Lost in the transition flurry of Barack Obama Cabinet prospects is Vice President-elect Joe Biden — but do not look for him to be lost after taking office or for his post to become "not worth a bucket of warm piss," as FDR Vice President John Nance Garner once vividly described it.
"That definition has not applied from (Vice President Walter) Mondale on," says Mark Siegel, who was the Democrats’ national executive director when Biden first ran for president in 1988 and who is very fond of Biden.
When Siegel lost his son in a car accident in 1974, in circumstances similar to Biden’s own family tragedy, the newly elected Delaware senator was there for him. He told Siegel at the time that nothing would be the same but that life would go on.
"In many ways, he kept me going," Siegel adds.
Biden was there for Siegel again when he lost his good friend, Pakistani political leader Benazir Bhutto. Siegel co-wrote a book on Bhutto that was completed the day she was assassinated in December of last year; Biden wrote a blurb for the book’s cover.
In an interview by e-mail last week, John Kerry stated that he has great respect for his longtime colleague: "Joe and I have been in the trenches, and I really think that’s when you learn the measure of a guy. He’s resilient and he’s determined. There’s grit there. This is a guy who learned the ropes in the Senate from some real giants."
Biden ran two of the most contentious Senate committees with rare bipartisan skill, Kerry says, adding: "That tells you a hell of a lot about him. That he was asked to deliver the eulogy for (South Carolina Republican) Strom Thurmond tells you just how much Joe is and was respected across the aisle."
Joel Goldstein, an expert on the vice presidency and a law professor at St. Louis University, says that for much of his 36 years in the Senate, Americans have seen Biden in televised Supreme Court confirmation hearings, on Sunday talk shows and as a regular on C-SPAN.
"It’s ironic that the (GOP vice-presidential candidate Sarah) Palin frenzy dwarfed the publicity he received during the campaign," Goldstein says.
In a sense, we really have seen Biden’s career unfold on television: the triumph of winning a seat at 29, the tragic loss of his first wife and daughter in a car accident, the political embarrassments that chased him from the 1988 campaign, his chairmanship of two major Senate committees, his emergence as a senior party leader.
Biden’s biggest problem is the not-infrequent verbal gaffe that can become part of a news cycle.
"I actually think they are less damaging than they would be to many others because they have been factored in calculating the value of his political stock," Goldstein says.
In other words, people expect that he occasionally will say something that doesn’t exactly reflect what he means, and they don’t hold it against him — mainly because he has a career of substantive accomplishment and a record of working in a friendly, bipartisan way.
Goldstein sees Biden’s role as a sounding board and troubleshooter for President Obama: "His experience with and feel for Congress and foreign policy are valuable assets, as is his reputation for forging bipartisan relationships. Given all the crises the country is facing, there is plenty that needs attention at the highest levels."
If the Obama White House develops a team approach, Biden could play a constructive role in helping Obama handle the unprecedented range of problems they’ll inherit.
Most modern vice presidents have become important presidential advisers and troubleshooters. Their influence has varied along with their approaches to the office.
George H.W. Bush, Dan Quayle and Al Gore took on line assignments, such as a national competitiveness council (Quayle) or reinventing government and environmental policy (Gore); Dick Cheney has acted as sort of a chief operating officer for the executive branch.
During the presidential campaign, Scranton, Pa., became a mini-epicenter of the political world because Biden once lived there, as fellow Sen. Bob Casey still does. Casey credits Biden with making sure that he was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, a feat even John Kennedy was not able to pull off in his freshman year.
"That was all Biden," Casey says.
Last February, Kerry was stuck with Biden and Sen. Chuck Hagel, R-Neb., in a chopper that made an emergency landing in the mountains of Afghanistan. A snowstorm had forced them down and they played cards to pass the time.
"I think between the cold and the conversation, Joe and I forgot who was winning," Kerry recalls. "But I think the smart money is on him."
Salena Zito covers politics for the Trib. She can be reached at [email protected] or 412-320-7879.