To understand why the possibility that Vice President Biden will enter the presidential race is generating such excitement, look no further than Mr. Biden's remarks on May 17 at Yale University's Class Day, which were magnificent. Mr. Biden said:
the most successful and happiest people I've known understand that a good life at its core is about being personal. It's about being engaged. It's about being there for a friend or a colleague when they're injured or in an accident, remembering the birthdays, congratulating them on their marriage, celebrating the birth of their child. It's about being available to them when they're going through personal loss. It's about loving someone more than yourself, as one of your speakers have already mentioned. It all seems to get down to being personal.
That's the stuff that fosters relationships. It's the only way to breed trust in everything you do in your life.
Let me give you an example. After only four months in the United States Senate, as a 30-year-old kid, I was walking through the Senate floor to go to a meeting with Majority Leader Mike Mansfield. And I witnessed another newly elected senator, the extremely conservative Jesse Helms, excoriating Ted Kennedy and Bob Dole for promoting the precursor of the Americans with Disabilities Act. But I had to see the Leader, so I kept walking.
When I walked into Mansfield's office, I must have looked as angry as I was. He was in his late '70s, lived to be 100. And he looked at me, he said, what's bothering you, Joe?
I said, that guy, Helms, he has no social redeeming value. He doesn't care -- I really mean it -- I was angry. He doesn't care about people in need. He has a disregard for the disabled.
Majority Leader Mansfield then proceeded to tell me that three years earlier, Jesse and Dot Helms, sitting in their living room in early December before Christmas, reading an ad in the Raleigh Observer, the picture of a young man, 14-years-old with braces on his legs up to both hips, saying, all I want is someone to love me and adopt me. He looked at me and he said, and they adopted him, Joe.
I felt like a fool. He then went on to say, Joe, it's always appropriate to question another man's judgment, but never appropriate to question his motives because you simply don't know his motives.
It happened early in my career fortunately. From that moment on, I tried to look past the caricatures of my colleagues and try to see the whole person. Never once have I questioned another man's or woman's motive. And something started to change. If you notice, every time there's a crisis in the Congress the last eight years, I get sent to the Hill to deal with it. It's because every one of those men and women up there -- whether they like me or not -- know that I don't judge them for what I think they're thinking.
Because when you question a man's motive, when you say they're acting out of greed, they're in the pocket of an interest group, et cetera, it's awful hard to reach consensus. It's awful hard having to reach across the table and shake hands. No matter how bitterly you disagree, though, it is always possible if you question judgment and not motive.
Senator Helms and I continued to have profound political differences, but early on we both became the most powerful members of the Senate running the Foreign Relations Committee, as Chairmen and Ranking Members. But something happened, the mutual defensiveness began to dissipate. And as a result, we began to be able to work together in the interests of the country. And as Chairman and Ranking Member, we passed some of the most significant legislation passed in the last 40 years.... So one piece of advice is try to look beyond the caricature of the person with whom you have to work. Resist the temptation to ascribe motive, because you really don't know -— and it gets in the way of being able to reach a consensus on things that matter to you and to many other people.
The approach Vice President Biden advocates is just about the polar opposite of the way that President Obama and Secretary Clinton conduct themselves. Mr. Biden warns, "when you say they're acting out of greed, they're in the pocket of an interest group, et cetera, it's awful hard to reach consensus." Yet in one of his first weekly addresses as president, Barack Obama denounced what he called the "arrogance and greed" of Wall Street bankers. In another weekly address, Mr. Obama said, "America may be speaking out, but Republicans in Congress sure aren't listening. They want to put special interests back in the driver's seat in Washington." Mr. Obama has been doing this in regard to the deal with Iran, accusing members of Congress of being bought: "if you've got a whole bunch of folks who are big check writers to political campaigns, running TV ads, and billionaires who happily finance SuperPACs and they are putting the squeeze on members of Congress... this opportunity could slip away."
Mr. Obama's hardball approach may be nastier (and its effectiveness is not to be underestimated), but Mr. Biden's more softball approach may sometimes work even better, as evidenced by the fact that, as Mr. Biden put it, "If you notice, every time there's a crisis in the Congress the last eight years, I get sent to the Hill to deal with it." Time will tell if Mr. Biden's interpersonal skills have won him President Obama's support in the struggle against Mrs. Clinton for the 2016 Democratic nomination. The steady, death-by-a-thousand-cuts flow of bad news about Mrs. Clinton's use of a private, personal email account for government business certainly is consistent with the possibility that someone high up in the Obama administration is rooting for someone other than her to win the nomination.
I first encountered Mr. Biden 20 years ago at a small event on Capitol Hill that I was covering as Washington correspondent of the Forward. I can't recall if the topic was the National Endowment for Democracy, NATO enlargement, or Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, but the unmistakable impression I was left with was that on foreign policy, he was an internationalist who believed in robust American leadership to promote freedom, democracy, and the rule of law overseas. Mr. Biden's Yale speech includes nods to President Kennedy and to the late Congressman Tom Lantos, other Democrats in that vein. One finds Mr. Biden's name on foreign policy open letters alongside neoconservative stalwarts like Max Boot, William Kristol, and Ellen Bork. He voted for the North American Free Trade Agreement. (Though it's also worth recalling that Mr. Biden opposed the strike that killed Osama Bin Laden—as Hillary Clinton is happy to remind audiences—and that Senator Biden also voted against the first Iraq War).
When Mr. Biden's name first surfaced as President Obama's potential running mate, a New York Sun editorial noted that in at least four instances, including an override of President Clinton's veto, Senator Biden voted along with Daniel Patrick Moynihan in favor of a ban on the procedure known as partial birth abortion. As Vice President, Mr. Biden reportedly warned President Obama about the mandate for contraceptive coverage as part of ObamaCare, and tried, without much success, to mediate a compromise.
This is not an endorsement. There are plenty of tax, spending, regulatory, judicial nomination (Biden voted against confirming Justices Roberts, Alito, and Thomas), and even foreign policy issues where the Republican candidates are closer to my views than Mr. Biden is. But if the vice president gets into the race, continues to articulate the principles he outlined at Yale, and conducts his campaign and his presidency, if elected, along those lines, what a positive thing it would be for the country.