Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption, by Jules Witcover

Nine stars

I have decided to embark on a mission to read a number of books on subjects that will be of great importance to the upcoming 2020 US Presidential Election. Many of these will focus on actors intricately involved in the process, in hopes that I can understand them better and, perhaps, educate others with the power to cast a ballot. I am, as always, open to serious recommendations from anyone who has a book I might like to include in the process.

This is Book #35 in my 2020 US Election Preparation Challenge.

Close to formal Election Day, I was finally able to locate and read a thoroughly engaging biography on the Democratic nominee for president, Joe Biden. The work that Jules Witcover puts into this piece offered me the well-rounded view I sought and explores Biden’s personal backstory, mixed with the political experiences the candidate has had. This provides me with a better understanding and stronger ability to stand behind the man, even though I do not have a vote. While likely too late for many to read ahead of casting their ballot, this is a biography that many can enjoy no matter the time, and one that I recommended without hesitation.

Born in 1942, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. was the eldest son of a hard-working father and a doting mother. His early years in Scranton, Pennsylvania proved to be fortuitous for Joey Biden, allowing him to develop strong friendships and hone his Irish Catholicism. When work required the Bidens to move to Delaware, Joey struggled, but knew his father, Joe Sr., did not make the decision lightly.

Witcover explores the formative years of Joe Biden’s life, including his passion for socialising, sports, and girls. While Biden was saddled with a stutter, it did not impede his abilities to form life-long friendships, nor did it appear to stop the young man from speaking at length to anyone who would listen, a trait that would become a Biden trademark in the decades to come.

While on a holiday from college, Biden met the woman who would become his wife, assuring everyone that this was the woman of his dreams. Biden’s decision to marry Neilia Hunter also helped him decide to choose Syracuse for law school, a decision he never regretted. While never at the top of his class, Witcover discusses the Biden love of learning, even though there were a few foibles along the way.

His passion for helping the ‘little guy’ led Biden to begin his professional career in Wilmington, Delaware. He hung out his shingle and began dabbling in local politics when time allowed. This was also the time that Joe and Neilia started their family. Biden would refer back to the importance of his own family throughout his life, echoed by Witcover as the narrative progresses. The Bidens had two boys in quick succession, Beau and Hunter, as Joe’s eyes locked onto his next challenge, national office.

With the upcoming US Senate race in Delaware, Biden wanted to put his name in the ring to run against long-time senator Cale Boggs. A respected man who had served the state for the Republicans, Boggs was a guarantee. However, Biden did all he could in 1972 to create a dent in the GOP campaign and toured the state, making speeches and showing how he could make a difference. In a miraculous outcome, something Witcover deemed a David defeating Goliath moment, Joe Biden won the race and became a US senator at age twenty-nine, not yet the constitutional age to serve, though he would celebrate a birthday later in November, ahead of being sworn-in.

Preparing to serve, Biden began preparing his office in Washington late in 1972. News came in mid-December that there had been an accident, in which Neilia and their new baby, Naomi, were killed in an automobile accident, with the boys injured. Witcover describes how this was a seminal moment in Biden’s life, a widower and single father who contemplated packing it all in before he had even spent a day in the Senate. However, he received the support he needed, from family and Senate colleagues alike, and chose to do this for his sons.

Biden’s first term in the Senate was one of eye-opening moments. While many newcomers to the Upper House of the United States would sit silently and learn, Biden was happy to speak out and use his gift of the gab to shape policy. This did not endear him to some in the Chamber, but Biden knew no other way of living. His passion for civil rights served him well and an early endorsement of 1976 Democratic candidate for president, Jimmy Carter, helped propel Biden onto the national scene. It was at this time that Biden also began dating former model Jill Jacobs, a woman with no love of politics. Their long and drawn-out courtship led to marriage in 1977, at the insistence of Beau and Hunter.

Witcover explores some of Biden’s political passions, including a less than orthodox view on civil rights. Biden’s passions came from a strong admiration for the Kennedys, another pair of Catholic politicians, and a desire to ensure all Americans were protected. His later role on the Senate Judiciary Committee permitted him to explore how these views could be shaped to continue helping Americans. While not covered in the book, the reemergence of this issue makes his run in 2020 poignant.

Witcover spends much time exploring Biden’s early years in the Senate and how he was often talked about as a potential presidential candidate. He declined in 1980 and ‘84, citing his young family and not yet being ready for the spotlight. However, he thought that he could have a chance in 1988, tossing his hat into the ring and beginning his campaign during the spring of 1987. However, he would stumble and find himself spread too thin, while also making a significant gaffe by not attributing certain views to others, tarring himself as a plagiarist. The nomination ended before it really began, though Joe had his Senate responsibilities to keep him busy.

It was the Democrats winning back control of the Senate in 1986 that started the ball rolling for Biden, who earned the chairmanship of the Judiciary Committee. Biden’s passion for all things legal put him in the spotlight as US Supreme Court nominations became central. Witcover explores two such nomination battles, Robert Bork in 1987 and Clarence Thomas in 1991, in great detail for the curious reader. Biden rose to prominence with them both, but was criticised extensively for how he handled them as Chairman.

Biden turned his focus towards his other Senate Committee, Foreign Relations, into the 1990s and how he could help in the effort to make America a role model on the world scene. From his countless trips to war-torn areas through to blunt meetings with some world leaders whose values did not match those of the United States, Biden proved himself a statesman. Witcover explores this at length and shows how Biden added to his already long resume for another run to win in the White House. However, in a post-September 11th world, Biden and many other senators were led down the garden path by the George W. Bush Administration, according to Witcover, and many voted in favour of a war in Iraq, something that many Democrats would come to regret.

As the end of the George W. Bush presidency neared, Biden felt that 2008 might be his year to run and finally become president. However, he was not alone in his ambition, which included a first-term senator from Illinois by the name of Barack Obama. As hard as Biden tried, he could not garner the attention some of the front-runners captured and dropped out of the race in early 2008. Witcover explores the early campaign in-depth and shows how Joe Biden held some strong views, some of which would force him to eat crow. When Obama won the Democratic nomination, he turned to a man he felt would not only balance the ticket, but also provide strong foundation in a new Administration. Biden had vowed never to be anyone’s lapdog, but did agree to serve as Obama’s vice-president, offering some stipulations.

Witcover spends a significant amount of time on the 2008 Campaign and time that Biden spent as vice-president, showing that years of dedicated service could pay off while also permitting him to learn to tone down his gift of the gab. Biden shaped policies and worked inside the tent to help his president create an America many would come to love.

Serving under Obama, Biden did a great deal to advance the domestic and international agendas of the Administration, combatting those who would try to deter Obama from making the progress he had promised while stumping on the campaign. From liaising with Congress to ensure health-care for all Americans to ensuring that countries were treated fairly and not bullied by others, Biden was in for the fight, ready to do whatever he could. Witcover shows this repeatedly throughout the biography, with concrete examples.

In the waning chapters of the book, added for the re-release in 2019, Witcover looks at Biden and where he hoped to go post vice-presidency. There is a truly heartfelt portion of the piece that surrounds the illness and eventual death of Beau Biden from brain cancer, exemplifying how Joe would and could handle it. In those pages is included the solemn vow and promise Joe made to his son, which is explored more completely in a book the former vice-president penned after leaving the White House.

Watching the destruction of the America he sought to create while working in Washington, Joe Biden mulled over a third and final run for the presidency. He tossed his hat in the ring, beginning a campaign of a progressive in April 2019, vying for the role of nominee against a number of others, many who were younger and who had not yet thought of politics when Joe arrived on the scene. While many were focussed on pie in the sky ideals of policy and social movement, Biden appeared to turn his attention on one thing; wresting control of the reins of power from a madman and returning America to the greatness it lost on January 20, 2017. Here’s hoping he will!

I entered this piece hoping from a great deal, as I needed a meaty and educational piece about Joe Biden. Jules Witcover did that and more, pulling me into the middle of this man’s life and all that he had done. While the journey is long, paralleling some of the speeches that Joe Biden made on the Senate floor, it is comprehensive and detailed, providing the reader with the insight they need to understand the politics and passion of the man. There is no doubt to me that Joe Biden loves his country, almost as much as he does his family. The thoroughness of Witcover’s writing appears in each of the chapters, with both praise and criticism at every turn. Add to that, the education value is one in which any reader can learn something about the man and the system in which he served.

This is no fluff piece, but more an examination of the man and how he sought to grow over his more than forty years of public service. I cannot say enough about Joe Biden, his views, and his passions. Jules Witcover proves his mastery and I am indebted to him for offering up something so captivating.

Kudos, Mr. Witcover, for a sensational biography. I hope you’re around to pen one more book about Biden and his presidency, putting the country back on track (pardon the pun!).

A Book for All Seasons, a different sort of Book Challenge: