Joe Biden knew better, but he couldn’t help himself. It was a warm, sunny day early in 2003, and once again he was thinking about running for president.
Something like this happened more or less every four years since he’d first arrived in the Senate three decades earlier. The conversation would, invariably, start as a low whisper somewhere in his head, or in some aide’s notes, or some party boss’s late-night bullshitting sessions: Should Biden run for president this time? Then he’d let his mind wander.
He rarely let the talk get this far, though, usually because his family would intervene before he turned his Delaware parlor into a protocampaign war room. His adult children, Beau, Hunter, and Ashley, were encouraging more often than not, but they’d want him to get the timing right. His sister, Val, would almost certainly be his campaign manager, officially or effectively, if he pulled the trigger—she’d run every one of his races since he first ran for class president at Archmere Academy—but she was a realist. His wife, Jill, an English teacher, was the straight-up skeptic. She was wary of a repeat of 1987’s disaster, and, well, Joe didn’t like to talk about what had happened then. None of them did. They were all right, of course, so Biden tended to come back with the same answer: No, probably not. Not this year.
Except sometimes he’d still agree to hear the argument through. (Can’t hurt!) Then the messaging guru or pollster with the bright idea would get to talking, and Joe would get to thinking about what a campaign would sound like, what his presidential cabinet might look like, what his first bill might be … and he’d have to be reeled back in. That was usually Jill’s job. This time, though, the family had already had its discussion, and they’d agreed pretty easily that the moment wasn’t right for him to try to unseat George W. Bush, a wartime president.
So Biden knew he shouldn’t have let this latest small group of strategists into his home to pitch him anyway. It was just that they had some good points. Didn’t they? He was sixty now and a senior senator, a heavy hitter in Washington. He was years separated from both his last embarrassing campaign and the Clarence Thomas mess, the two big dark marks on his record. He had the foreign policy chops and blue-collar cred to make Bush sweat, and he was no liberal compared to the other potential candidates, a fact that would probably help him in swing-state Ohio, say, or Virginia. Hell, maybe he was the only one who could beat Bush. It all sounded pretty good when you put it like that. No one here thought he was past his prime, or repeated the usual Washington insider “joke” that “nobody likes to hear Senator Biden speak more than Senator Biden himself.” So Joe, uncharacteristically, kept quiet and kept listening.
So did Jill, who fumed as she sat out by the pool. The family had already decided this didn’t make sense. This had to stop before they all got hurt again. She got up and found a Sharpie in the kitchen, and made a decision she and other Biden inner circlers would later recount with reverence. (Jill even wrote about it years later in a memoir.) In big, unmistakable letters, she wrote NO on her stomach and, in her bikini, walked into the living room. And that was that.
* * *
One year later, Biden had another job in mind. This was typical for a man who had a way of convincing himself that this moment—really any moment—was right for him to make his move—any move—even though he’d then probably spend months wondering how, exactly, to make it.
It wasn’t that he was tired of the Senate. He loved it, and had for basically all his thirty-one years there. He’d put the latest presidential talk behind him and thrown his support behind his friend John Kerry, a colleague he’d first met when they shared a political consultant in 1972. But thirty-one years was a long time. He’d already been the top Democrat on two of the chamber’s most important committees, first judiciary then foreign relations. And Secretary of State Joe Biden? Now, that sounded pretty good.
Biden knew Kerry was considering giving him the job. They sat together on the Senate’s foreign relations panel and they talked about it sometimes when Kerry stole moments away from the campaign trail. So Biden started thinking about how he’d reroute the American wars in Afghanistan and Iraq away from Bush’s path (which Biden had once backed enthusiastically), and he tried coming up with a list of Republican senators he might be able to enlist for help on the course-correction, since it would almost certainly be a politically delicate proposition. He leaned into Kerry’s campaign, too. On conference calls he offered Kerry, a Vietnam vet, advice on talking about Iraq—a war Biden had voted for and championed, but only after his plan to disarm Saddam Hussein had been squashed by political gamesmanship. He drafted his top foreign policy aide Antony Blinken to generate ideas for Kerry’s speeches on international affairs, too, and he even sometimes chimed in with strategies for winning Pennsylvania, where he grew up. And sure, he told Kerry’s aides that spring, he’d be happy to speak at the Democratic convention in Boston that July.
In truth, this arrangement was basically an afterthought. Biden understood how these conventions worked by now—this would be his eighth. No one really cared what most of the speakers had to say, he knew, and certainly any undecided voter who tuned in would just be interested in hearing from Kerry or some celebrity he’d lined up for an endorsement. Those regular people weren’t paying attention to Senate committees or Biden’s recent work to avoid a debacle in Iraq. But Biden was all-in on supporting his old friend, and if he was being honest, he really liked the quadrennial schmoozefest. So of course he’d go. He always did. Boston was a quick flight away, and it was an easy favor to John.
He just wouldn’t be a headliner, so would only have a few minutes to talk. Fine, he wasn’t in the cabinet yet. If nothing else, it would be good for a twelve-second clip on the six o’clock news back home. Something fun to remember when he was secretary.
* * *
Joe Biden was a political world away after midnight on the morning of Saturday, May 8, 2004, when Hillary Clinton got in the backseat of her car in Chicago and reached for her phone. The former first lady, now nearly halfway through her fourth year in the Senate, still had a few hours before she could sleep at home in northwest Washington. She was on her way back to the airport after a long, tiring evening of shaking hands and taking pictures. Ahead of her still was a flight back to Martin State Airport, north of Baltimore, with Democratic National Committee chair Terry McAuliffe—a dear friend but also the possessor of a motormouth powerful enough that Clinton obviously wouldn’t be sleeping much on the flight. It was late and she’d see her husband in the morning, but she knew Bill would want to hear about the night before she took off.
The entire evening almost hadn’t happened. Thunderstorms in the Midwest that afternoon had threatened to cancel her trip before she’d even left for Chicago, but she was curious enough about the man who was expecting her in Illinois that she’d told the two aides on the Maryland tarmac with her and her Secret Service duo that she wanted to wait out the weather. It would be worth it, she figured, because of a project she and Bill had been working on for a few months. Ever since she’d decided not to run for president that year, they’d been trying to cultivate and elevate a group of promising pols a generation younger than them. Best-case scenario they’d become useful allies, worst they’d be grateful duds. The informal roster was coming along nicely. Anthony Weiner was a thirty-nine-year-old loudmouth Brooklynite making waves in the House of Representatives, and Harold Ford Jr. was a younger, smoother congressman from Memphis with big ambitions for the Senate and beyond. The Clintons were also watching John Edwards, a helmet-haired North Carolina senator who’d just ended his presidential campaign but looked like a good bet to join Kerry on the national ticket that summer.
For a few weeks now, Clinton had been hearing murmurs about this Senate candidate in Illinois, too. His buzz sounded different, somehow more electric than the usual pundit-class rumors she was used to hearing. Dick Durbin, the state’s usually dry sitting Democratic senator, swore by him, and Jon Corzine, the Goldman Sachs exec turned New Jersey senator now in charge of the Democrats’ Senate fundraising operation, gushed about him, too. There was plenty of reason to be skeptical, and that was putting it nicely: This guy was just a state senator, and how could you get past his name? When Clinton’s aide Huma Abedin had first heard it, she’d written it down for her boss as “Barak Obama,” missing the c. Was his charisma really so overwhelming?
Still, it looked like he’d be a US senator in a few months, and now he was in search of some campaign cash. And, it turned out, he wanted to use Clinton’s star power for a night. So sure, she was happy to fly out and headline a fundraiser with him at a private club, then another at a fancy hotel. She’d have to meet him eventually.
A few hours later, she waited for the former president to pick up the phone as she sped through pitch-black Illinois. “Bill,” she said when his Arkansas drawl came on the line, “I just met our first African American president.”
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Copyright © 2022 by Gabriel Debenedetti