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Biden Struggles With Tragedy in '88 Decision

February 08, 1987|ROBERT SHOGAN | Times Political Writer

WASHINGTON — Almost every night after his Senate chores are done, Delaware's Joseph R. Biden Jr. makes his way to Washington's Union Station and boards the train to Wilmington, headed home to his wife and three children.

The nearly four-hour round trip reflects the 44-year-old Democrat's extraordinary commitment to his family. It is a relationship he cherishes all the more because it was built from the ashes of a shattering tragedy--the loss of his first wife and their daughter in an auto accident a month after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972.

This complex of emotions helps explain why Biden is struggling as he decides whether to run for President in 1988. Thanks to his soul-stirring oratory, Irish charm and only moderately left-of-center record, many Democrats regard him as prime presidential timber. But life for Biden, he says, "begins and ends with family. Everything else comes second."

Struggle Is Illuminating

Biden says he will make his intentions clear by early next month. Whatever his decision, his struggle to make up his mind illuminates the strengths and limitations he would bring to the presidency.

Some party professionals, who note that Biden has a reputation for sparing himself some of the tedium of Senate business, speculate that he may be hesitating because he wants to avoid the grind of the campaign trail.

Others guess that Biden simply may fear that his candidacy would flop. Gary Hart, the Democratic front-runner, is far better known, they point out, and New York Gov. Mario M. Cuomo, if he enters the race, would threaten to draw off much of Biden's potential support among Catholics and dry up his sources of funds.

But Biden professes to be unfazed by the competition. "I think I have as good a chance of winning as anybody else out there," he said. "I've been out in the field with political people for over a year and a half. By most people's standards, I think I'm competitive."

Rather, Biden contends that his indecision stems from a highly personal conundrum in which his sense of obligation to his family is linked to his understanding of himself and the burdens of political leadership.

The political leaders Biden trusts the most, he said, are "those at peace with themselves. They're the leaders who I think are least likely to let their own insecurities impact on the well-being of the nation. It's the difference between a Harry Truman and a Richard Nixon."

With his own peace of mind dependent on the welfare of his two sons, ages 17 and 18, and his daughter, 5, Biden wonders: "Am I more of a whole person, am I going to be more at peace with myself and consistent with my values" by waiting until his children are older to confront the burdens of running for President?

"You work as a parent, as everybody knows, so damn hard to get them this far," he said. "And you say to yourself, 'Am I going to let my ambition get in the way of what I say are my values that I say I believe so deeply?' "

Impressive Presence

On the stump, Biden projects an impressive presence--a lithe figure, boyish good looks only slightly belied by his balding pate, an air of ease and congeniality. To hear him talk, it is hard to believe that he could even think about passing up the chance to run for the White House in 1988.

That election, he told 3,000 enthralled California Democrats at their convention in Sacramento last weekend, will decide "what kind of America crosses the millennium divide into the 21st Century. . . . The issue is whether we as a nation shall continue to drift in the still waters of the present, content to manage the day-to-day stagnation of America. Or shall we seize the moment and ride the rapids of history to reach for greatness once again?"

With such soaring rhetoric delivered to party audiences around the country over the last four years, Biden has not only helped rekindle Democratic spirits in the midst of the Reagan era, but has also pumped life into his own presidential aspirations.

Asked to name the one characteristic that would distinguish a Biden presidency, Maine's Republican Sen. William S. Cohen, a close friend of Biden's, replied: "The ability to inspire people to follow the leadership he is offering. He is electric, dynamic and funny."

Humor Is a Specialty

Indeed, humor, particularly the self-deprecating sort, is a Biden specialty and one of the keys to his appeal as an orator.

Typically, Biden regaled the Sacramento conventioneers with the story of being totally ignored at a Cleveland fund-raiser for a Democratic House colleague until a local television reporter mistook him for Baseball Commissioner Peter V. Ueberroth. Rushing to Biden's side and shoving a microphone in his face, the reporter demanded: "Commissioner, what brings you to Cleveland?"

"Drug testing," Biden responded. "Drug testing for the media."

"Let's get the hell out of here," the newsman told his camera crew. "This guy has got nothing for us."

The audience roared with laughter.

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