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DEMOCRATIC NATIONAL CONVENTION : REPORTER'S NOTEBOOK

Even for D.C., Biden is a legendary talker

The senator's stories often meander and seem to have no end. But he never spills secrets, his friends say.

August 25, 2008|Peter Nicholas | Times Staff Writer

DENVER — Spend a few hours with Sen. Joe Biden on a train, plane or automobile and try to squeeze a word in now and then. No easy thing.

Barack Obama's pick for vice president is a talker. In a business that attracts and rewards the loquacious set, the Delaware senator's verbal output is a Capitol Hill legend.

So notorious is he for windy soliloquies that Biden was asked in a presidential debate last year whether he was, in essence, a gaffe waiting to happen. Would he be able to restrain himself on the world stage, where ill-chosen words can create real trouble?

Biden uncorked a rarity: a one-word answer.

"Yes," he said.

Biden's speech at the Democratic convention Wednesday may prove an interesting test.

Now that he is part of the disciplined Team Obama, viewers may see a more succinct Biden than they remember from C-SPAN. And yet, this is Biden.

Anyone who has watched him knows his style. Stories with a beginning and middle, but seemingly no end. Sentences that often begin with the phrase, "I'm the guy who":

* "I'm the guy who, probably in the mind of a lot of Democrats, is, if not the most qualified, then qualified," he said, while running for president in November 2007.

* "I'm the guy who wrote the drug czar legislation," he said in July 2004.

* "I'm a guy who had two cranial aneurysms," he said in November 2006.

In 2000, I rode an Amtrak train with Biden and Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter as the two commuted home for the weekend from Washington. Biden talked and talked. About his 1988 run for president. About the Clarence Thomas Supreme Court hearings.

As the train pulled into Wilmington, Del., Biden's stop, Specter seemed to realize that his colleague had dominated the conversation and invited me to, quick, try to get a question in before the train doors opened.

"We're senators," Specter explained. "We're good at filibustering."

Not to say Biden is dull.

During a couple of flights over Iowa last year, he revealed he would like to be an architect. He always takes ice cream when he visits nuns. He has two titanium clips in his head. And when he sat down with his family to discuss a presidential run, his wife, Jill, wrote "No" in lipstick under her sweater, then flashed him as a joke.

Biden associates say his verbosity is harmless. If Biden likes to talk, he has the discipline not to spill secrets.

Larry Rasky, who worked on Biden's presidential campaign, observes that Biden has held sensitive committee chairmanships that gave him access to FBI files with the potential to ruin people's lives.

Information never leaked out, he said.

"He's one of the most disciplined people in the Senate when it comes to what really matters," Rasky said.

Still, listening to Biden can be hazardous.

In 2001, Biden, then the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was accompanying the Republican chairman, Jesse Helms of North Carolina, on a trip to Mexico.

The two flew with several journalists who had come to document the unusual spectacle of Helms, a longtime critic of the Mexican government, attempting to close a rift.

Biden thought this a historic moment, and he cornered reporters to tell them so. The conversation began midway through the more-than-four-hour flight from Washington to Mexico City, and it went on . . . and on.

Eventually, the pilot asked that everyone be seated for arrival. But Biden, expounding on his growing respect for Helms, stayed put and kept talking.

The landing gear was deployed.

Biden kept talking.

Finally, crew members pleaded with everyone to sit down.

With seconds to spare, Biden stopped talking.

--

peter.nicholas@latimes.com

Times staff writers Robin Abcarian and Peter Wallsten contributed to this report.

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