Joe Biden: American
Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks at a campaign event at Dallas High School in Dallas, Pa., Saturday, Oct. 24, 2020. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)
Meant for a general, international audience, this book covers the track record and psychology of the most powerful man in the world with rigorously documented information arranged in an entertaining narrative. If you were expecting a Christmas carol, however, about The Man Who Saved the World from Donald Trump, you are in for a surprise. This freshly released biography of the President-elect of the United States of America is frank and uncompromising– so much so, that, in the service of the facts, it will embarrass the subject of the biography wherever appropriate. As all good biographies of powerful people should.
For instance, sample this juicy tidbit from the book: “Biden’s insecurities fed a certain openness and vulnerability. Even after decades in national office, he talked to anyone in reach, partly because he was trawling for what others knew and he did not.” Another example is an acutely observed signpost to Biden’s psychology. We are told how Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., was humiliated by grade school classmates for stuttering, and we are shown how the child made the man. The author says, “... Biden was especially wary of embarrassment (throughout his life)”. More so the pity, because “... Biden has contended with a harrowing tendency to put his foot in his mouth”. What follows is a salvo of anecdotes illustrating this point perfectly.
Biden also has a tendency to tell lies on record. The author writes, for example, “He (Biden) once said that he’d been ‘shot at’ in Iraq. Pressed, he revised it to say, ‘I was near where a shot landed.’” The author cites a number of such “exaggerations and plagiarisms”. We are told that Biden hungers for respect. The author says, in an admirably constructed sentence, “... for Biden, running for president (in 2016) was less important than confirming that people afforded him the respect of taking it seriously”.
Suffice it to say that Osnos is no Biden cheerleader; he assesses Biden, warts and all. We are shown, in pleasingly lucid detail, how the grind of political life shaped Biden as a politician. We are shown Biden’s early days as a Senator, his stand on various issues. We are given an account of Biden’s refusal to allow testimonies of women who might have buttressed an accusation of sexual harassment against a Supreme Court nominee. Though Biden ultimately voted against the nominee, that man won the seat. We are told, “In the Senate, Biden accrued a record that, to today’s progressives, resembles the counts in an indictment. He voted for the deregulation of Wall Street, the Defense of Marriage Act (according to Encyclopaedia Britannica, the Act ‘denied to same-sex couples all benefits and recognition given to opposite-sex couples’), the North American Free Trade Agreement, the war in Iraq”. Biden, we are told, also helped draft the “1994 crime bill... (which) contributed to the problems of mass incarceration by creating a federal ‘three strikes’ law, encouraging longer jail terms, and granting billions of dollars to states to build more prisons”. The author quotes the Socialist magazine Jacobin’s memorable turn of phrase about Biden’s track record as Senator:”[T]he Forrest Gump of the Democratic Party’s Rightward Turn”. Zing!
Further, Biden’s track record as Vice President is dealt with in penetrating detail. We are told that Biden as Vice President was a “weathervane for what the center of the left is”, while also being a good negotiator with the Republican Party over crucial decisions that could leave his Democratic colleagues enraged. We are informed about Biden’s reputation as a butt of jokes among Republican politicians. We are told, “Republicans rejoiced in casting Biden as the consummate pol, careless, blustery, and a fogey”. Biden turned his image around, though, says the author. In 2012, The Atlantic
had a headline saying, ‘The Most Influential Vice President in History’. We are told in well-researched and analysed detail how Biden accomplished that. Adequate coverage is also given to the Obama-Biden bromance. Moreover, Biden’s knowledge of foreign affairs proved especially useful to Obama – we are given admirable, bird’s-eye-views of Biden’s finest moments in foreign policy, as well as his missteps.
We fast-forward from Biden’s failed 2016 bid to secure his party’s nomination as presidential candidate to his successful 2020 attempt. We are given a brisk account of how Biden secured that nomination in 2020 at last; we are told that Biden initially appealed to those Democratic Party supporters who were older people, centrist and conservative. In finally getting the Democratic nomination, “... Biden benefited from fear of both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders (because Sanders was ‘unappealing’ to moderates)”. We are told that Biden, in order to appeal to younger, more Leftist voters, adopted more progressive policies. Biden, who had initially announced during his campaign that nothing would fundamentally change, was now using words like ‘revolutionary changes’. But will things really change radically? The books gives us a fair idea (no spoilers). Written before the 2020 US Presidential election, the book ends with Biden’s nomination of Kamala Harris as candidate for Vice President.
It’s breezy, this biography, written simply and engagingly by a seasoned and wise observer of Washington politics. Can you, in today’s political climate in our country, imagine an Indian journalist writing as frankly as Osnos about powerful Indian politicians? I can’t. So, while I recommend this book enthusiastically to the general audience here, I would also suggest it to many Indian journalists and biographers who advance the public relations cause of politicians and their owners.