It is not the most important story coming out of Washington today, but when Joe Biden’s term as vice president comes to a close, it will mark the first time in nearly 50 years that he has not held public office.
Biden has had his share of friends and foes over the years, but he leaves Washington with warm words from both sides of the aisle – a rare occurrence in today’s political climate.
A brief encounter I had with Biden in 1986 helps explain why.
At the time, I was a reporter for The News Tribune, a mid-sized daily in Central New Jersey. Biden, a U.S. senator from Delaware, was a young and rising Democratic star who was coming to New Jersey to deliver a luncheon speech on behalf of a longshot Democratic candidate for Congress.
Since the congressional race was in our coverage area, my editors assigned me to cover the event, but they also wanted me to speak with Biden about speculation that he would enter the 1988 presidential campaign. So when he arrived at the luncheon, I introduced myself and asked if we could talk. He said he would speak with me after his talk, but I was less than confident the conversation would take place. Even back in 1986, it was not unusual for politicians to brush off journalists.
Nevertheless, I waited patiently through Biden’s talk, which to this day remains one of the most moving speeches I have ever heard. When he finished, he quickly was surrounded by people who wanted to shake his hand, take a photo or have a few words with him. I felt certain Biden would slip out the door as soon as all of the glad-handing was complete.
But while posing for a photo, he noticed me out of the corner of his eye and said he knew I had asked to speak with him, and he asked me to wait. When the crowd finally diminished, Joe Biden sat down at a table with me and asked what I wanted to know.
I was a bit reluctant to ask about the presidential race since most national media outlets already had asked the same question and his answer always was non-committal. I fully expected him to dismiss my question since I was from a mid-sized New Jersey newspaper, and he already had told journalists at much larger news organizations that he was not ready to make a decision.
But Joe Biden did not dismiss my question. Instead, he looked me in the eye and answered as if it were the first time the question was asked. He treated me the same way he would have treated a veteran reporter working for an organization much larger than The News Tribune. He politely talked about the honor of being mentioned for national office and said he planned to decide in a few weeks after he had time to speak with his family over the Thanksgiving holiday.
In the years that followed, I covered numerous elected officials at all levels of government, and I worked on the staffs of two governors, but I never forgot the few minutes I spent with Joe Biden in 1986.
He was authentic then, and the authenticity he brought to his years of public service provided a welcome and refreshing contribution to government and politics in America.