Joe Biden was so disciplined during the vice presidential debate, so brief (under five minutes!) in his speech bidding farewell to his son Beau and other members of his Delaware National Guard unit heading to Iraq, that his inner self sought some release, some way of saying, "Hey, the old Joe's still alive." "The very thing people like best about me at home is that I don't have to pick every word and parse everything," he says the day after the debate, at a Wilmington, Dela., coffee shop. "And if I say something politically incorrect, they know my motive is good."
His tone is wistful as he explains how the new 24/7 coverage is draining all spontaneity from politics: "It's a shame. It requires you to withhold." So he doesn't, and proceeds to spill on subjects ranging from the demands he made before agreeing to go on the ticket, to his feelings about Barack Obama and John McCain, to a confession and Bidenesque rationalization of his own weaknesses. No gaffes, but the level of detail won't thrill the Obamaniacal control freaks in Chicago.
He was happy with the St. Louis debate, of course, and trying to be gracious: "I liked her [Sarah Palin]. When our families met, it was congenial, with none of the tension that's sometimes in the air." But he doesn't think the event was terribly relevant. "The real issue is John and Barack."
About that catch in his throat: in the moment, he "could picture Beau in the bed" after the 1972 car accident that killed Biden's first wife, Neilia, and their baby girl and critically injured his young sons. Now Beau, the 39-year-old attorney general of Delaware, was off to war, a judge advocate general traveling to obscure regions of Iraq, where the road isn't exactly the safest place to be. The memory of being a single parent mixed with worries about Beau to create "a lot of bundled emotions. It surprised me. I was hoping nobody noticed." Only 70 million or so did.
Biden compares running for vice president to being a "cicada," in which the only time you surface publicly (if you're not Sarah Palin) is when chosen, at the debate and if you win. His description of his reluctance to accept Obama's offer to go on the ticket is unconfirmable because the Democratic presidential candidate isn't talking. But it goes like this:
When Obama phoned in June to tell him he wanted to vet him, Biden said OK, but that he might well decline. He consulted with longtime advisers Ted Kaufman and Ron Klain and went back and forth on whether the vice presidency was really the best place for him to have influence with an Obama administration. It helped that all spring Obama had called him every other week or so to get his thinking on varied matters (like how to question Gen. David Petraeus when he testified). They both knew that the role of the veep under Obama would not be like Dick Cheney's, but the terms remained to be worked out.
At a secret meeting in mid-August at the Graves 601 Hotel in St. Paul, Minn., that lasted two to three hours, Obama told him it wouldn't work unless Biden viewed the vice presidency as "the capstone" of his career, not a step down. "Not the tombstone?" Biden joked.
"Will this job be too small for you?" Obama asked, with a deft appreciation of the art of flattery.
"I said no, as long as I would really be a confidant. I told him, 'The good news is, I'm 65 and you're not going to have to worry about my positioning myself to be president. The bad news is, I want to be part of the deal'."
Biden, who had stayed neutral in the Democratic primaries after dropping out in January, told Obama that he was "ready to be second fiddle" and sought no specific portfolio—but only if he got a guaranteed hourlong, one-on-one session with the president every week (like Al Gore's lunches with Bill Clinton, and George H.W. Bush's with Ronald Reagan) and a presence at all important meetings. Obama said yes, that he wanted him for his judgment and for his help in enacting a big legislative agenda. And so the job was defined: "My role will be to say, 'Boss, here's the way I'd go about it'."
Biden says Obama reminds him of Bill Clinton in his "confidence, cognitive ability, judgment" and intellectual security—that he can listen and absorb advice without having to prove he's the smartest person in the room, a critical leadership skill. He says he experienced an "epiphany" during a recent conference call on the bailout bill with Bob Rubin, Paul Volcker, Warren Buffett, Paul O'Neill, Joseph Stiglitz, Larry Summers and Laura Tyson. "He [Obama] comes on the call and says, 'Well, folks, sorry I'm late. I've got four questions.' He was in total frigging command! Here's a 47-year-old guy in one of the most complicated economic dilemmas anyone has had to face since 1929 to '33. And it was like, 'Bang! Bang! Bang!' I called him afterward and said, 'You sold me, sucker!' "
Would the relationship prosper over time? The history in Democratic White Houses is mixed. JFK grew weary of the needy narcissism of LBJ, who felt patronized by the Camelot crowd. Clinton and Gore fell hard for each other, then fell out over the Lewinsky scandal. Biden expresses no doubts about this one. He says he and his wife, Jill, have bonded with the Obamas. "I know that he knows I would never, ever undercut him." The words are emphatic and carefully enunciated: "I have never undercut anyone in my life. And I'm comfortable enough in my own skin that I don't need to be recognized."
Biden's friends say that he is, indeed, more mature, philosophical and oblivious to criticism that once would have wounded him. Even if he still occasionally inhabits the stereotype of a Senate blowhard, his effusive decency and hard work have always made him exceptionally popular with his colleagues on both sides of the aisle (while still in command of his faculties, the late Sen. Strom Thurmond instructed his wife that Biden should give the eulogy at his funeral). "The reason I got so much done in the Senate was that I could say, 'This ought to be your idea'," Biden says. In other words, he wants some credit for not being a credit hog.
Biden readily acknowledges he has had a problem zipping his lip. As a former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee (he now chairs Foreign Relations), he took hits for his talky and sometimes peevish handling of the confirmation process. His own mom called in 2005 after his tough questioning of chief justice nominee John Roberts to say, "Joey, he's such a nice young man." This is not a story most senators would tell about themselves.
When he puts himself on the couch, Biden finds that he has what he describes as a Reaganesque habit of occasionally telling stories that are true in a larger sense but "might not be totally accurate" (the 1987 plagiarism from British politician Neil Kinnock fit into this category). Throughout his life, he says, he gets in trouble when he gets angry, even if it's for the right reasons. He finally concluded that what sets him off (whether it was punching another kid in the old neighborhood who pushed his sister or losing control in a hearing room) is the same thing that has animated his public passions (civil rights at the beginning of his career, the Violence Against Women Act, confronting genocide in Bosnia). It's Joe Biden's unified theory of himself: "Everything about my faith and family has centered on this notion of abuse of power. Where I end up crossing the line is related to people being taken advantage of."
The righteous anger connects Biden to John McCain. He says the two men often confided in each other. "Some, including in my own family, think I'm being too protective of an old friend," Biden says. He doesn't think McCain has sold out his principles because he was never a maverick to begin with: "When you cut through the marginal stuff, he's a very serious economic conservative and always has been. And his disagreements with Bush on foreign policy have all been about tactics, not strategy." McCain's politics, he says, are "visceral," "personal" and "moral." Certain issues "prick his conscience and emotions on an ad hoc basis" that Biden describes as "incoherent."
Biden is far from cocky about the outcome of the election. He says he has plenty of work to do even around his birthplace of Scranton, Pa., to make Democrats and independents more comfortable voting for Obama. But he's comfortable going down the stretch, with his campaign, his new "boss" and with himself.