It's always been amazing to me how closely many people around the world watch our presidential elections, but this year tops them all. Having just arrived in Denver from Beijing and Hong Kong for the Democratic National Convention, I can personally attest how fascinated people overseas are about this race. Little wonder that journalists from 130 countries are descending on Denver this weekend. No one this year is questioning whether it matters who is elected president of the United States, and the startlingly diverse cast of characters in this political drama makes the story even more compelling, no matter where one lives.
Barack Obama's selection of six-term Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware is a muscular pick, worthy of such a year. Rather than choosing a running mate based on demographics or whether that person happened to be from an important swing state, Obama decided on a wingman who on foreign policy is the most knowledgeable and experienced Democrat in Congress. Obama chose a running mate who in 36 years in the Senate has seen and experienced it all, the one quality that, as bright and intuitive as Barack Obama is, he does not possess.
Biden's grasp of the issues was on display at a town meeting that he held at the Ames (Iowa) Public Library last December when he was running for president. It was a tour de force. For more than two hours, Biden took questions from over 350 people on a dizzyingly diverse number of subjects, leaving reporters shaking their heads on the span of issues and questions that he could address with facts and figures, names and dates. If the Iowa Caucus was a presidential Jeopardy game, Biden would likely have won in a walk, even against the likes of Sens. Christopher Dodd of Connecticut, Hillary Rodham Clinton and Obama. More importantly, Biden seemed to understand each issue and didn't just regurgitate a staff-prepared briefing book.
I've watched Joe Biden since we both came to Washington in 1972 and seen him evolve from a brash, wisecracking freshman senator to one of the most senior and most respected members of the chamber.
The knock on Biden has long been his verbosity. He sometimes seems compelled to tell listeners everything he knows, as if to prove his smarts on just about any subject. Sometimes it has meant saying so much that it would get him into trouble because he wasn't quite as careful as he should have been in crafting his answers. Many thought that this lack of discipline was a primary reason why he remained an underdog in his bid for this year's Democratic nomination.
Sitting with Biden one morning on the Amtrak Metroliner between his hometown of Wilmington and Washington, I noted this reputation to him. Biden responded with a twinkle in his eye. "Just watch me tonight," he said, referring to that evening's Democratic debate in Orangeburg, S.C.
That was the night when NBC News anchor Brian Williams quoted a Los Angeles Times editorial that said, "In addition to his uncontrolled verbosity, Biden is a gaffe machine." Williams then asked Biden, "Can you reassure voters in this country that you would have the discipline you would need on the world stage, Senator?" Biden responded with what might have been the first one-word answer of his entire political career: "Yes," prompting laughter throughout the auditorium. The audience erupted again when Williams said, "Thank you, Senator Biden."
Though his answer didn't help him secure the presidential nomination, Biden that night may have turned the corner in a way that led to Obama signing him onto the ticket.
This article appears in the September 6, 2008 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.
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