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Rhetorical Question

It’s a bright early October morning on Capitol Hill. Joe Biden is bounding up the steps of the Russell Senate Office Building, wearing his trademark grin. As he makes for the door, he is met by a group of airline pilots and flight attendants looking vaguely heroic in their navy-blue uniforms and wing-shaped pins. A blandly handsome man in a pilot’s cap steps forward and asks Biden to help pass emergency benefits for laid-off airline workers. Biden nods as the men and women cluster around him with fawning smiles. Then he speaks. “I hope you will support my work on Amtrak as much as I have supported you,” he begins. (Biden rides Amtrak to work every day and is obsessed with the railroad.) “If not, I will screw you badly.”

A dozen faces fall in unison as Biden lectures on. “You’ve not been good to me. You’re also damn selfish. You better listen to me...” It goes on like this for a couple of minutes. Strangely, Biden keeps grinning--even fraternally slapping the stunned man’s shoulder a couple of times. When we finally head into the building, Biden’s communications director, Norm Kurz, turns to me. “What you just witnessed is classic Senator Biden.”

Meet the current chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and the Democratic Party’s de facto spokesman on the war against terrorism. No other Democrat has been as visible in the weeks since September 11, and Biden, who began promoting himself almost immediately after the attacks, is likely to speak, for the foreseeable future, for a party lacking in foreign policy experts. That’s good news for a man who is thinking seriously about running for president in 2004. But is it good for the Democratic Party? Biden is tough and he’s an internationalist. Unfortunately he’s also legendary for speaking impulsively and leaving others to clean up the mess. “He lacks the filter,” says one Democratic strategist. Or as a senior Senate foreign policy aide put it: “Biden is an unguided missile.” Not exactly the persona you want out front when the country is at war.

It’s late afternoon, and Biden sits at a conference table with Kurz in his hideaway office near the Senate floor. He cracks open a Caffeine-Free Diet Coke as he waits for a Judiciary Committee staffer to help him prepare for a CNN interview on the anti-terrorism bill. Unexpectedly, a call comes in from Attorney General John Ashcroft. Biden picks up the phone and greets Ashcroft like an old Elks lodge buddy. “Hey John, Joe. Howyadoin’ pal? What’s the sticking points, and tell me if I can be helpful.” All day, reporters had been buzzing that Ashcroft wanted to cut a deal with a Democrat, perhaps Biden, to circumvent the stubborn Judiciary Committee chairman, Pat Leahy. But Biden won’t bite. “I’m happy to help,” he tells Ashcroft. “But I don’t want to inadvertently become...a separate negotiation here, kind of thing.”

Time is short, however; CNN awaits. Delaware’s senior senator has been doing a lot of television lately--from an interview with Peter Jennings in the first hours after the attacks to an appearance on “Larry King Live” the night of the first retaliatory strikes against Afghanistan. Other media beckon. “Are we still getting the daily Larry King, Matthews calls?” Biden asks. “You’re getting everybody. Larry King, Matthews, Greta,” Kurz replies. It must be heaven for the senator: There is nothing he loves more than a captive audience.

Speech is at once Biden’s great strength and his great weakness. As a presidential candidate in 1987 he brought audiences to tears with his stump speeches about reclaiming the lost dream of Robert F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. Then his campaign imploded when he was caught plagiarizing from British Labour Party head Neil Kinnock. On the Senate floor this spring he delivered one of the most powerful Democratic critiques of Bush’s tax cut. “This is about values,” Biden thundered. “I have never had it so starkly and honestly stated on this floor. What do we value as Americans?” And when Biden spoke before a meeting of Democratic senators shortly after the September 11 attacks, to explain the importance of the use-of-force authorization he had helped craft, he received a standing ovation. Afterward California Senator Barbara Boxer approached Biden to say, “Thank God you’re here.”

Biden’s admirers spin his undisciplined chatter as a kind of John McCain-esque straight talk. Their shining example is the way, in 1992, Biden told Slobodan Milosevic to his face that he was “a damned war criminal and should be tried as one.” Washington insiders “like people to speak in this kind of thought-speak where you talk for three minutes and don’t say anything,” says his former longtime chief of staff, Ted Kaufman. “That’s not Joe Biden.”

But Biden’s mouth does him as much harm as good. “ He gives Castro-length speeches,” says one exasperated Senate staffer. In Democratic caucus meetings, he is famous for declaring, “I’ll be brief,” and then talking the room into a stupor. (Biden’s colleagues have been known to burst into laughter when he makes that promise.) People who know Biden also warn that his loose talk often reflects muddled thinking. In his classic study of the 1988 presidential candidates, What It Takes, Richard Ben Cramer wrote, “Joe often didn’t know what he thought until he had to say it.” In one recent committee debate, recalls an observer, Biden delivered a rambling explanation of his opposition to a foreign aid amendment, by the end of which he had seemed to talk himself out of his original position.

By straying off-message, Biden doesn’t only cause headaches for himself, but occasionally for others as well. When Congress and the Clinton administration were trying to force reforms at the United Nations last year, the United States held up nearly $1 billion in back dues payments as leverage. In a visit to the General Assembly soon afterwards, Biden suggested that America’s demands might be negotiable--a position he had not cleared with his Senate colleagues nor with a startled UN Ambassador Richard Holbrooke.

There’s also the simple matter of tone. Biden’s affable vernacular works well for partisan politics, but not for war and peace. During nato’s bombing campaign of Serbia two years ago, Biden cheerfully declared on CBS that “Slobodan Milosevic is getting the living hell kicked out of him.” After implying on Fox News in 1999 that Boris Yeltsin was not “in charge” of Russia, Biden was pressed by host Tony Snow on why the United States continued to deal with him. “Well, you’ve got to talk to somebody,” Biden replied. “My staff talks to me and sometimes I’m not in charge. But all kidding aside...”

Biden himself seems to worry that people aren’t taking him seriously. In an odd verbal tic, he routinely interrupts himself to offer the assurance that he’s “not being facetious.” He opened his May 17 tax cut speech by saying: “I find this the single most fascinating debate I have been involved in in 28 years. I sincerely do. It is not a joke. I am not being facetious.” Or when the anti-terrorism bill came up on CNN’s “Crossfire” last month: “In full disclosure, I wrote that bill. I’m not being facetious.” When “Crossfire” host Bill Press offered Biden the avuncular assurance that “it’s really a great bill,” Biden pressed on: “No. No. I’m not being facetious. I’m not being facetious when I say that.”

That exchange points to another problem with Biden as a party spokesman. Rather than build up the credentials of a party deeply mistrusted by the public on foreign affairs, Biden often seems more interested in advertising his own accomplishments. In the wake of the 1995 Oklahoma City bombing, Biden did, in fact, champion an anti-terrorism bill similar to the one now before Congress (though it was, as he complains, badly watered down by anti-government conservatives and leftist civil libertarians). And Biden doesn’t let you forget it. “I introduced the terrorism bill in ‘94 that had a lot of these things in it,” he bragged to NBC’s Tim Russert on September 30. When I spent the day with him later that week, Biden mentioned the legislation to me, and to several other reporters he encountered, no fewer than seven times. “When I was chairman in ‘94 I introduced a major antiterrorism bill--back then,” he says in the morning, flashing a knowing grin and pausing for effect. (Never mind that he’s gotten the year wrong.) Back in his office later that afternoon, he brings it up yet again. “I drafted a terrorism bill after the Oklahoma City bombing. And the bill John Ashcroft sent up was my bill.” You don’t say.

In fact, the only thing Biden likes better than reminding people about his anti-terrorism bill is reminding them that he predicted the September 11 attacks. On September 10 Biden delivered a foreign policy speech to the National Press Club complaining about the administration’s fixation on missile defense. “The real threat comes to this country in the hold of a ship, the belly of a plane, or smuggled into a city in the middle of the night in a vial in a backpack,” Biden said. So give the man credit. Just not as much as he’s been claiming. “Literally as recently as yesterday, I spoke to the National Press Club and talked about the fact it is just as easy to fly from National Airport into the White House as it is to, you know, do the same thing in New York,” Biden told ABC News. Unfortunately Biden said no such thing. His speech didn’t mention National Airport or the White House--or any kamikaze scenario at all.

“This,” Joe Biden announces, “is what I’ve spent my entire adult life preparing for.” It’s exactly three Tuesdays since the September attacks, and Biden is presiding over a morning meeting of his committee staffers. It’s a formidable group--a collection of super-earnest twentysomethings and grave committee veterans, all wearing dark suits and grim faces. Biden, with his pearly smile and sugar-white hair, seems almost to glow in contrast.

Just as George W. Bush reportedly believes he was divinely “called” to lead America through this epic conflict, Biden suggests a similar, if less spiritual, conception of his own role. The war on terrorism, he explains, involves a confluence of issues he has spent years working on, first as chairman of the Judiciary Committee from 1987 to 1995, and now on Foreign Relations. Later in the day he explains this confluence to me: “All of a sudden, what’re the issues of the day? Boom!” Constitutional rights, internationalism, terrorism. “Bingo!”

And it’s true; Biden is well situated. He was concerned about America’s ability to gather information about terrorists years ago, before others recognized it as a major problem. His hawkishness and his humanitarianism--on display during his full-throated support for the U.S. intervention in the Balkans--are the right pedigree for a war in which the United States drops both cluster bombs and packages of food. And he has admirably muted his pre-September ridicule of the administration. In talking points I glimpsed before his September 30 appearance on “Meet the Press,” Biden’s staff reminded him not to show “daylight” between himself and the administration, or to seem to be “micro-managing” the war strategy. And he didn’t.

Still, some Democrats worry that Biden’s flapping tongue could cause p.r. problems down the road. “There probably should be some small concern,” says the Democratic strategist. Any wrongheaded declaration by Biden “would not be deliberate; it would not be that he stopped being a team player and decided to go out and conduct foreign policy on his own. It would be just that he was out there and talking.”

At the Tuesday-morning meeting with committee staffers, Biden launches into a stream-of-consciousness monologue about what his committee should be doing, before he finally admits the obvious: “I’m groping here.” Then he hits on an idea: America needs to show the Arab world that we’re not bent on its destruction. “Seems to me this would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran,” Biden declares. He surveys the table with raised eyebrows, a How do ya like that? look on his face.

The staffers sit in silence. Finally somebody ventures a response: “I think they’d send it back.” Then another aide speaks up delicately: “The thing I would worry about is that it would almost look like a publicity stunt.” Still another reminds Biden that an Iranian delegation is in Moscow that very day to discuss a $300 million arms deal with Vladimir Putin that the United States has strongly condemned. But Joe Biden is barely listening anymore. He’s already moved on to something else.

Michael Crowley is a senior editor at The New Republic.

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