I actually enjoy talking to Joe Biden, the longtime senator from Delaware who is making his second bid as a Democratic presidential candidate. That may put me in a minority of my media colleagues, many of whom consider Biden a blowhard in love with the sound of his own voice a reputation that Biden himself plays off of.
Perhaps, but Biden always struck me as an interesting character, a true political animal with a healthy ego, brains and charm and more than a few good ideas worth tuning in to. I saw him a few times in 1987 when he was a 44-year-old golden boy first elected to the Senate before he turned 30 in 1972, the year of Richard Nixon's landslide with an equally golden future who was on the fast track to win the 1988 primary.
He was old-school young he didn't apologize for being a politician and clearly loved being a public servant in an era when Ronald Reagan and the GOP began to repeat ad nauseam the mantra of "government is the problem" (which in the case of George W. Bush has evolved into cruel truth).
But the fast track led him over a cliff when he became caught in the media minefield of that year (remember Gary Hart and his "Monkey Business" adventures). To make a long, absurd story short: Biden was accused of using in his own stump speech material from a British politician and not giving proper attribution. His credibility took an immediate dive and the vampire press didn't let up. I say absurd because while Biden got burned at the press stake, George Bush senior was given a free pass by acting stupid about Iran-Contra; he was "out of the loop," which was deceitful at best.
Fast forward to 2007 and earlier this week when I interviewed Biden about the Iraq war. Talking to Biden when he gets on a roll can be a challenge and especially when it comes to Iraq. He's an overflowing river of passion, ideas and barely simmering anger.
He has become, at least in his own eyes, the "truth-teller" of the 2008 campaign so far. He has been singing a policy aria of "partition, partition, partition."
The Biden-Gelb plan of encouraging an internationally supervised break-up of Iraq into three states (Sunni, Shia and Kurd) is gaining serious traction in respectable, bipartisan circles, if for no other reason than it actually mirrors the traumatic events on the ground in disintegrating Iraq.
"There is no strong central government in Iraq. There isn't even a functioning central government," said Biden, who has made eight trips to Iraq. "There never will be."
This doesn't mesh with the parallel universe occupied by President Bush and other war supporters who embody the notion of the movie "Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind" wipe out the past and all seems possible, even serene.
Biden said the administration's happy-face figures about decreasing violence in Iraq ignore a fundamental reality he has seen for himself namely that the country is awash in sectarian refugees who are fleeing for their lives.
Bush continues to scale new heights of lunacy with each passing day on Iraq: his latest passing the buck of blame to a dead man (Saddam Hussein) was an act of political cowardice only matched in absurdity by his "Mandela's dead" analogy about why Iraqis can't get along.
"It's reprehensible," Biden told me about his iron-clad belief that Bush has slipped into legacy mode and is washing his hands of Iraq by blaming everyone else for its failure before passing it on to the next winner of the presidential gong show.
He dismisses the "No Surrender" mantra of Senate colleague and Republican presidential hopeful John McCain as no more credible than the "glib" withdrawal proposals of his Democratic rivals Barack Obama, Bill Richardson, Dennis Kucinich, Christopher Dodd, John Edwards and Hillary Clinton. In Biden's assessment, they all ignore the realities of Iraq namely that we are at a Jean-Paul Sartre "No Exit" crossroads courtesy of the spotless mind crowd.
More than any other candidate, Biden seems to have a strong grasp about why this mess is so, well, seemingly impossible to confront rationally.
It's about 5,000 years of history, he tells me. Of more recent vintage, Iraq was a colonial creation of a few British and French diplomats amid post-World War I chaos. All the historical contortion acts regarding Iraq especially the notion of having what Bush hilariously calls "instant democracy" ignores, Biden explains, what this country went through during its Confederation-to-Constitution phase in the late 18th century.
"It took us 13 years before we had our Philadelphia moment," Biden said about the Constitutional Convention of 1787.
Had John Kerry won the election in 2004, it's likely that Biden would be secretary of state. When I asked him to imagine what he would have been doing for the past three years about Iraq, he talked as if he wanted to step in tomorrow.
"There would have been no escalation and one thing for certain is that we would have engaged international support and an international conference," he told me. "We would have kept working to find a solution. It would have been radically different."
The tragedy in Iraq is why voting matters. Biden ignores his low poll numbers and paltry fund-raising numbers when compared to Obama and Clinton. He likes telling primary voters what they need to hear.
"The vast majority of primary voters want out of Iraq," Biden said. "They're not stupid. They get it. They know we have to do it right."