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A Look At Biden's Life And Political Career

AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:

At this point, the arc of President-elect Joe Biden's life is pretty well known - youngest man elected to the Senate, oldest man to take the oath of office; a man beset by immense personal tragedy, including the sudden loss of his wife and infant daughter in a car accident and the loss of a beloved son to a brain tumor when Biden was vice president. Now, those are the broad outlines. We wanted to dig a little bit deeper into each of those moments. And to do that, we're going to speak with New Yorker writer Evan Osnos. He's written a biography of Biden. It's called "The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." Evan Osnos joins us now.

Welcome to the program.

EVAN OSNOS: Thanks for having me.

CORNISH: So one of the things you write about is that Biden is from this very lucky generation. Lucky in what way? And what does that mean in terms of who he was as he was entering the Senate?

OSNOS: Well, he's known as part of the lucky few, as social scientists put it, because there were literally fewer kids in that generation. It was the generation coming out of the Great Depression and World War II, and families were smaller. And that meant there was more money for scholarships. There were more jobs available. And that period was a time in which you could rise faster in the workplace. And that concept of the lucky few became a powerful fact about being a part of that cohort.

CORNISH: And so when Biden decides to run for Senate - this is after growing up a kid with a stutter, after considering being a priest - how did he reach the point where he thought, well, let me just challenge a very powerful senator?

OSNOS: Well, he had already in high school gotten the idea that that was the path for him. You know, he was a senior in high school when John F. Kennedy was inaugurated, and that was a fellow Irish Catholic. And it was really very inspiring to Biden. He actually went into the school library and started looking up in the congressional directory what kind of training and background people in the Senate had. It gave him this kind of - almost a preternatural sense of confidence. And when he finally had this moment of the opportunity to run for office, it was a really audacious thing to do. I mean, he's 29 years old. He's not even old enough to take the seat if he wins. And he runs against this giant of Delaware politics. And the result was that he eked out this extraordinary upset - 3,000 votes. And that sense of achievement was the highest of highs. It felt like anything was possible for him.

CORNISH: And then comes one of the most important moments - by his own description - of his life. And that is the death of his wife and daughter in a car accident. Joe Biden has told this story so many times, it's become part of who he is publicly. As you were writing your book, what facet of this story has come to you that has better helped you understand who he is?

OSNOS: I think people know the outlines of that story. And what they may not know is actually the depths that he fell afterwards. I mean, he was, by his own description, suicidal. He had had this life in which everything had worked out well. And all of a sudden, he was cruelly reminded that nobody is truly the author of their own fate, of their own experience. He was, in a sense, shaken by that sudden recognition that his life was bounded, ultimately, by things outside of his control. And those - I think it was those two kinds of experience - the ability to will himself to success and then the humbling of the reality of all that he could not control - that became the foundation of his worldview.

CORNISH: So if that's Act I, I want to talk about what happens next, sort of how he develops his politics. And I'm looking to around 19-, maybe '73, '74, when he begins to embrace the movement of parents in the Democratic Party who are against school integration through busing. This came up via his running mate - right? - Kamala Harris bringing it up on the primary debate stage. But can you put that moment in context? Why did he embrace that movement?

OSNOS: He had actually run for office as somebody on the side of civil rights. He played a bit part in some desegregation protests in Delaware. And he got to the Senate, and he represented a state divided between the North and the South. It was a place where Jim Crow laws still applied. And he was constantly tacking back and forth between support and opposition to elements of civil rights. And there was this fateful moment in 1974, when he went to see a group of parents who were opposed to the busing of students. And they shouted at him. And it changed him. He became their champion in the Senate.

The truth was that he is a person who was an opponent of busing in the '70s, and he was also somebody who, decades later, was so repulsed by what he saw in Charlottesville that that was one of the moments that drove him into the race. And in some ways, the trajectory of his life with its tacking and turning on questions of race is a reflection of the Democratic Party itself over the last half-century.

CORNISH: The thing that struck me is he's running for president periodically throughout this period as well. And you write that he has described himself as arrogant. So how does that different (ph) from that kind of first act of his career - right? - (laughter) where the confidence matures somehow and curdles into arrogance?

OSNOS: In his years in the Senate, so much of what he was doing in running the judiciary committee or head of the Foreign Affairs Committee was very often running against the background of his desire to be president. But by the end of 2008, you know, after this long 36 years in the U.S. Senate, he was heading actually for the history books as not a person who was a giant of history. And it was remarkable that he could have ended his career that way. But it was, in fact, Barack Obama who opened this new chapter, opened a door for him.

CORNISH: Can you talk about how that relationship was pivotal?

OSNOS: They were totally different people. I mean, they were separated by 19 years and this utterly different sense of style and approach. Barack Obama was quieter, more disciplined. And the truth was that watching Obama up close changed some of Biden's own political habits and practices. And as somebody who worked very closely with both of them said to me, the reason it worked was that each one thought he was the mentor of the other.

CORNISH: As he enters this next phase of his career, what does he bring to this moment?

OSNOS: I think he brings to it a lot of scar tissue; some of the successes he's had and also a lot of the failures along the way and the tragic events, that combination of qualities. You know, one of his friends, his former chief of staff, Ted Kaufman, once said to me, if you ask me who the luckiest person I know is, it's Joe Biden. And if you ask me who the unluckiest person I know is, it's Joe Biden. And the combination of those two qualities has given him an acquaintance with suffering that is relevant right now. This is a country that is grieving right now - literally, in some cases, families who have lost people to the COVID epidemic and other people who are grieving for our politics, grieving for the culture that we are living in right now and this period of such pain. And that for him is something that he knows how to contend with. It's been a part of his life for a long time.

CORNISH: Evan Osnos is the author of "The Life, The Run, And What Matters Now." He writes for The New Yorker magazine.

Thank you for sharing this story with us.

OSNOS: You're welcome.

(SOUNDBITE OF SOCCER MOMMY'S "INSIDE OUT") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.