, Biden projects an impressive presence--a lithe figure, boyish good looks only slightly belied by his balding pate, an air of ease and congeniality. To hear him talk, it is hard to believe that he could even think about passing up the chance to run for the White House in 1988.

That election, he told 3,000 enthralled California Democrats at their convention in Sacramento last weekend, will decide “what kind of America crosses the millennium divide into the 21st Century. . . . The issue is whether we as a nation shall continue to drift in the still waters of the present, content to manage the day-to-day stagnation of America. Or shall we seize the moment and ride the rapids of history to reach for greatness once again?”

With such soaring rhetoric delivered to party audiences around the country over the last four years, Biden has not only helped rekindle Democratic spirits in the midst of the Reagan era, but has also pumped life into his own presidential aspirations.


Asked to name the one characteristic that would distinguish a Biden presidency, Maine’s Republican Sen. William S. Cohen, a close friend of Biden’s, replied: “The ability to inspire people to follow the leadership he is offering. He is electric, dynamic and funny.”

Humor Is a Specialty

Indeed, humor, particularly the self-deprecating sort, is a Biden specialty and one of the keys to his appeal as an orator.

Typically, Biden regaled the Sacramento conventioneers with the story of being totally ignored at a Cleveland fund-raiser for a Democratic House colleague until a local television reporter mistook him for Baseball Commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth. Rushing to Biden’s side and shoving a microphone in his face, the reporter demanded: “Commissioner, what brings you to Cleveland?”


“Drug testing,” Biden responded. “Drug testing for the media.”

“Let’s get the hell out of here,” the newsman told his camera crew. “This guy has got nothing for us.”

The audience roared with laughter.

Although no one questions Biden’s ability to rouse an audience, this very gift has helped crystallize the most significant criticism of his performance as a senator and his potential as a President: that there is less to him than meets the eye (and the ear); that he sells the sizzle but is short on the steak; that he is more of a show horse than a workhorse.


Accused of Windiness

In the Senate, critics accuse Biden of excessive windiness and complain that some of his utterances, such as his lengthy soliloquy attacking Edwin Meese III during Meese’s 1985 Judiciary Committee confirmation hearings as attorney general, are long on emotion and short on reason.

A staff member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee charged that Biden, although publicly expressing outrage on such controversies as South Africa’s apartheid policies, often neglects the nitty-gritty work of dealing with the issue.

“He is as articulate on key issues as anyone up here,” said this committee aide. “But when the time comes for trench warfare, he may stay in the trenches for only 30 minutes.”


Robert Perkins, an aide to former Delaware Republican Gov. Pierre S. (Pete) du Pont, a presidential candidate himself, said: “There are two kinds of politicians, some who make you feel and some who make you think. Joe is the type that really makes you feel.”

Steering the Party

Biden rejects that categorization. He says he has been a leader in the effort to shake the Democratic Party free from some of its traditional liberal moorings and steer it on a more moderate course.

“I think the thing I have done more than anything is to make my colleagues think, rather than feel,” he said. “Everyone is now talking about the need for the Democratic Party to change its views on criminal justice. Everyone now says how we need more to be more reasonable on social programs. I’m the one who said (that) we can’t have another CETA (public service jobs) program, that we had to reform the food stamps program.”


His staff, noting that he is now 25th in Senate seniority, chairman of the Judiciary Committee and second-ranking Democrat on the Foreign Relations Committee, proudly ticks off his substantive contributions.

In foreign policy, these include his leadership in the unsuccessful battle for ratification of the SALT II treaty in 1979 and his continuing opposition to the MX missile; and in the field of criminal justice and civil rights, his role five years ago in re-enacting the 1965 Voting Rights Act and his co-authorship of the 1984 comprehensive crime bill.

Under Shock of Deaths

Biden, calling criticism of his Senate performance outdated, said it is based on what he concedes was a sub-par performance during his first term, when he was still suffering from the shock of the death of his wife and daughter.


“I came to Washington with a helluva chip on my shoulder,” he recalled. “My first two years I was self-absorbed with my own problems.”

But for all the undoubted impact of that tragedy on the new senator’s outlook, other testimony suggests that, long before he entered the Senate, Biden tended to be selective about the sort of discipline he was willing to impose upon himself.

“Nobody would ever accuse him of being an outstanding student,” said David Walsh, Biden’s former law partner and before that his close friend at Archmere Academy, the Catholic secondary school both attended in Wilmington. Although Biden was looked upon as a student leader and even talked of running for President someday, he was distinguished more by his prowess at athletics, particularly football, and more by his facile tongue than academic achievement.

‘Drudgery Courses’


Biden did well in history and political science, Walsh remembers, but had a harder time with “drudgery courses” such as Latin and math.

“He probably never studied as hard as other people did,” recalled Biden’s roommate at the University of Delaware, Donald Brunner, now a senior vice president with J. P. Morgan. Brunner and Biden both played football as freshmen, but Biden then quit the team, Brunner said, under pressure from his father, who thought that he was devoting too much time to sports and not enough to books.

Biden applied himself to his studies diligently enough to graduate from Delaware and then from Syracuse University Law School. He proved to be a successful trial lawyer in Wilmington, but once again his accomplishment seemed to come more from the strengths of his personality than from his intellectual powers.

“As a lawyer he was very good with people,” said Sidney Balick, a Wilmington trial lawyer whose firm Biden joined early in his career. “If somebody had a legal problem, he’d put his arm around them and comfort them and they loved it. But writing briefs wasn’t his forte.”


For the time being, while Biden ponders his decision about the presidency, he is striving to maintain his visibility through such appearances as his speech in Sacramento and forthcoming talks to the AFL-CIO and the Democratic Party in Broward County, Fla. Necessary as these occasions may be to keep up political contacts, Biden said they do little to help him make up his mind.

“It makes you focus on the part I don’t think I should be focusing on,” he said. “It makes you focus on the can-I-win part.”

The real question for him, he said, remains whether he can make the race and fulfill his duties as a senator, which have been considerably increased by his recent elevation to chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee, without seriously diminishing his role as a husband and father.

Biden acknowledged that his concerns have been intensified by what he refers to as “the accident,” which claimed the life of his wife and daughter and injured his two sons, at whose hospital bedsides he took the oath of office as senator.


‘How Fragile Life Is’

That experience made him, he said, “to state the obvious, much more aware of the fact of how fragile life is and how little I can control it.”

But far from changing his values, he and those who know him best say, the tragedy only intensified the feelings and attitudes instilled in him from childhood.

“I think his feeling about family is not something he created,” said his sister and campaign manager, Valerie Owens, three years his junior. “I think Mom and Dad taught us that.”


As she remembers it, she and Joe and their two brothers “had a very normal middle-class upbringing” in a split-level, three-bedroom house in suburban Wilmington. “The biggest thing my parents wanted for us was an education,” she said.

Father Taught Him Too

Joseph R. Biden Sr. worked seven days and most nights as sales manager of a local Chevrolet dealership to help pay the tuition for his children at private Catholic schools. He also taught some lessons on his own, as Joe Jr. remembers.

“My father was one of those people who gathered his family at the dinner table to discuss issues and incidentally eat,” Biden said. One issue in particular that he stressed, Biden told a recent fund-raising dinner for the American Israel Public Affairs Committee in Los Angeles, was the Holocaust, which consumed 6 million Jews during World War II.


“My father spoke to us frequently about why it was so important from the point of what it said about us as human beings that we stay committed to the principle that would in our own way help see to it that it would never happen again,” the senator said.

The father’s point made sufficient impression on the son that, a few months after his second marriage in 1977, he took his bride on a tour of Holocaust sites in Hungary. And later, when each son reached the age of 15, he took them to visit the infamous Dachau concentration camp in Germany.

Educating Did Not Stop

As Biden wryly points out, his father did not stop educating him when he won elective office.


A few years ago, when the elder Biden was selling condominiums at a Delaware beach resort, he asked his son to pay a call on two men who had been friendly to him and to his wife and who were strong supporters of the senator. The two men, in their mid-50s, were homosexuals who shared an apartment, his father mentioned.

When the younger Biden tried to postpone the visit, his father became angry. “My dad said, ‘Look, damn it, you’re my son, aren’t you?’ ” Biden recalled. “ ‘I’m telling you that they’re good people. It’s important to me that you meet them. Where the hell have you been raised?’

“So I dutifully marched upstairs in my bathing suit to thank those two guys for being nice to my parents and for their support,” the senator said. “We had a glass of iced tea. And my dad said, ‘That’s more like the person I’ve raised.’ ”