WASHINGTON -- At just about every event, Joe Biden inevitably relates the old joke about a man who had two brothers. "One went off to sea, the other became vice president. I never heard from either of them again."
The Delaware senator is often self-deprecating about his No. 2 status on Barack Obama's campaign. But on Monday he insisted on having a more prominent speaking role.
"There's few things vice presidents and vice presidential nominees get to do -- you can only call a card once," he told attendees at the National Guard Association Conference in Baltimore. "I told Barack, I'm coming. I wanted to be here."
Biden was introduced to the crowd as an "unshakable supporter of the National Guard," and in his remarks, he pointed to his Senate record as proof. But there was another tie, mentioned only briefly in his remarks yesterday.
"I'm also here today as the father of a Guardsman. My son, Beau, is proud to wear the uniform, and proud to answer the call to serve," Biden said.
Beau Biden, 39, joined the Army National Guard in 2003, and his 261st Signal Brigade is scheduled to be deployed to Iraq next month. The eldest of Biden's three children, he also serves as attorney general of Delaware. He played a prominent role at the Democratic National Convention, introducing his father for his acceptance speech.
When Biden talks about Iraq on the stump, he'll make occasional mention of Beau's service. This past Saturday, in fact, he mentioned that three of the four representatives on both tickets would soon have children in Iraq. But more often, he prefers to speak more abstractly about the larger sacrifice being made by National Guardsmen and their families. "This isn't your father's National Guard," he often says.
Biden speaks not only as the father of a Guardsman, but as someone who claims to have fought on their behalf for years. Biden said he made a commitment upon being elected to the Senate to travel to any theater where U.S. forces were fighting. And more recently, he has taken credit for securing funds for properly armed vehicles to be used in Iraq.
"I stood on the floor of the United States Senate and said I'm going to be the bastard of the family picnic here... I'm going to stand here until we appropriate the money to build these vehicles," Biden told the National Guardsmen in Baltimore. "You've never, ever, ever let your country down, but too often your government hasn't given you all we promised, all that you need."
Bringing up the service of the Guard provides Biden with an attack on John McCain that hits one of the Arizona senator's strengths: his military service. In suburban Philadelphia last week, Biden said that despite McCain's deserved reputation as a war hero, one should not automatically assume "that means he looks out for veterans." As evidence, he points to McCain's opposition to the new GI Bill.
"If John McCain had had his way on that GI Bill, those military personnel who've served two tours in Iraq or Afghanistan would not qualify for the same benefits that anyone in the regular, quote, Army or Marine Corps did," he said. "Ladies and gentlemen, let me remind you: There's been over 6,700 National Guard and reserve personnel who've been mortally wounded in Afghanistan and in Iraq. There's been over 740 National Guard personnel dead."
Beau Biden's unit is scheduled to deploy to Iraq on Oct. 3. That's one day after the vice presidential candidates are set to debate.
Campaign aides are reluctant to speak about Beau's expected deployment, but state the obvious in pointing out that the family is a very close one. In Iowa last year, when he was a presidential candidate himself, Biden said of his son, "I don't want him going." Beau's impending deployment is believed to be one reason Biden has been returning to his home in Wilmington whenever it is possible -- 16 out of his 31 days as the running mate. He'll likely fly directly after the St. Louis debate to attend the deployment ceremony the next day.
Biden typically ends his events by saying, "God bless America, and may he protect our troops!" It's something he's been saying for years, aides say. But it certainly will take on greater significance in two weeks time.