Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, by Joe Biden

Nine stars

Having read a number of great political books a few months ago while the US election approached, I took a little time to get to know the Democratic nominee, Joe Biden. After the race and the formal acceptance of the results by the majority of the electorate, Electoral College, and congressional members (even with an attempted coup by the Whiner-in-Chief), I wanted to hear more from the man himself. I remembered that he had penned a memoir of sorts ahead of his 2008 run for president and thought it would be great to take some time hearing Biden talk about his life.

With President’s Day just around the corner, I chose three men who have ascended to the position. Reading their biographies/memoirs, I felt it would let me know a bit more about them. This book is the second of three and I could not wait to sink my teeth in the story of Joe Biden as told by the man himself. With great vignettes and a frank admission to not being perfect, Biden shares his highs and lows over a storied career as a little guy from Delaware who saw a chance to make a difference in Washington. Biden’s time as a senator, where this book ends, was electrifying, and those who have followed him up to the present will know the difference he made post-2008 as well. So, let’s get to the heart of the matter and learn about a man who knows the hard work needed to keep America on track and watch as he cleans up the mess left to him. America has always been great, even if it took a four year hiatus and handed the reins of power to a man drunk on power and fuelled by 280 character decrees.

Biden opens the discussion about his birth in 1942, the eldest son of two great parents. Living those years in Scranton, Pennsylvania, Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. developed strong connections to others while solidifying an Irish Catholicism like no other. When the family was forced to relocate to Delaware for the elder Biden’s work, young Joey had to reinvent himself.

As the narrative advances, Biden touches on his adolescent and young adulthood, where a strong social life and penchant for girls became the core items on the agenda, though he never forgot his family. Joe Biden was the first to attend college, which brought great pride and some trepidation to the family, though they supported him along the way. Having overcome a strong stutter, Biden knew the importance of overcoming adversity and looked a challenge in the eye whenever it crossed his path.

Biden recounts a short holiday he took while in college where he met the woman who be his wife, making it clear that was the woman of his dreams. Biden and Neilia Hunter were inseparable after that jaunt to the Caribbean, so much so that Joe chose Syracuse (New York) for his legal studies. While never at the top of his class, Biden remembers his happiness with Neilia and how they grew closer throughout that time.

After Biden and Neilia returned to Delaware, they began to set up some roots. Biden was fresh out of law school, but still trying to define himself. He soon discovered that politics ran through the state and the law was no exception. While he was an ardent Democrat, some of those who supported the GOP had their own agenda. This did not jive with the Biden view of helping the ‘little guy’, so Joe Biden hung out his own shingle and found a niche in local politics when time allowed. The Bidens started their family around this time and Joe made repeated mention of the importance of his own roots. The Bidens had two boys in quick succession, Beau and Hunter, as Joe eyed the next hurdle to overcome, national office.

While Delaware had pockets of support for both parties, Biden knew that the long-serving US Senator Cale Boggs was a Goliath who could not be stopped. A favourite within the GOP, both at the state and national level, Boggs seemed unstoppable. This did not deter Biden from deciding that he would do all he could in 1972 to create a name for himself. After a number of coffee events, Biden toured the state, speaking about how he could make a difference for Delaware in DC. Biden offers a great build up in the narrative and shows how grit can lead to success, beating Boggs in that race and became a US senator at age twenty-nine. While not yet the constitutional age to serve, Biden would come of age later in November and became the second youngest man ever to win a Senate seat.

Preparing to serve, Biden made arrangements to relocate for his next big life experience. News came one December night of a tragic accident, in which Neilia and their new baby, Naomi, were killed. Biden spends some time describing this horrible moment in his life, now a widower and single father. There was no waffling, Biden would quit the Senate before he’d even served and tend to his family. Biden struggled greatly with the loss, though he received some sage advice and the support he needed, from family and Senate colleagues alike. With some sacrifices by everyone, Joe Biden eventually agreed to represent Delaware in Congress, citing his sons as a mitigating factor.

Biden used his first term in the Senate not only to learn, but also to shape policy. Some in the Chamber did not appreciate this approach, but they respected the feisty side of the man who knew no other way of living. Biden honed his passion for civil rights to challenge Senate stalwarts and soon endorsed the Georgia governor, Jimmy Carter, as the 1976 Democratic candidate for president. Biden was making a national name for himself, but also found himself drawn to 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.

Biden compacts much of his early Senate years into some short vignettes, though there was no lack of national spotlight shone on him. Biden was often talked about as a potential presidential candidate, but declined in 1980 and ‘84, citing his young family. However, he thought that 1988 might be his year. Biden tossed his hat into the ring and began the arduous task of campaigning during the spring of 1987. Biden soon found himself in the ‘big leagues’, where nothing was off limits. Biden admitted that he was spread too thin, serving on a controversial Senate Judiciary Committee as its chairman, while also forced to defend a plagiarism gaffe that would plague him throughout the campaign.

Biden admits that he was not prepared for either the Bork Supreme Court fight or the battle to clear his name as a free-spirited academic in law school. Both weighed him down and the narrative explores not only the intensity that both situations caused, but also the strain on his body. Biden made national headlines for less than glamorous reasons and ended up having a stroke, which debilitated him for months. Without the support of his family, Biden may not have made it.

Biden spent the early 1990s focussed on his work with the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations. He sought to help make America a role model on the world scene, working with both Presidents Bush (41) and Clinton to carve out a niche for the sole superpower to lead the path towards freedom and democracy. Biden took countless trips to war-torn areas and had meetings with some world leaders who could not espouse similar values, all in an effort to bring about change. While Biden does not outrightly say it, this helped develop his skills as a statesman. The book solidifies a foundation for this at length and shows how Biden added to his already long resume for another run for the White House.

With the election of Bush 43 came a new America, emerging in a post-September 11th world. Biden was forced to stand firm and develop a friendship with a president who surrounded himself with two diametrically opposed camps, one wanting to instil peace and the other trying to exert authority. Biden discusses actors from both camps and offers his opinions on their insights. This is surely to prepare a plank for his 2008 run, while also being open about his sentiments, both as an American and a statesman. Biden and many of his Senate colleagues found themselves led down the garden path by the George W. Bush Administration, finding Afghanistan and Iraq wars as yokes around their necks. This was the basis for Biden’s choice to run again, as he had promises to keep with his family, as well as America.

I entered this piece after having seen the end result of the 2020 campaign, one where new highs and lows made themselves known. Those reading this review long after I penned it may need to look to the history books to see what I mean, but many will never forget January 6, 2021 and the culmination of a four year period of political and social darkness. Earlier in 2020, I read a stunning biography of Joe Biden and hoped that some of those stories would be hashed out in this piece as well. I needed another meaty and educational piece about Joe Biden. I got that and more as Biden placed me in the middle of his life, highlighting much of what he had accomplished. While the journey was significant, the book makes it flow while remaining comprehensive and detailed. The stories provide the reader with needed insight to understand the politics and passion of the man. I have no doubt that Joe Biden loves his country and his family.

This is no fluff piece, though it is surely something published to help pave the way for the 2008 campaign. Whether Biden wrote it or someone else took the reins is irrelevant, as it gets to the core issues. While detailed exploration of the man and how he sought to grow over his more than forty years of public service proves to be the undertone, it is presented in well-paced chapters and is relatable for the layperson to understand, enjoying the tangents along the way. I cannot say enough about Joe Biden, his views, and his passions, particularly as I look at the writing in 2021. America has a lot of healing to do and Joe Biden is here to help, even in the face of adversity and the residue of authoritarian pig-headedness.

Kudos, Mr. Biden, for this wonderful piece that elucidates your views, your life, and your visions. Your sentiments in 2007 could not have prepared you for your time as president, but let’s hope you are up to the task.

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

Promises to Keep, by George Bernau

Nine stars

George Bernau delivers a powerful novel that addresses one of the great political conspiracies in U.S. History and explores it through the lens of alternate history, forcing the readers to ponder ‘what if?’ throughout. On November 22, 1963, US President John Trewlaney Cassidy is in Dallas as part of a pre-campaign swing and to address business leaders. After shots ring out, chaos ensues as it becomes clear that president has been shot in the head. Rushed to Parkland Hospital, President Cassidy is barely clinging to life, with half his head blown away and those around him covered in blood and brain matter. Doctors rush and the world waits for news, which is slow to come, exacerbated by the medical severity of the wounds and the notoriety of the patient. It is beyond grim and yet Mrs. Cassidy will not leave his side, while others hold vigil in the nearby chapel. Doctors work frantically to save the Leader of the Free World… and succeed in keeping him alive through the night. Thus begins a turn of the history wheel as Bernau weaves together a wonderful narrative where every turn begets a new unknown. While President Cassidy is clinging to life, Vice-President Ransom Gardner steps up and takes the reins of power, albeit temporarily, through a never before used presidential order to cover incapacitation. While Cassidy is unable to hold down the Office of President, Gardner takes the active role and works as best he can, alongside Attorney General and brother to POTUS, Tim Cassidy. The daily running of America waits for no man and so Gardner ‘reluctantly’ agrees to steer the ship. There is an election on the horizon, under a year away, and all eyes are on whether the elder Cassidy will be fit to run, or if Gardner ought to take the Demorats into this most auspicious battle against a group of eager Republicans, feeling they can strike at the opposition’s instability. While Washington heats up, FBI Special Agent Jim Sullivan cannot accept the single shooter premise that was presented to the world. He saw something close to a grassy knoll and is not prepared to let everything be swept under the rug. However, he is being stonewalled by his superiors and must chase down leads all on his own. This leads him to Mexico, New Orleans, and even some whispers of a Cuban connection. What Sullivan discovers is not only monumental, but could show that the failure in Dallas could spell a continued threat for all Cassidys. The deeper Sullivan digs, the more people die, leaving him to wonder if there is a major cover-up underway within the American Government. Over the next few years, Vietnam rears its ugly head and talk of Castro’s Cuba inundate political conversations in Washington, forcing the man in the Oval Office to make a major decision. Election Year 1968 is on the horizon and many are out for blood. A brilliant piece so full of twists and newly-forged history, Bernau leaves the reader wondering how much of those five years of the 1960s will be replicated in the book, and how much has been changed forever by the results of the assassination failure. Perfect for JFK buffs and history lovers alike, Bernau delivers a gem.

I have long been enthralled with the JFK assassination for as long as I can remember. Who did it? Why? What does the public not know? All this is slowly and methodically revealed in this powerful novel that allows Bernau to use the loose framework of what we all know and superimpose his own reality. The cast of characters is formidable, some of which are easily recognisable to the reader, though their altered names may force a brief scramble to recollect. The alternate history premise allows Bernau to weave an entirely new reality, which he does, while keeping a strong political flavour to the story. Of greatest interest to me was the development of the theory put forth by Jim Sullivan as to who planned and sought to execute the assassination, as well as how deep it went. Any reader who loves the Kennedy assassination conspiracy theories will be salivating as the story progresses and takes many turns, some of which make total sense, even based on the actual information on hand and available to the public. Even through the novel was published close to three decades ago, it still holds a massive gut punch that any curious and dedicated reader will love. I strongly recommend this book, which reads well, though can get bogged down in detail and numerous storylines.

Kudos, Mr. Bernau for such a sensational piece. I cannot believe I knew NOTHING about this book until I saw it online for a very reasonable price. I will surely be checking out some of your other alternate history books in the coming months.