Barkin

Biden ambition revisited

Staff WriterApril 1, 2009 

When I saw that Vice President Joe Biden was coming to North Carolina today to talk up the stimulus, I decided to settle an argument with myself.

I half-remembered running into Biden many years ago as a young reporter. But the mind plays tricks. I wrote a lot of stories in the 1970s, so did I really cover Biden or just imagine it?

I went up in the attic and pulled down a box with stories from my five years in southwest Virginia. For three decades, I've lugged that box around. Don't ask me why.

What do you know? There was a folder with the scrawl “Presidential Election 1976,” and out fell a clip dated Sept. 26.

It was a gathering of local Democrats who had come out to a farm on a Saturday to hear party wheel horses denounce Gerald Ford and praise Jimmy Carter.

The star was the 33-year-old Sen. Joe Biden.

Story in hand, I could more clearly see Biden in my mind's eye, mixing partisan talking points with humor. Here was one story he told: At Biden's first meeting as a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was giving his world view.

Biden asked a question, which Kissinger ignored, thinking him a committee staffer.

After the hearing, Kissinger — informed that this young man was no staffer — tried to make nice. “How do you pronounce your name, Bi-den or Bidd-en?” asked Kissinger. Biden replied: “It's Bi-den, Secretary Dulles.”

(For the under-70 crowd, that was a reference to 1950s Secretary of State John Foster Dulles. OK, the joke doesn't age well, but it killed in the '70s.)

Biden used no notes and charmed the Virginia crowd. He had the same big personality.

Looking at the story, I remembered more about the day. At this gathering was Lynda Bird Robb, the daughter of President Lyndon Baines Johnson, whose husband, Chuck, would become governor of Virginia and a U.S. senator. Also there was retired Adm. Elmo Zumwalt, who was a high-profile chief of Naval operations during the winding down of the Vietnam War and running (unsuccessfully, it turned out) for the Senate. A lot of ambition at a Piedmont pig-picking.

This was a time, as now, of a troubled economy, partisan turmoil in Washington and a battered U.S. image abroad. Biden turned serious and said most Americans doubted the government could help. Which was why, he said, the Democrats had to win back the White House and show the people that Washington could make a difference.

“The thing that held us together for 200 years was a belief that our government would deliver,” said Biden.

(Well, we all know how that turned out. Carter won, Iran fell, oil spiked, the Russians took Afghanistan, and Bucky Dent broke the hearts of Red Sox fans with the cheapest homer in history. An awful four years.)

Today, Joe Biden is eons away from that kid senator with the disco sideburns smarting off to Kissinger.

He is at the pinnacle of a government that has seized unprecedented powers and is gambling that trillion-dollar deficits can pull us out of the soup. The great question for our time is whether it can deliver.

But as for Biden, at least, everyone knows how to pronounce his name now.

Senior editor Dan Barkin is filling in for Ruth Sheehan, whose column will return. Reach Dan at dan.barkin@newsobserver.com or 919-829-4562

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