Joseph R. Biden Jr., remember the name. Not that you'll have much chance to forget it. As the Democrats plot to win back control of the Senate, Biden is currently the party's most visible asset—and not just on TV, but wherever rubber chicken dinners are served. Never mind that the junior Senator from Delaware has been called "insubstantial" by his critics (they claim, for example, that he is wishy-washy on abortion and all but invisible on major economic issues). Biden is, as a ranking minority member of the Senate Judiciary and Foreign Relations Committees, at the forefront of Great Events. He is 43, three-quarters Irish, a Roman Catholic, the possessor of an athletic frame and boyish good looks. The son of a retired Chevy sales manager, Biden showed his considerable pluck during his Wilmington childhood when dealing with a stuttering problem. "I just decided to be an orator," he says. "I used to stand in front of the mirror and read aloud and watch my mouth movements. By the time I graduated and gave the [high school] commencement address, I had it licked." He is also that rarity among political animals, a man who is not just candid but blessed with a disarming talent for self-deprecation. Biden was once arguing a point in the Judiciary Committee when a staffer handed him a note. Glancing down at it, he stopped mid-sentence. "Obviously, I don't know what the hell I'm talking about," he said laughing and sitting down.
In short, in the words of Robert Squier, a well-known consultant to Democratic campaigns, Joe Biden is "image-perfect." Squier believes that the Senator from Delaware combines the charisma of John F. Kennedy with the communication skills of Ronald Reagan. "I think what Reagan did for the process, Biden has in heroic proportions," says Squier. "I've seen him give a hall speech and bring the crowd to its feet. On television he comes across with earnestness and caring. You have got to give him consideration as a presidential candidate for 1988."
Ask Biden if he is interested in the nation's top job, and he says he's not sure. It's up to his wife, Jill, and his kids. To understand that this is not just another dodge by a secretly fervid presidential hopeful, you have to know that family is important to Joe Biden—that his life, like the Kennedys', has been tinged with tragedy.
Biden arrived in Washington in 1972, when at 29 he defeated veteran Republican campaigner Caleb Boggs by 3,000 votes. The second youngest man ever to be popularly elected to the Senate, Biden was already inspiring Kennedy comparisons. Then, just weeks after the election, the worst happened: His wife, Neilia, 30, and baby daughter, Naomi, 13 months, were killed and his sons, Beau and Hunt, injured in a car crash.
The weeks that followed the accident were a blur for the young Senator. "When my wife and daughter were killed," he says, "I came closest to throwing in the towel. My sons were banged up and I wanted to get home to them and to heli with everything else." Biden decided not to take his hard-won seat in the Senate. But his tragedy touched his colleagues: Democratic Majority Leader Mike Mansfield stepped in and comforted him and talked him into reconsidering. In January 1973 the first order of business in the Senate was a special provision to enable Biden to be sworn in at the hospital bedsides of Beau and Hunt.
Little was heard from Joe Biden during his first term. His mind and energies were elsewhere. Each evening when the Senate session ended he took the two-hour train ride home to Wilmington to be with the boys; on days when there were teacher consultations or athletic events he would sometimes make the round-trip ride twice. By 1977 Biden began to emerge as a force in the Senate, where he was made chairman of the subcommittee on intelligence. In that same pivotal year Joe's private life began to mend as well. He saw a picture in the University of Delaware yearbook of Jill Jacobs, who was in her last semester and teaching at a Catholic school. "He told his brother, who was a student at the University of Delaware, that he would like to go out with me," says Jill, now 35. "The first thing that attracted me to Joe was that he was a gentleman. I liked that in him. Later, I fell in love."
Mostly, Jill and Joe double-dated with Beau and Hunt, and much of the courtship was conducted on the Amtrak train between Washington and Wilmington. It was the boys who said to their father, "Isn't it time Jill married us?" It was. They all got hitched on June 17, 1977, and it was the boys who were the first to kiss the bride. A daughter, Ashley, came along four years later.
The first time Biden gave serious thought to running for the Presidency was in 1983. His worry was that his boys were in their teens and if it meant messing up their last years at home, the Presidency wasn't worth it. He did not unilaterally decide against it, however, but put the question to a family vote. Biden's sister, Valerie Owens, who always runs his campaigns, was for it, as was Beau, now 17. But Hunt, 16, and Jill were against it. "If I run in 1988, Jill will be the key," says Joe. "I trust her instincts more than anyone else's. She is the one who has the veto power. A lot of men have been able to divorce their professional lives from their family lives. I can't."
Biden calls himself a fatalist. He says that since he "was elected so young, people are always asking, 'What's the next step?' " He insists that he feels no urgent need to run for President. He's got his family, his $75,000 salary from the Senate, his mortgaged colonial on the edge of the Delaware "château country." Before long, however, his conversation is picking up speed, becoming passionate. He is talking about how political activism runs in cycles in this country, adding that he believes that "1988 will be a time of idealism where people will say, 'Let's try to make the world better again. Let's get up and work!' " It is a familiar message, with echoes of Jack Kennedy's theme of "getting America moving again." Biden's decision will be made in the next three months. Jill says she thinks she's ready this time.
The TV camera does not simply love Sen. Joe Biden. It goes positively weak with desire whenever he flashes his dazzling teeth at the lens. First there was the 10-minute shouting match with Secretary of State George Shultz during the Senate Foreign Relations Committee debate over South African sanctions. As Joe jabbed his fingers angrily in the air, he blasted the Administration for its "lack of moral backbone." The image played early and often on the network news. Days later Biden was back, leading the Democratic charge across the small screen against William Rehnquist, the President's choice for Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. This time Biden kept his finger in his pocket, as he pressed Rehnquist for his opinion on the 1954 landmark desegregation case, Brown vs. Board of Education. Rehnquist politely protested that he was merely a law clerk for a Supreme Court Justice at the time of the ruling. "Law clerks don't have to vote," Rehnquist temporized. "No, but surely they think?" Biden asked. Rehnquist conceded, "Yes, they do." Looking down into the crowded committee room and playing to the TV audience beyond, the Senator hesitated, as if to consider the answer. Then, with gentle but pointed exasperation, he said, "I'll be darned."