When he invited me to his walk-up law office, Joe Biden was a freshly minted 29-year-old New Castle County Councilman and I was a 25-year-old hot shot reporter covering the council, certain that in so doing, I would help change the world, racism would end, war would turn to peace and county sewage flooding would stop if only I worked hard enough.
I was also realistic. And patient. I had expected all that to happen in 1971. It was 1972 now and I conceded it would take at least another six months.
Biden harkened to those instincts. One night, post Council, he asked to talk with me in his cramped, walk-up law office in downtown Wilmington.
“Hey. Bob,” he said, or something very close to that. “I look at you and I look at me and I figure here are two guys who think a lot alike and if we got together and worked together, we could make some real change.”
The suggestion that we “would work together” fried a part of my brain there and then. For while I did indeed want to see change, I was a radical on separation of state and press and the importance of the Fourth Estate as an independent, aggressive, even adversarial Fourth Estate.
Which I then lectured Joe about.
“You’re right, about us having the same thoughts and goals,” I said, as I recall it, “but the bad news is that does not mean we work together. Now, because you mentioned it, this means I have to make it tougher on you because I have that personal bias. When I sit down at the type writer, whether I like you or not makes no difference. It’s how the reader is best served, so whenever I see anything of an issue with what you’re doing, you can count on that being amplified in my articles.”
I expected Joe to be argumentative, offended or upset. Instead, he slapped the desk and said, “Absolutely! That is how it should work. No hard feelings, I thought I had to try.”
And so that is how it went. For awhile. I’d dial up any shortcomings Biden had in arguing zoning, sewers, police — all of the dull but important issues of county government.
Except, except…I couldn’t really fulfill a journalist’s true role of giving readers actionable fact if I ignored one thing:
Biden was a prodigy: A political talent so large in this small state that it was as if Marlon Brando or Meryl Streep had wondered onto the stage of a high school play. He was gathering crowds at bone-dry zoning hearings. He was eclipsing the governor in terms of attention and approval.
And so I wrote that story, that a 29-year-old county councilman was so gifted in the political arts that he might jump from sewers to a US Senate campaign. It was hopeless, of course, with Nixon beating McGovern in double digits that year. Still, Biden had some undeniable charisma.
As do all reporters, I thrived on peer reaction. Back at the newsroom, there was general agreement that I’d crafted a fine piece — by everyone except my hero and mentor, a super reporter named Curtis Wilkie, a native Mississippian who had cut his teeth on covering race in the south.
“What do you think, Curtis,” somebody asked.
“F***in’ puff piece,” Curtis said in his slow drawl.
I was crushed. But more defiant than defensive.
“Ahhh, you got to see him,” I said. “It’s not puff if it’s real.”
Wilkie snorted. And it’s fair to say I tightened my standards on features after that, for sure. I did and do worship Curtis.
On the other hand, Curtis did come to cover Biden, once Joe had pulled off the upset, winning election in a landslide Republican year against a popular incumbent. Wilkie did a bio of Biden, riding back on forth on the famed Amtrak trips Joe made.
“What did you think?” I asked after the first ride.
“Impressive fella,” Curtis said, and that was as close as he was going to say that I was right.
My memory of the days was a Joe Biden who took criticism well, even jovially. When I hit him hard on any particular issue — zoning, most likely, or sewage system expansion — he’d grin and shake his head.
“Take it easy on me, kid,” he’d whisper leaning in while hugging a shoulder.
They were the same words I heard him whisper to Kamala Harris after she clobbered him in the debate — a good natured embrace of combat and contest without ill harm.
And to me, the guy seems the same. He can take a hit and consider it part of human nature, not an act of war.
He’ll put that skill to good use starting today. I hope they take it easy on you, kid.