Biden brings political savvy and fighting qualities to Obama ticket

 

US:Candidate's life is a mix of political 'insiderism' and struggles against adversity, writes Denis Staunton

SILVER-HAIRED, distinguished and more than a little fond of the sound of his own voice, Delaware senator Joe Biden is at first sight the embodiment of the Washington insider. After 36 years, he is the sixth-longest-serving member of the US senate, who has chaired the foreign relations and judiciary committees and twice run for the presidency before being chosen on Saturday as Barack Obama's vice-presidential running mate.

Biden's story is marked, however, by personal tragedy, with the death of his wife and baby daughter weeks after his election to the senate, a close brush with death when he suffered two brain aneurisms, and humiliation after he was accused of plagiarising a speech by former British Labour leader Neil Kinnock.

Biden has rebounded from each adversity, inspired by the injunction of his father, a car salesman who made a fortune early in life only to lose it all, moving from job to job in the struggle to provide for his family.

"Get up! The art of living is simply getting up after you've been knocked down. It's a lesson taught by example and learned in the doing," Biden wrote in his memoir Promises to Keep.

Born in 1942 in the heavily Irish-American town of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden moved with his family to Wilmington, Delaware, at the age of 10. His mother, Catherine "Jean" Finnegan, instilled in him a profound awareness of his Irish Catholic heritage and Biden has maintained a close interest in Irish affairs, supporting the American Ireland Fund and the Mitchell Scholarships, which send young Americans to study in Ireland every year.

Until his late teens, he suffered from a stutter so severe that he was excused from public speaking in school but, quoting Yeats and Emerson in front of the mirror for hours on end, he overcame it to become one of the most loquacious figures in American public life today.

Biden studied law at Syracuse university before returning to Wilmington, working first as a public defender and later starting his own law firm and winning election to the local county council. When he ran for the Senate in 1972 he was only 29, but he defeated the incumbent Republican to become one of the youngest senators in US history.

A few weeks after his election and before he was sworn in, Biden's wife Neilia and their baby daughter Naomi were killed in a car accident, which left his two young sons, Beau and Hunter, seriously injured. Biden swore his oath of office in the boys' hospital room and he commuted to Washington by train every day to be with them as they grew up, a practice he continues to this day.

Biden rose fast in the Senate, becoming chairman of the judiciary committee, authoring legislation to protect women from violence and sponsoring an assault weapons ban. Since 1997, he has been the senior Democrat on the foreign relations committee.

In 1988, Biden sought the Democratic nomination but his campaign collapsed amid charges he plagiarised a speech by Neil Kinnock about being the first member of his family to attend university.

Biden had credited Kinnock many times when he made the same speech but the accusation of plagiarism was reinforced by evidence he had failed to cite a legal article in an essay he wrote at law school. Soon after quitting the race, Biden was hospitalised with two brain aneurisms that brought him close to death but he made a full recovery.

Although he supported the Iraq war, Biden later admitted he made a mistake, claiming he underestimated the influence on Bush of vice-president Dick Cheney and the neocons.

Last year he again sought the Democratic presidential nomination but his campaign had scarcely begun before he had to apologise for describing Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy". The gaffe persuaded some pundits that Biden was too impulsive to survive a presidential campaign, although he performed well in debates, coming across as a straight talker with a wealth of experience in the affairs of state.

Biden withdrew early last year after a feeble showing in the Iowa caucuses, declaring later that he never really had a chance against Obama and Hillary Clinton.

"Here you have for the first time in all American history a woman or African-American poised to be the next president, and there's no way to break through that," he said.