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On Becoming Joe Biden

Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) stuttered badly as a child:

"When I was with people I didn't know, I used to t-t-t-talk l-l-l-like that," Biden says. "And were it not for the fact that I was a pretty good athlete, the guys who made fun of me, I could kick the hell out of them on the field."

Biden improved enough to become known as one of the more outspoken senators and a Democratic presidential candidate. He is making his second run for the White House. His first was in 1988.

In his new autobiography, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, he tells the story of his fight to overcome that stutter and other obstacles he has faced in his personal life and political career.

Biden spoke with NPR's Steve Inskeep:

When you started going through your life story, did you find parts of your life that you found difficult to explain or talk about in public?

Difficult, not to explain, but difficult to write about. Things I wish I had been more mature. I wish I had handled the immediate aftermath of the accident involving my family better.

Let me explain, for those who don't know the story, that your wife and daughter were killed in a car accident very shortly after you'd been elected to the United States Senate in 1972.

That's correct.

And you write about the months after that accident, when you came to the United States Senate at the urging of your colleagues, but largely drifted through your job...

I did.

...and had trouble focusing on it.

I had a great deal of trouble focusing. I had three children and the two that survived – boys – were badly injured. I did my job, I didn't miss the votes, I showed up. But I just could hardly wait to get home.

What's to regret about all of that? It seems perfectly normal.

Not so much that piece. But I was angry. I was kind of looking for a fight. I didn't want to talk to you guys in the press, because initially, understandably, all they wanted to talk about was, 'What does it feel like?' 'What are the injuries?' 'Did you see the car?' all the stuff that I found gruesome. And I was probably hostile to the press. I wish I had been more mature in handling what had happened.

I was fascinated by the detail that you write that you had difficulty sleeping, except when you were on a plane going somewhere...

Yeah, it was like suspended. Have you ever gone off on a trip on a plane, and the fact that you have nagging problems at home, you just forget them, you just move on? I ended up going into roughly 50 congressional races at the request of the campaign. And looking back on it, it's totally understandable why the press immediately thought, 'God, this guy's really ambitious. Here he is, collecting chits.'

We should mention (that) people often go around and campaign for other people.

Yes, I'm doing that now. It was a way that I could temporarily suspend the grief.

You did end up, at a relatively young age – mid-40's – running for president the first time...


...and being forced to withdraw from that race because of news stories about quoting someone without attribution in a speech, because of quoting without proper footnoting in a paper when you were in law school. I wonder if, regardless of whether you consider yourself innocent or guilty as charged, whether you think it's appropriate that people look into the biographical incidents and search out the character of presidential candidates, as opposed to their positions.

Totally appropriate.

It was appropriate for people to look into that.

It was appropriate to look into it. But I wish they had looked into it. They didn't look into it. And had they looked into it, they may have reached a – and some did ultimately – a more balanced conclusion. But the bottom line was, I made a mistake. I did not, in the debate in Iowa, attribute what I said. And it was born out of my arrogance. I didn't prepare for the debate. It was stupid. I didn't deserve to president. I didn't deserve to be president just based on the Richter scale of 'Was I tough enough and did I understand the process?'

Are you saying the system worked...?

The system worked.

...in shoving you out before you even got to the election year?

In a strange way, it did work.

Has it been hard to wait 20 years for another shot at the White House?

No. As a matter of fact, I didn't make a political speech outside of my state for 20 years. And I just focused almost exclusively on my initiatives for national crime legislation, foreign policy issues...

You weren't waiting for another chance?

No. And what I finally decided this time – and I had no intention of running, I worked very hard for John Kerry...

In 2004.

In 2004. And after John lost, which was a real kick in the head, I realized that if I really meant and cared about as deeply as I do the issues I care about, I wasn't going to be able to affect them very much in the Senate.

Let me mention one way in which you have been on the national stage. You became the ranking Democrat on the Foreign Affairs Committee in the Senate, working closely with Richard Lugar, [a] very respected Republican colleague. Do you think it was significant that in 2003, you chose to vote in favor of authorizing the president to use force in Iraq?

Significant in what sense?

Significant in the sense that, perhaps, if you had spoken a different way or voted a different way, it might have had some small effect on the outcome.

Well, Sen. Lugar and I did speak a different way for five months. There's a lot of revisionist history that goes on these days about Iraq. But remember what the context was. The context was, 'Do we lift the embargo or do we pressure the international community to tighten the embargo on Saddam Hussein?' So this was designed to avoid war.

I know that people say now that their votes were about an effort to strengthen the president so he would not have to go to war. I know that statements were made to that effect....

At the time.

...in Congress at the time, and yet, just as a journalist who was in Washington, it seemed to be widely understood that this was a vote about going to war.

Why didn't you write that? You know, I love you guys, how you hardly ever get it right and you talk about – look, look at what the majority of the press was saying. The majority of the press wasn't saying, 'Don't give the president this authority.' Remember what happened after we went into Afghanistan....

I'm not sure that, as a journalist, someone like me would be expressing an opinion about what was right or wrong....

Editorial pages were expressing that opinion at the time.

...I'm just telling you how it felt at the time to someone here covering the story.

But what was the editorial board of the New York Times writing? What was the editorial board of the L-A Times writing? So this idea that everybody knew that he was going to be irresponsible is revisionist history.

Last question, Senator. You said that 20 years ago, you didn't deserve to be president. Do you now?

Yes. I'm the single most qualified person in either party on the problems that most urgently face America. When this president is constitutionally required to hand off power to the next president, he will leave the next president with virtually no margin for error. This is no place for on-the-job learning.

This transcript has been edited for clarity.

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