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Public Statements

Farewell to the Senate

Floor Speech

Location: Washington, DC

FAREWELL TO THE SENATE -- (Senate - January 15, 2009)


Mr. KERRY. It is hard to imagine, at least for me it is hard to imagine, the Senate without Joe Biden--at least as a Senator on the floor, in the thick of the fray. That is not just because he came here as a kid, so to speak, not just because he chaired some of this institution's most important committees, but it is because of this particular moment that we find ourselves in, in the country.

This is the kind of moment JOE BIDEN loves to be in the middle of, legislating. Obviously, we take a very special pride in knowing that one of our own is about to become Vice President. While this makes him President of the Senate, for once I actually wish Dick Cheney was right and that Joe was still a part of the legislative branch. But, make no mistake, the Senate's loss is President Obama's and the country's gain. Joe will bring a terrific strategic thinking and legislative experience to the challenges we face.

This is a special moment in so many ways, and it is an emotional moment. I have known Joe since we were both kids, in terms of this journey, since we first ran for office in 1972. We learned about each other then, reading the press clips of each other's races, hearing stories from mutual friends and joint campaign workers. The conventional wisdom of that year is that Joe couldn't win his race against an incumbent, Hale Boggs, who had been in office and winning elections in Delaware for 6 years. I, on the other hand, was favored to win mine. True to conventional wisdom, it turned out exactly the opposite way.

To this day, I like to kid our longtime friend, our New Jersey friend, John Marttila, who was deeply involved in both of our races back then, that if he had just spent a little more time in Lowell, MA, and a little less time in Wilmington, things might have turned out differently. But for Joe and me, both in politics and in life, things have actually turned out pretty well, and I have loved sharing this journey with him.

In a lot of ways, Joe Biden is an old-fashioned kind of guy. He lives life and politics by what a lot of people think are the old rules, regrettably: Unfailingly loyal, your word is your bond, you tell the truth, you act on principle not ideology, and you keep faith with family and home, you never forget where your roots are or who you are, and you are consistent and honest in all your endeavors.

Joe Biden is all of that and a lot more in many personal ways. He is a patriarch to the core, in the best time-honored understanding of the meaning of that word. He never smiles more broadly or picks up more personal energy than when he is talking about his family. Frankly, to know Joe Biden is also to know a lot of Bidens.

Dozens of our colleagues, hundreds over the years, know that if you call Joe Biden with a late-night question, the odds are pretty high you are going to find him on that train, riding Amtrak home to be there with Jill, Beau, Hunter, Ashley, and the grandchildren. There is something pretty great about a Senator who makes sure to stop by his mom's house for ice cream or a kiss good night on his way home. That is exactly what Joe Biden would do with his 92-year-old spitfire mother, Jean Finnegan Biden. It is the lessons of that big, Irish, warm, protective family that Joe brought to the Senate. He is the big brother whose sister Val remembers him as her protector on the playground, the dad whom Beau and Hunter remember urging them to get up when they got knocked down on the soccer field, the boss who calls a staff member when they have a sick parent or who threatens to fire you if you miss your kid's birthday because you are working late for him.

This is someone in the Senate who had a reputation for not just talking about family values but living them. As Joe Biden said so movingly this morning: He saw the Senate as an extended family and here he applied the lessons his dad taught him in Scranton, that everything comes down to dignity and respect. He has always respected the institution, and he always respected the dignity and individuality of every single one of his colleagues.

One of the great stories that Joe told today, which has always spoken to me personally, is one that tells a lot about ushering in a new era of bipartisanship. When Joe first arrived in the Senate, he complained to the majority leader, Mike Mansfield, about a speech that another new Senator named Jesse Helms had made. Mansfield told him: Joe, understand one thing. Everyone is sent here for a reason; because there is something in them that their folks like. Don't question their motive.

Every one of us who has worked with Joe Biden knows how much he took this lesson to heart and how much we gain by applying it today. His example is clear. If you treat people decently, look for the best in them, you can sit down and work through divisive issues; not just score more political points but actually get something done.

Joe likes to talk about his first impression of Jesse Helms, but he is often too modest to talk about what happened later. Some people might have been surprised that Joe Biden, Jesse Helms, and I teamed up in the fight against global HIV/AIDS. Some never would have believed that together we could bring about what is today the largest public health expenditure or effort by any single country in world history. That is what happens when Joe Biden takes to heart the message of a wise warhorse such as Mike Mansfield, looks past the stereotypes, past the party labels, and throws out all the ideological language to find the common ground.

Nowhere did I see that more than on the issue of crime. Coming from the vantage point of being a prosecutor in the 1970s, who then became a Senator in the 1980s, I can tell you there was no more divisive, ugly wedge and emotionally charged issue than crime until Joe Biden and the 1994 crime bill. Joe put an end to the ``Willie Hortonizing'' of this issue. We worked closely together and put more cops on the streets of America. I remember Joe's passion and tenacity on that bill.

It was a huge, landmark piece of legislation, complicated, divisive--but not so because of Joe's enormous skill that shepherded it through the ideological minefields that otherwise might have been impossible. Joe was simply not going to accept defeat. He made dozens of trips to the White House, had dozens of meetings with congressional leadership, all to find a way to create common ground and ultimately pass a bill that resulted in the lowest crime rates in a generation. Every step of the way he sought out friends, he crossed the aisle, he worked the process and built allies and invited them to share not just in the work but also to share in the credit, which is, in the end, the best way to get things done here. That is leadership in the Senate and that is exactly how we make progress.

He also brought great skill to his stewardship in the Foreign Relations Committee. I served on that committee for the full 25 years I have been here, all of it with Joe Biden and some of it with Joe Biden as our chair. Let me give an example.

When Russian tanks rolled into Georgia, respecting Georgia's sovereignty became a sound bite for a lot of people, but for Joe Biden it was a moment to pick up a phone, call up an old friend, someone he had met as a young Parliamentarian, who was then in his twenties. So Joe Biden got on a plane, took that flight all night, and sat on a hilltop in Georgia with his old friend, Mikheil Saakashvili, and together they talked to not just about the security of Georgia but the security of a man who was then in very real danger, a man Joe Biden believed was willing to die for democracy.

This is just one small example of the emotional intelligence and personal touch that had been the calling cards of Joe's career in public life for decades.

As we all know, Joe is blessed with a big, all-encompassing Irish sense of humor, an ability to have fun amidst all the rest of the tensions and stress and chaos. We still joke about the trip we took with Chuck Hagel to a forward operating base in Kunar Province in Afghanistan in the middle of winter and our helicopter wound up getting caught in a blizzard. We had just received a briefing that, where the modern road system ends, the Taliban begins. Lo and behold, the next thing we knew, we had a forced landing high on a mountaintop on a dirt road with nothing around us. We sat around swapping stories for a while and came up with a few contingency plans in case the Taliban attacked. First, we thought--use the hot air of three talkative Senators and the helicopter will rise. Then we figured failing that we will talk the Taliban to death. Ultimately, we figured we would let Joe Biden lead a snowball charge and that would be the end of the deal. But our superb military protectors, efficient as always, soon had us out of there, safe and rescued, and we have had a good time laughing about it ever since.

Later, when I told him my plan to have him lead the brigade, Joe, reliving his Blue Hen college football glory days, flexed his right arm and said in that inimitable Biden way: The Taliban? They are not worth my rocket arm.

As chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, JOE applied a no-holds-barred, unvarnished truth-telling to many politically sensitive issues. In the middle of his own Presidential campaign, he didn't hesitate to ask whether our counterterrorism policy had turned a deadly serious but manageable threat, a small number of radical groups that hate America, into a 10-foot-tall existential monster that dictates nearly every move we make. It was not a poll-tested or popular question, but it was a sign of leadership and a mark of vision that will serve America well when he takes the oath as Vice President of the United States.

Let me share one last story involving my senior Senator, Ted Kennedy, who has been an incredible mentor, both to me and to Joe, since we both got into this business.

Years ago, when Ted Kennedy joined the Armed Services Committee, Senate rules dictated that Ted had to step down from the Judiciary Committee. That would have made JOE the chairman. So Joe had all the interest in the world for that to happen. But, instead--and I suppose I should say what Senator in their early forties, presented with the choice, wouldn't have loved to have had the responsibility of the Judiciary Committee. But Joe Biden went to the caucus and he gave them an ultimatum. He said point blank: This is ridiculous. I wouldn't serve as a chairman unless I have Teddy Kennedy on my side on this committee.

Make no mistake, Ted Kennedy moved to Armed Services, but he stayed on the Judiciary Committee. Together, they fought some of the greatest confirmation battles in the history of the Supreme Court. No one can imagine the Judiciary Committee without Ted Kennedy's decades of focus and fire. But the Senate should know it would not have been possible if it had not been for Joe Biden's youthful challenge to the leadership to get him to be able to stay there.

JOE is one of the people in the Senate whom I have had the privilege of enjoying now for a quarter of a century and one of the people, obviously, I have enjoyed serving with the most. We have been through a lot. We have shared a lot, good and bad, ups and downs. What is exciting is, frankly, we still have a lot more to come. While Joe is making that short ride up to the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue, I know there is one thing that is not going to change. We are always going to be able to count on him to be the same Joe Biden, and I know we can take that to the bank. When JOE works with us in these next months--and he will work with us intensely--and when he says to you: I give you my word as a Biden that this is going to happen, we can take that to the bank and know it will happen.

We are very proud of our colleague, Senator Biden. We wish him well and Godspeed. We look forward to seeing him as the presiding official of this body, but, more importantly, we look forward to working with him on the enormous challenges this country faces.


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