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Biography Traces Political Mistakes And Personal Scars That Shaped Joe Biden

DAVID BIANCULLI, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm David Bianculli, editor of the website TV Worth Watching, sitting in for Terry Gross. On the week that Joe Biden was inaugurated as our new president of the United States, our first guest today is Evan Osnos. His recent bestselling biography of Biden, written and published before the 2012 presidential election, is called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." Osnos is a staff writer at The New Yorker who covers politics and foreign affairs. He was The New Yorker's China correspondent from 2008 to 2013. His book "Age Of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth, And Faith In The New China" won a National Book Award. Terry Gross spoke with Evan Osnos last October, shortly before the 2020 election.

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TERRY GROSS: Evan Osnos, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Biden was elected in October of '72 to the Senate. And in December, just a few weeks before he was supposed to be sworn in, his wife was driving her station wagon with their two sons and baby daughter in the car when they were hit by a tractor trailer. And as most people know, his wife and baby daughter were killed. His two sons were badly injured. It's a famous life-changing story in Joe Biden's biography. What did you learn that you didn't already know and that you think the public might not know about the impact of that tragedy on his life and his political career?

EVAN OSNOS: Well, 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. I mean, the reality was he considered suicide. And 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. And 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.

And 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. And 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.

GROSS: What did he stand for in his early years as a senator?

OSNOS: Interestingly, 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 sort of - he was more concerned about being reelected than he was about specific policy items. And there's a - 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 sort of bit part in some desegregation efforts in Wilmington, Del. And he got to the Senate, and he was occupying a district. He was representing a district that was - that had a large white suburban contingent who were very wary of court-ordered busing, and they told him so. And he - 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. And for a long time, I think that made other members of the Senate say, well, what does this guy believe in? Is he an opportunist? You know, what does he really care about?

And I think it's useful these days, if you speak to people who have really studied Wilmington and Delaware politics - which, after all, is the district that he represented - they will say, you have to remember that Delaware was very much suspended between North and South. It was a - you know, in some ways it had elements of Jim Crow. There were still segregationist policies in places. African diplomats, for instance, who drove between Washington and New York, when they passed through Delaware, would find themselves unable to get served at rest stops. And yet at the same time, it was sort of closer to New York City than to Raleigh, N.C. So it had this very strange composite identity, and that's what Joe Biden, this first-term senator, was trying to represent and was trying to figure out a way how to inhabit that role. And so he sort of became a little bit of something for everyone.

GROSS: You know, in talking about his early years, you write that the ADA, Americans for Democratic Action - which was a liberal progressive group - gave Biden a high rating, and he was very concerned about that. He thought that might be a political negative for him. So what did he do in response to that? Did he do anything?

OSNOS: Yeah, he had a funny reaction to that rating. It was, after all, supposed to be a great compliment to him. He had run against the war in Vietnam. He'd been active on civil rights. And so he'd received this high mark from a progressive organization. And then he said, this is a problem for me. It makes it hard for me to operate politically. It's hard for me to get elected. He said it in interviews at the time. And so that's one of the reasons why you began to see him try to announce his conservative credentials. He started telling people, look - I'm one of the more socially conservative people I know. My wife always used to tell me so. And so he was trying to, on legislative matters, be progressive in some respects, but at the same time not lose the constituency that he needed, which was in many ways still a conservative Democratic working-class district.

GROSS: If he was so driven by getting reelected and getting votes, do you think that his reaction changed over the years and that he became more concerned about policy and his positions that he really believed in, as opposed to just playing to voters?

OSNOS: He did. I think you begin to see that he was developing a political identity and sort of a personal identity. I mean, he - when he got to Congress, partly because of his youth, partly because people sensed that he was so determined to get reelected, people didn't take him all that seriously. And there was a moment in which he gave a speech in the Senate in which he talked about a subject that he knew really very little about - oil wells. And he was challenged on it. Somebody said, you know, Senator Biden, do you know anything about oil wells? And he was embarrassed.

And inside his staff, they began to see a slightly different person, where he became kind of fanatical about being prepared for things. He would demand all kinds of notes and preparation before he would go out and speak. And there was another member of Congress who once turned up in the Senate late at night. And it was almost empty. There was almost nobody in the chamber. And there was Joe Biden speaking, as this person put it later, as if he was holding forth in the Roman Coliseum, that he was kind of speaking with great gusto. And he was kind of practicing. I mean, as this person put it, he was working it like a tennis pro. He was trying to learn what it meant to be a senator and how to be taken seriously.

BIANCULLI: Evan Osnos speaking to Terry Gross last October. More after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

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BIANCULLI: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to Terry's interview with author and New Yorker writer Evan Osnos, who wrote the recent biography of Joe Biden. It's called "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now."

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GROSS: One of the important things about Joe Biden's career in the Senate is that he served as the head of the Senate Judiciary Committee. In that role, he helped stop Robert Bork, who was very conservative and was an originalist - stopped him from being confirmed. But a few years later, when Clarence Thomas was facing his confirmation hearings, Biden prevented women from coming forward to testify before the committee who would have supported Anita Hill and who would have offered their own similar allegations that they were sexually harassed by Clarence Thomas. What's your understanding of why Biden did not allow those women to testify to the committee?

OSNOS: Yeah. I think you're right to bring up both of those two confirmation hearings because they were sort of, in his mind, related. I mean, Joe Biden - the important fact was that 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. And in the Bork nomination, Biden wouldn't describe it as him successfully preventing Bork from getting on the court so much as he would say that he conducted the process fairly enough that in the end, Bork was not successful in reaching the court.

So then he gets into 1991 and the Clarence Thomas hearings, and Biden was dealing with this very complicated set of pressures on him. On the one hand, he is a Democrat who came to office partly on his support for civil rights, who is contending with the candidacy - the nomination of what would be the next African American member of the Supreme Court. And he felt some weight of history in making sure that that was a serious process. And then at the same time, of course, Clarence Thomas was facing very serious accusations of sexual harassment. And Biden tried to have it both ways.

In some ways, what he tried to do was give - 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.

And I think there was, running through his mind at that time, this sense that in the interests of trying to give a full hearing to the accusations against Thomas, he was afraid that he was going to be seen as somebody who was not allowing an African American nominee to receive a full and fair hearing, and that led him into trouble. And it's a mistake that he has expressed remorse about. But to be precise, he 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, you know, 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 not, he has not gone as far as Anita Hill wants him to in saying that he was wrong about handling that case.

GROSS: She's kind of reluctantly endorsed him.

OSNOS: She has. I mean, they spoke before he was a candidate, and he expressed his, you know, his regret to her that she had not had a more decent appearance in Congress in which people had treated her more fairly. And she does not think that his handling of that case should be disqualifying for a president. But she also wishes that he was more clear and emphatic in his apology to her.

GROSS: The first time that Biden ran for president in the Democratic primary was in 1987. He didn't do very well. He dropped out pretty early. What was the perception of why he didn't do well?

OSNOS: At the time, he was regarded as a bit of an arrogant guy - I mean, a bit of a blowhard in a town, after all, that is known for blowhards. I mean, that's the reality. The young Joe Biden - he was still, at that point, relatively young for a senator - was the person who would speak longer and louder than anybody else. And there was something about him that was a little too raw, a little too ambitious - nakedly ambitious.

And he failed in that campaign partly because he stole the words of a British politician named Neil Kinnock. He had been - Biden had been quoting Neil Kinnock in his speeches for a long time, but he gave a speech in which he dropped Kinnock's name and kind of absorbed Kinnock's biography as his own. And he said that he had coal miners in his ancestors and so on. Of course, it wasn't true. And when reporters began to look at some of the details of his speeches, they discovered that he'd also taken a quote from Bobby Kennedy. And so the joke became that Joe Biden was not an authentic person, was kind of trying to be something he wasn't. That - people used to joke that the Kennedys quote the Greeks, and Biden quotes the Kennedys.

And his race was finished. And I think it took him a while to acknowledge that it was - as he later put it - it was his own arrogance that cost him that race. But he was not a person who was able to - had the capacity for that sort of self-reflection at that point. He was running too hard and too fast to be responsible.

GROSS: Dropping out of the race may have saved his life because after he dropped out, he had a cranial aneurysm, and he'd been basically ignoring the symptoms that he was having.

OSNOS: Yeah. It's one of these amazing episodes that doesn't really get talked about that much because it's overwhelmed by some of the big milestones in his political biography. But within a few months of dropping out of that race, Joe Biden nearly died. He found himself lying on the floor of a hotel room with this searing pain in his head. And it turned out that he had two aneurysms. And they were able to get him to a hospital, and doctors called in a priest to deliver last rites even before his wife could be there because the situation was so grave.

And he had surgery, and he ended up being out of the Congress for seven months before he came back. And there is this curious bit of fate, which is that 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. He might have, in fact, ignored them and it could have become more serious.

And that experience of sort of having been through that and surviving that is a bit of a pattern that you see in his life. And it's one that his friend Ted Kaufman, one of his advisers, described to me once. And he said, if you ask me who the luckiest person I know is, it's Joe Biden. If you ask me who the unluckiest person I know is, it's also Joe Biden. And there's a kind of deep truth to that.

GROSS: He came so close to death last rites were read to him. A surgeon warned him that after surgery, he might not ever be able to speak again. What impact do you think that had on his life and his approach to politics?

OSNOS: I think it confirmed this growing sense, which became a big part of his self-narrative, that in the end, political problems - none of them - are going to be as serious and as grave as the sheer matter of life and death. And the death of his wife and his daughter began to form that idea for him, then the fact that he almost died. And then, of course, later, when his son Beau died of a brain tumor, it began to form this sense that you hear from him occasionally in private that, look; if I don't become president of the United States, it's not the worst thing that has ever happened to me, and I'll be OK.

I think that idea became much more evolved in his mind as he grew older and as he kind of was weathered by these experiences because the young Joe Biden, after all, wanted nothing more than being president of the United States. I mean, on his first date with his future wife, he told her mother that he wanted to grow up to be president of the United States. He was barely out of his teens. But if you talk to the 77-year-old Joe Biden now, he's a man who is at peace. And he's at peace from a series of hard-won scars. And it's a very different mindset than he had back then.

GROSS: The Trump administration has dismantled parts of government. A key department in handling pandemics was shut down. The State Department was kind of dismantled - so many empty offices there, even before the pandemic emptied out a lot of offices. But, I mean, there's just so many positions not filled. What would it take for the Biden administration to rebuild some of the parts of government that were dismantled by the Trump administration? How hard is it to rebuild a government?

OSNOS: Well, they face this very hard problem, and it's two things. One is there are parts of the government that have just been starved of resources, offices that have been closed, experts that have been sidelined. And they have to - not only do they have to begin to reopen them; they have to inventory all of those areas in which damage has been done, and that's going to take some time. And then you have to begin to draw people back into government.

I mean, one of the things is, at the State Department, they - the Trump administration got rid of so many jobs and closed down the pipeline for recruiting to such degree that people often feel as if they have lost a generation of growth and development in the foreign service. I think the encouraging thing is that actually some of that can spring back faster than we might imagine at its worst moments, that there are people who still want to go into government, who believe it is a noble profession. They believe they have something to provide.

And this is where the voice from the top matters so much, that if you have a president who says, I believe in what this government can do to protect people's lives in this pandemic, I believe in what a foreign service can do, and beginning to project American values and begin to rebuild our relationships around the world, that could have a greater effect. We saw it in some ways with the arrival of Barack Obama, who - you know, at the time, there were parts of the U.S. government that were demoralized. And when Obama came in, he did provide some sense of inspiration.

Joe Biden is not Barack Obama, but he does stand for a belief that government can make your lives better if it's being conducted in the right ways. And I think that's one of the spirits that he would - that's one of the ideas that he would try to bring in to an administration at the beginning.

GROSS: Evan Osnos, it's always a pleasure to have you on our show. Thank you so much for returning.

OSNOS: Thanks very much, Terry.

BIANCULLI: Evan Osnos is the author of the recent biography "Joe Biden: The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." Terry Gross interviewed him last October. After a break, we'll remember jazz tuba player Howard Johnson, who died last week. And film critic Justin Chang reviews "The White Tiger," a new movie now on Netflix. I'm David Bianculli, and this is FRESH AIR.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.


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