Eloquent and occasionally irascible, Delaware Senator Joseph Biden last week officially announced his candidacy for the Democratic presidential nomination. This is one of an occasional series of profiles of the major contenders for 1988.
The mood among 3,000 hometown supporters gathered in front of the restored Victorian train station in Wilmington, Del., was as buoyant as the red, white and blue balloons waiting to be unleashed to the sky. Yet there was Joe Biden, gambling that he could pump up the crowd even higher while challenging his middle-class neighbors with the specter of a "nation at risk" from materialist values, declining industries, drug abuse, inadequate schools and kids abandoned to poverty. "It is the plight of our children that is the moral test of our time," he roared in a voice that bounced off the surrounding buildings.
His handsome features taut, his fist balled in indignation, Biden was in danger of losing his audience by painting a vivid picture of ghetto hopelessness. So totally did he capture his listeners, however, that their approval punctuated the meticulous cadence of his clincher: "And these are not someone else's children. They are our children. ((Applause begins.)) America's children. ((More applause.)) Blood of our blood. ((A louder ripple.)) Heart of our soul." This was Biden at his best, the impassioned idealist displaying the soaring rhetoric that has become his trademark.
Biden's mouth is both his greatest asset and his greatest liability. During a hearing of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last year, Biden came across as a hothead seeking hot headlines as he relentlessly badgered Secretary of State George Shultz over U.S. policy toward South Africa. The day after, he approached a friend on the Senate floor and asked sheepishly, "How much do you think I lost on that? I guess I made a fool of myself."
The contrast between his highly effective speaking style and his occasional giddy lapses is curious in a politician who thinks of himself as "grounded" in both his psyche and his message. All his Democratic competitors save Jesse Jackson seem bland by comparison, technocrats who emphasize specific programs and highlight their resumes. Biden's long suit is his appeal to idealism, his promise to be a President who would lead by strength of will and uncompromising candor.
At 44, Biden is a few years ahead of the baby boomers, but he professes to be a card-carrying member of their generation. Using language appropriated from John Kennedy and reworked by Pollster Pat Caddell, Biden exhorts those from their 20s to their 40s to trade up from dreary materialism to exhilarating activism. "The cynics believe that my generation has forgotten," he says in one of his stump speeches. "They believe that the ideals and compassion and conviction to change the world that marked our youth is now nothing but a long-faded wisp of adolescence . . . But they have misjudged us." By no coincidence, the group that he implores "to put our own stamp on the face and character of America, to bend history just a bit" makes up an estimated 58% of next year's eligible voters.