As we await Joe Biden’s decision on his running mate, I’ve decided to crack open Jules Witcover’s comprehensive 2010 biography of the Delawarean, Joe Biden: A Life of Trial and Redemption.
Younger (read: pre-baby boom) readers may be less familiar with Witcover, who along with his more colorful sidekick Jack Germond wrote four books, plus five syndicated columns per week for almost a quarter century. The two were based at the old Washington Star (D.C.’s terrific afternoon paper that published for 128 years before folding in 1981) and later the Baltimore Sun. Their reporting was essential reading for anyone at the time who was seriously into American politics.
Germond, who passed away in 2013 at age 85, had a far higher profile than Witcover, thanks to his innumerable appearances on NBC’s Meet the Press and the The McLaughlin Group, the pioneer in non-Sunday political television. Germond wrote two books on his own, including the memorable Fat Man in a Middle Seat: Forty Years of Covering Politics. Germond was also known to spend a bit of time at the racetrack. His encouragement to me in the mid-1980s—”Keep it up kid, you’re doing a great job”—meant a lot when I was first getting started writing a newsletter and a column in Roll Call.
But Witcover was by far the more prolific and consequential author. His book Marathon: The Pursuit of the Presidency 1972-1976 was the definitive book on the 1976 campaign and Jimmy Carter’s highly improbable run to the presidency. Even at 93 years old, Witcover continues to churn out three columns per week, but in my mind those were the glory days of old-time political reporting.
Anyone seeking a master’s degree in Joe Biden—where he came from, how he approaches things, and what he might be expected to do—would be well advised to read Witcover’s book. I’ve followed Biden’s career basically from the beginning. He was first sworn into the Senate in January 1973, the same month I started working on the Hill as a freshman in college. I first met him a month or two later. Nevertheless, the book reminded me how he was frequently, and often aptly, criticized for being brash and overly ambitious. It’s more than a bit ironic that it took him 47 years to realize those youthful ambitions.
Interestingly, the book was published two years into Biden’s tenure as vice president to a president 19 years his junior, and at a time when Democrats were headed into the first of two disastrous midterm elections. At the time, it seemed he’d have little chance to win that big prize he wanted so badly and talked about to friends while he was still in law school. After all, he’d already run for the office twice, flaming out early both times. While the word “redemption” is in the book’s title, it seemed pretty unlikely that he would ever be able to actually redeem that prize. Now it looks to be a pretty good bet that he will.
Though both Biden and President Trump can be rightly accused of verbosity and straying off topic, they are about as different as night and day. Biden’s situation is also utterly different than Hillary Clinton’s four years ago. When Biden announced his candidacy 15 months ago, there were several possible trajectories things could take; several times this column likened his candidacy to a heavily loaded 747 airliner that might not make it off the runway. In some ways, the bizarre circumstances of this campaign have worked to maximize Biden’s chances of winning the whole thing.
So now we await Biden’s decision on his veep candidate. It is still my belief that running mates are rarely of any import in the outcome of a presidential election. You have to go back 60 years to John Kennedy’s selection of Lyndon Johnson, which undoubtedly helped bring Texas into the Democratic column in a very close race. This election is hardly likely to turn on who Biden chooses. Indeed, it may not turn particularly on Biden himself; this election is pretty clearly a referendum on the incumbent and about little else. While it is true that a running mate is more likely to hurt than help, despite all of the hoopla it rarely matters at all, at least electorally.
Yet given Biden’s age and the fact that he may not run for a second term in 2024, his pick is enormously important in a governing sense and in terms of the intermediate future of his party. The choice might well give the Democrats an ideological, generational, and stylistic shove in one direction or the other. After all, the last four sitting vice presidents who sought their party’s presidential nomination all won that nomination. But for now, we wait. Reading Witcover’s biography on Biden isn’t a bad way to pass the time. Or for that matter, his subsequent (and most recent) book, 2014’s The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power.