Joe Biden's inner struggle

Vice President Joe Biden's appearance on the new Stephen Colbert late-night television show was not billed as a campaign event. But because of the man's rare candor and authenticity, the interview may have offered the best argument for him to run for president after all, despite his clearly stated reservations.

With a deft mixture of humor and seriousness, Mr. Colbert invited Mr. Biden to say what was in his heart about his indecisiveness, which has come to the fore with a growing sense of vulnerability in Hillary Clinton's assumed coronation as the 2016 Democratic nominee. Mr. Biden characteristically let all his feelings hang out, in arguably the most appealing television performance of his political career.


It has long been known that with Joe Biden, what you see it what you get. His personal inability to put on a false front has for years led to criticism, and even ridicule, of him as a gaffe machine who digs holes for himself by saying too much too often. But through it all, his fearless openness has become a trademark, and never more appealingly than in this Colbert interview.

Confirming the private debate with himself over the grief he is enduring over the death of his elder son, Beau, his obligations to his family and his political aspirations, Mr. Biden told Mr. Colbert: "I'd be lying if I said that I knew I was there (on making a decision). I'm being completely honest. Nobody has a right in my view to seek that office unless they are willing to give it 110 percent of who they are."

At the same time, he cited his late mother of this devotedly Irish Catholic family as telling him that "as long as you are alive you have an obligation to strive, and you're not dead until you see the face of God." He added: "No one owes you anything. You gotta get up. And I feel like I was letting down Beau (who reportedly before his death urged his father to run), letting down my parents, letting down my family, if I didn't just get up."

Mr. Biden went on with a personal observation to Mr. Colbert, who as a boy lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash. "I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up," he told his host. "You're one of them, old buddy, losing your dad when you're a kid." That remark certainly seemed as an encouragement for the vice president to do the same in his current challenge.

Mr. Biden, greeted by the studio audience with loud applause and cheering, confessed to feeling some embarrassment that "so many people who have losses as severe or maybe worse than mine and don't have the support I have." But he also said he didn't think one should run for president unless "they can look at folks out there and say I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion to do this."

From all this, it seems clear that Joe Biden has not yet reached that point. But it's also clear from his life record that should he decide in the end to run, he would deliver all those ingredients and all that intensity in the undertaking. Indeed, his natural enthusiasm and warmth are his strongest suits, and account for the late-blooming groundswell of interest in another Biden presidential candidacy.

In purely political terms, the Joe Biden buoyancy and optimism would provide a sharp contrast to the criticism of Hillary Clinton's relative reserve and careful calibration as demonstrated in her current campaign, for all her efforts to put more of a smiley face on it.

Mr. Biden has said ever since he became vice president in 2009 that he would be guided by his intention "to be the best vice president I can be." He has said it is the surest way to advance the goals of the Obama administration, and simultaneously whatever political ambitions of his own he might have beyond that.

With Hillary Clinton now putting some distance between herself and the Obama foreign policies, Mr. Biden may be the best vice president he can be by defending those policies on the 2016 campaign trail.

Jules Witcover is a syndicated columnist, Joe Biden biographer and former long-time writer for The Baltimore Sun. His latest book is "The American Vice Presidency: From Irrelevance to Power" (Smithsonian Books). His email is