The portrait of Joe Biden that emerges from What It Takes (1992), Richard Ben Cramer’s thousand-page New Journalism–style report on the 1988 presidential race, in which Biden ran for a few steps until he stumbled over his own shoelaces, is a familiar one. Biden is the grinning, overconfident oaf, a strutting salesman who keeps selling himself loads of bull manure even as everyone around him becomes alarmed by his obliviousness to facts. Or to cite another figure for comparison: He’s the lord of Swamp Castle in Monty Python and the Holy Grail: “Everyone said I was daft to build a castle on a swamp. But I built it all the same, just to show them. It sank into the swamp. So I built a second one. And that one sank into the swamp. So I built a third. That burned down, fell over, then sank into the swamp . . .” The story of Joe Biden is where staggering incompetence meets irrepressible self-confidence. The more he fails, the more convinced he becomes that he’s right.
Ladies and gentlemen, Joe Biden, managerial visionary. We turn to page 248 of Cramer’s tombstone-sized book. A couple of years into his Senate career, Biden has a dream of living grandly by buying on the cheap a former du Pont manse, together with a huge chunk of land, for $200,000. The house was boarded up and soon, probably, to be torn down. But Biden saw something in it. Sure, it needed some fixing up. Never fear, Joe is here! Joe is a can-do fellow. The first winter he and Jill spent in the house, it used up 3,000 gallons of fuel oil. It turned out the third floor was wide open, to the stars. Squirrels were living up there. Oops. The judgment on display here is not great.
Next year, Biden starting selling off bits of the land for development to pay for improvements such as storm windows. Small problem here: One of the lots he sold off was his own driveway, and the new owner blocked it off so he couldn’t pass through it. So Joe built a second driveway, which turned into a swamp in winter. He sold off another piece of property that, it turned out, included the front of that second driveway, so he couldn’t use that one anymore either. So I built a third. He hated that one for being a dumpy little thing. Eight years went by, and he made a deal to buy back the original driveway, the one he sold off when he first bought the house. Which cost him a fortune in landscaping to reshape.
Meanwhile Biden was struggling with the upkeep of the grounds; he’d let the grass get three feet high, then attack it with a riding mower. Mysteriously, year after year, the mowers kept breaking down. He’d go buy a new one, and wreck that one too. “These damn things aren’t built right,” he’d mutter. The mower was always the problem, you see. And the next one. And the next one.
To pare down costs, Biden figured he’d rearrange the floor plan a bit. At one point he decided to have the entire third story removed; at another he figured he’d have the ballroom and a bunch of other rooms, plus the carved staircase, taken apart and reassembled on a smaller footprint. It turned out this idea was kind of expensive, so he didn’t follow through. Then he got to work on the trees. Privacy was what Joe wanted, a screen of hemlocks and rhododendron bushes to form a green wall around the property. Joe even drove a 40-foot flatbed full of trees an hour and a half from Wilmington, dug himself a 45-foot trench three feet deep. He was out there in hiking boots and shorts doing the work himself. Then he started in with the yews. Glorious. He ringed the swimming pool with them. Finally, he had his privacy!
So how’d all this end? “Two years, of course, they’re all dead,” reports Cramer. Oh. Biden built a stockade fence around the property — friends started calling the place Fort Apache — but the neighbors complained. He had to take down the fence. At some point visitors noticed he had staked off the area around the very swimming pool, a plot he announced he was going to sell to raise more cash. Joe’s plan for the existing pool was to move it. Move a swimming pool. “Whaddya think?” he’d ask. “I think you’re f***in’ crazy,” friends would tell him.
All of this is leading up to why Joe, cash arsonist, decided he’d had enough of the fixing-upping he brought on himself and told his aides of his plans to move into an enormous Hyannisport-style $1.1 million estate in 1986, as he was preparing to run for president. “There was (to be perfectly blunt, as Joe would always say) a breathtaking element of balls. . . . Lots of times, more balls than sense.” Cramer evinces no interest whatsoever in how a public servant whose salary had ranged from $42,500 in 1972 to a 1986 figure of $75,100 could afford such a lavish spread — $1.1 million in 1987 dollars would be $2.5 million today. At the time, Biden was already “into Visa, Amex for thousands.” Joe Biden, sharp-eyed custodian of budgets.
Cramer does a lap dissolve between the constant rethinks and upheavals of the various Biden homes and the similar confusion in the campaign, during which months were spent trying to come up with a message, i.e., an argument Biden could make to the voters. The argument “I’m not Trump” was not yet available. Biden’s mind was a landfill of half-considered ideas, and his lack of focus was so obvious that he repelled leading Democratic strategist Bob Shrum, who declined to work with him: “Shrum thought Biden was a looneytune,” Cramer writes.
Biden spent months arguing with his advisers, such as the pollster Pat Caddell, about what exactly his message should be. They all thought the message was: Joe is the new Bobby Kennedy. Voice of a new generation. A generation left behind. Biden wanted to tell Americans the country had been divided into haves and have-nots by the education system. Which, as president, he would naturally fix. “I’m gonna tell ’em they may not like it, but it’s time to stop screwing around.”
The problem with Biden started with Biden: Just as with his tastes in property, he was always reaching for more than he could grasp, always pictured himself grander than he was. In mid speech he couldn’t help himself, he’d go off on a tangent and brag about his role in the glorious civil-rights movement that he had completely missed. He’d say he started in the movement and reminisce about how it felt to march in the streets. But Joe had never marched, his aides reminded him. The best he could do was point to a time when a black football teammate in high school couldn’t get served fries at a restaurant, so the rest of the players, including Joe, walked out. “The gurus would shake their heads. That’s not marching,” Cramer writes. Joe would apologize and then, a week later, in another speech, he’d do the same thing again. This year he has been boasting about the french-fry incident as part of a career spent “desegregating restaurants, that kind of thing.” Biden’s Selma envy kept popping up, over the years, in various other forms, such as when he claimed, last winter, “I was raised in the black church politically.” He wasn’t.
Cramer clearly likes Biden and writes about him mostly sympathetically, and he obviously spent a lot of time getting to know the man, along with other major candidates. Even so, the image that forms is not reassuring. Biden looks far better from a distance than when you zoom in on him, which is why so little media coverage, these days, focuses on his actual record. The Biden of What It Takes is a classic slick-salesman type, just like his dad, Joe Sr., the used-car dealer. He’s loose with his money, loose with the truth. Unable to manage anything competently, even his own house. Even his own mouth. Managerial competence is not what he exudes. Bluster and blarney and back-slapping are the limits of his skills. There’s a reason why, in a half century of observing his buffoonery, no one took the idea of a President Biden seriously until about ten minutes ago.