Joe Biden Cites Experience in Presidential Run

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Sen. Joe Biden (D-DE) lacks the star-power of fellow presidential aspirant Barack Obama, but he's hoping his three decades in the Senate will make up the difference. Biden talks to Farai Chideya about his run for the White House, Iraq, American policy in Africa and the modern civil rights crisis.

FARAI CHIDEYA, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Farai Chideya.

We're months away from presidential primary season, but the White House race is already at full boil. One Democrat in the running is Delaware Senator Joe Biden. Though he lags Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama in the polls, Biden hopes his bold plan for Iraq in his three decades in the Senate will win voters over. Senator Biden's been on the Hill since 1972 when he became one of the youngest senators in U.S. history.

Today, he chairs the powerful Foreign Relations Committee. We sat down together at NPR West to discuss his campaign for the White House and his positions on Iraq, U.S. policy in Africa and civil rights at home.

But first, we talked about tragedy. Within weeks of winning his very first Senate race, Biden lost his wife and infant daughter in a car accident. I asked him how he would comfort families dealing with the deaths of loved ones in the Virginia Tech tragedy.

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): Having lost a child and watching other people who've lost children, it is just almost beyond my comprehension to think of what these parents thought from the moment they heard about this until the moment they find out their child was safe.

And, you know, for a long time I was the chairman of the Judiciary Committee and that's the committee that has control over matters relating to guns. I think there is a second amendment. People have a right to bear arms, but people don't have a right to have armor-piercing bullets. They don't have a right to carry assault weapons, in my view. They don't have a right to engage in conduct that is irresponsible in terms of what they sell at gun shows. They don't have a right to do a lot. There are limitations on every constitutional right.

CHIDEYA: Tell us more about what you're saying on Iraq and why you think your experience helps you in that area. Experience doesn't always translate…

Sen. BIDEN: Exactly.

CHIDEYA: …into what people want to hear. I'm not saying what is right…

Sen. BIDEN: No.

CHIDEYA: …but just what people want to hear…

Sen. BIDEN: You're right.

CHIDEYA: …for example, with Senator John McCain. He is extremely experienced in foreign policy. And right now, he's made some decisions in how he positions himself on Iraq - saying, go forth with the surge - that a lot of people even within his own party don't appreciate.

Sen. BIDEN: There's good experience and bad experience and that's why I say track record. Look at the track record of the various people who were claiming they know what they're about. The generic point I want to make about foreign policy is the next president of the United States has to know more than his or her advisers know.

Number two, John - God love him as my mother would say - is dead wrong. My policy - I'm the only one in either political party, who's put together a specific plan on how to deal with Iraq well over a year ago. And here's what it gets down to. Everyone says there is no military solution. That is correct. Everybody says there's a political solution. But all the ideas put forward by all the candidates, whether it's surge troops, cap troops, cut troops - none of them mention the critical next important question the president must answer. Then what? Surge, then what? Cap, then what?

The only solution is to do what has been done in the past: set up a federal system - what their constitution calls for; separate the parties; limited central government. Give them control in their regions, over their own police forces, over their own security, their education, their policy relating to marriage and divorce - the thing they're killing each other over, and make Iraq the world's problem. I called two years ago, for setting up a - having the UN Security Council a permanent five, adding German in the four largest Muslim nations in the world, to agree to a federal system inside Iraq, like exist in

What the president's about to veto is a provision that Joe Biden and Carl Levin put in the bill that he's going to veto, saying you must begin to redeploy troops now, Mr. President. You can only use troops that are there for training Iraqis. You can't put them in the middle of a civil war, and you must have them all out by March of '08. And the way you do that, Mr. President, is you equally divide the oil, you move in the direction - you allow them local control.

I've got a son who's in the United States military. He hasn't gone to Iraq yet. His unit may or may not go. If he goes he will go. I don't really - don't want my son going. I don't want my granddaughter or my grandson going. So how we leave Iraq is going to determine whether or not we revisit that neighborhood in a decade or two.

CHIDEYA: Darfur, Sudan - you have General Colin Powell previously - when he was an official in the Bush administration - using the word genocide…

Sen. BIDEN: Yes.

CHIDEYA: …and yet, the U.S. has not acted directly.

Sen. BIDEN: Absolutely.

CHIDEYA: …and the UN has only now gotten the authority to go in with helicopters. What…

Sen. BIDEN: Unconscionable.

CHIDEYA: …what should you do, what would you do if you were allowed to govern in this situation?

Sen. BIDEN: If I were the president of the United States today, I would deploy 2,500 NATO troops this minute, to Darfur. I would set up, as I've been calling for two years. I've visited the area. I've been in the camps. I've been on the border. I've met with the commanders of the African Union in Darfur, in Darfur. I've met with the rebel leaders in Chad.

And let me tell you something. It's one thing to say we need a political solution, ultimately, we do. But when a nation like Sudan and their leadership in Khartoum participates in genocide, in my view, they forfeit their right to sovereignty. And while we're working on a political solution, we're now meeting with the rebels again. We should impose a no-fly zone. I met with the Supreme Allied commanders in Europe. It is clear with 2,500 NATO troops backed up by us bringing in 7,000 African Union troops, we can shut down the Janjaweed today.

CHIDEYA: What about AFRICOM? That's become very controversial. Some people who are really adamant about African independence say oh, my gosh, imperial America is coming over to put its big, fat feet on the continent. Other people say, wow, it's great that America is investing and having a presence on the continent. What do you think about AFRICOM?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, I think two things. One, it always has to be with the cooperation - the lead of the African Union, the African nations, and individual African nations. The second thing is, there are African institutions that are beginning to build, like the African Union. We should be supporting that. We should be part of the rest of the world generating support for that. focus it more on the things it can do well, which relates to nation-building and dealing with fail states.

That phrase that was coined - I don't know who coined it - but the one I'm most familiar with is by Tom Friedman of The New York Times. He said a couple years ago, if you don't visit a bad neighborhood, it will visit you. And so, I guess, what I'm trying to say is we got to stop looking at Africa as if it's sort of a basket case and a charity case.

There is strategic, political and moral interests we have. And we should treat it that way and where we able to impact on alleviating the suffering and other carnage, we have a moral obligation as well as a political necessity to do so.

CHIDEYA: But in general, AFRICOM, good or bad idea?

Sen. BIDEN: Agnostic right now. It depends on how you deal with it.

CHIDEYA: You mentioned something from a Friedman column: if you don't go to the bad neighborhood, the bad neighborhood comes to you. That could be applied to all sorts of situations in American political discourse. And I'm thinking here of you being in Wilmington, Delaware, at the time of the King riots…

Sen. BIDEN: Yes.

CHIDEYA: …what did you take away from that? And did you take away any lasting relationships with people who may have grown up on the other side of the tracks (unintelligible).

Sen. BIDEN: It's probably most formative time of my life. Actually, before the King riots. We had no law school in Delaware at the time. I went away to law school. Sixty-eight, I came back. I came back to find the National Guard stationed at every street corner, literally, with drawn bayonets. Six-foot tall or taller, white state troopers walking in the sidewalks, the east side and the valley, as we call it.

I had, as a high school student, I had worked in the east side in the projects. I was a lifeguard in the largest swimming pool. There I made a lot of friends. I got involved. I'm not going to make myself to be any big deal, but got involved in the civil rights movement. But I came back, and I went to work for a very prestigious law firm.

After six months, I realized this just wasn't for me, and I walked across Rodney Square, went into the public defender's office and asked for a job. And they looked at me like I was crazy.

But I knew where my comfort zone was. And so I was a public defender, as you might guess, working the east side, almost overwhelmingly African-American. And they became my closest friends, my closest supporters.

CHIDEYA: So did any of the people who you grew to know - and I'm sure that you still know today - call you up after you called Barack Obama articulate and say, what were you thinking? Are you completely crazy?

Sen. BIDEN: No, the opposite. They called me and said Joe, where do you want me? Where do you want me? Literally, the African-American mayor, the African-American leader of the AFL-CIO, the African-American president of city council, the African-American professors of the university. Everybody who knows me. Everybody who knew me in my state knew it was a genuine complement I was passing on.

And I was really very upset that I'd hurt anybody's feelings by that. But if you notice, every single black leader in the country came around and said, you know, from Donna Brazile going on the air - a political person - to Jesse Jackson defending me because they knew what my intention was.

But that was the benefit, though, of having a record. I have a very strong civil rights record. There's no one in the United States Senate other than Ted Kennedy has a stronger civil rights record than I do, just because we've been there and both most of the time.

So, but I was really heartsick that younger African-Americans who may not have known Joe Biden might think that, God Almighty, this guy - this guy is just, you know, dissing other black leaders. This is simply not the case.

CHIDEYA: Well, I will tell you, on the campaign trail, never touch a black person's hair without asking first, and never use the word articulate. But I think you should get the second part.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CHIDEYA: That's unsolicited. But I actually…

Sen. BIDEN: I never touched anybody's hair on the campaign. Don't have much myself.

CHIDEYA: Well, let's go to this…

Sen. BIDEN: Can I tell you true story when I was a lifeguard?

CHIDEYA: Yeah.

Sen. BIDEN: I used to sit there, and since I was the only white lifeguard, you had six or seven stations. And what the young kids in - a thousand kids a day would come to the (unintelligible) run swimming pool. What the little kids used to do is they'd reach down the water and rub the water on the hair on my leg, and then watch the sun make a curl because it was such an interesting unusual -they didn't know any white guys.

So it's - but your point is really a very important one, and that is that the idea of not being sensitive to what other people's areas of being viewed in the past of being - or in the present as being insulting, to not even accidentally tread upon them. It's important.

CHIDEYA: Well, on that note, Senator, thank you so much for your time.

Sen. BIDEN: Thank you. It was an honor to be on your show.

CHIDEYA: U.S. Senator Joe Biden is the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and a Democratic candidate for president. Now, in the coming months, we're going to bring you more of the 2008 candidates from all sides of the political spectrum. And to hear more from Senator Biden, including his plans for Iraq, go to the NEWS & NOTES page at npr.org.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: Just ahead, world reaction to the Virginia Tech tragedy. And later, how technology is helping us grieve.

(Soundbite of music)

CHIDEYA: This is NPR News.

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