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Joe Biden looks away from the camera in a dark suit against a black background

In Thick of Issues, Biden Sees a Presidential Bid

Sen. Joe Biden has been in the spotlight lately because of his work on two panels: the Judiciary Committee, which questioned new Supreme Court Justice Samuel Alito and the Foreign Relations Committee, on which Biden is the top Democrat.

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Other segments from the episode on February 7, 2006

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, February 7, 2006: Interview with Senator Joe Biden; Review of Monk's Music Trio's new album "Monk's Bones."

Transcript

DATE February 7, 2006 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
NETWORK NPR
PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Senator Joe Biden, Democrat from Delaware, discusses
his career as a senator, his personal life and a possible run for
president
TERRY GROSS, host:

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest Joe Biden has witnessed a lot of changes in the Senate. When he was
elected in November 1972, he was a couple of weeks shy of 30, the minimum age
he needed to reach before being sworn in. Now he is a senior member of the
Senate. Biden is a Democrat from Delaware. The National Journal's Almanac of
American Politics describes his voting record as moderate to liberal. As a
member of the Judiciary and Foreign Affairs Committee, he's been focused on
the recent Supreme Court justice hearings and the war in Iraq. He chaired the
Judiciary Committee from 1987 to '95. Back in December, when Republican
Senator John McCain was our guest, we promised that we would soon be joined by
Senator Biden. It has taken a little longer than we expected to find time in
his schedule.

Biden, like McCain, is considering a run for the presidency. He ran in the
Democratic primary in 1988. We recorded our interview yesterday. Earlier in
the day, Biden questioned Attorney General Alberto Gonzales during the
Judiciary Committee's hearings into presidential power and the National
Security Agency's secret surveillance program.

Senator Biden, welcome to FRESH AIR.

Senator JOE BIDEN: I'm delighted to be here.

GROSS: Let's start with the hearings on presidential power and the NSA
surveillance, the secret surveillance program. You had your chance to
question Attorney General Alberto Gonzales. What do you most want to know
about this secret NSA surveillance program?

Sen. BIDEN: Terry, I would like to know what they're doing, not merely
whether it's constitutional. What are they doing? And I ask that to the
attorney general, could he tell me with absolute certainty he knows that no
e-mail is being opened, no telephone is being tapped, unless it emanates from
foreign soil and is emanating from a suspected al-Qaeda terrorist and/or one
of their sidekicks. And he said he couldn't guarantee that. I asked who
could. `Who could?' And he didn't have an answer for me.

GROSS: Is it possible that we need to have a much wider net and not be
confident for certain that somebody is al-Qaeda but just have a hunch and be
able to tap phones for our own security?

Sen. BIDEN: The answer is yes. And I was around years ago, Terry, when
we--I was a co-sponsor of the so-called FISA, the Foreign Intelligence
Surveillance Act back in the '70s. I was a member of the Intelligence
Committee at the time and a judiciary committee. And that was intended to
meet the needs of secrecy of the time and to be able to be expanded to meet
ongoing needs. But the real question here is who is making the judgment as to
who a terrorist is and are they the only people being tapped or is there
so-called data mining going on where there is just a wide net spread
indiscriminately? And I'm prepared to take the president at his word, but I
am not prepared to have that go on in perpetuity without ever being reviewed
by anyone, including the courts.

GROSS: Do you feel confident that this wiretap and e-mail surveillance
program is being used solely for trying to track terrorists? Do you fear that
it's being used for other reasons as well?

Sen. BIDEN: I think I'd be foolish after so many years of being here, and as
I said, being here back in the '70s, one of the reasons why we voted this law
into place, so-called FISA, is because we found that J. Edgar Hoover and
others were using this material for totally unrelated reasons than determining
whether or not during a Cold War some foreign government or foreign agent was
plotting against us. And so I think it would be foolish for us to also make
the assumption today that that's the only thing it's being used for. And even
if it is being used for that purpose alone now, what about the next president
and the next president? It requires there to be some point at which this
activity is reviewed. So somebody other than an administration official
assuring us that, `No, this is OK,' understands what is being reviewed.

GROSS: So what action do you want to see taken?

Sen. BIDEN: I'd like see us do what we did back in the '70s. The
Intelligence Committee, that is the committee that has access to secret
information, is able to conduct hearings in secret from which no information
has leaked, I'd like to see them go and take a hard look at what is going on.
Have the administration come up and lay out what they're doing and who they
are doing it to and why they are doing it and why they need it. And then go
ahead and amend the law, if it needs amending, to give the administration the
power to do what we all want done. Obviously, we want to be able to eavesdrop
upon suspected and or known al-Qaeda terrorists and anyone with whom they are
communicating.

There isn't a single member of Congress I know of that isn't prepared to grant
the president and any president the authority to do that. So I'd like to have
them look at, in secret, the Intelligence Committee, what's going on and then
determine what is needed in order to make it crystal clear that this is fully
within the bounds and propriety of the law.

GROSS: CIA Director Porter Goss has said that the leak of this secret NSA
surveillance program, he said about it that the damage has been very severe to
our capabilities to carry out our mission. Are you concerned the questions
that you are asking may be damaging our security? Do you think that the leak
of this has genuinely damaged our ability to fight al-Qaeda?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, without them telling us the alleged damage, it's hard to
believe how serious the damage has been. The idea that this organization,
which the president points out is very sophisticate, very sophisticated in
terms of its own means by which it uses electronic media, etc.--the idea that
they are unaware that we are able to and other countries are able to intercept
communications in the airwaves is, I find, kind of silly. I mean, they are
clearly aware of that.

Secondly, this leak is as likely to come from the administration, more likely
to come from the administration than anywhere else. As a matter of fact, the
idea that several members of Congress who were told of the existence of this
without any real detail leaking is highly--is much less likely. The news
accounts that you and others reported were senior officials in the Justice
Department, senior officials at NSA, senior officials in the White House,
senior officials of the Defense Department who had the responsibility of
putting this program together, either resigned because they thought it was
unconstitutional and inappropriate or made their views known to their
superiors.

So I would think the problem rests more with Porter Goss' shop, if there is
one, than it does with the Congress.

GROSS: So what do you think the outcome of these hearings will be?

Sen. BIDEN: You know, it's hard to tell, Terry. I think it would be
irresponsible for the United States Senate Intelligence Committee, of which I
am not a member, not to hold closed secret hearings on what is actually being
done. The first question I asked the attorney general on Monday was the
following: `How will we know when we have won the war?' And he seemed
startled. And he basically said, `Well, that could take a long time. We
don't know.' And then I said, `Now, does that mean and you are asserting the
president has this plenary authority under the Constitution to be able to in
perpetuity wiretap and/or open e-mails of anyone, someone, an officer at NSA
says is a suspect? Is that what you mean?' And he said, `Well, the Congress
can proscribe that.' And I said, `But you just got finished telling us for the
previous hour that even if the Congress attempted to proscribe your use of
eavesdropping, it would not be constitutional because you argue that the
Foreign Surveillance Intelligence Act is, in fact, unconstitutional if, in
fact, it attempts to limit the president's plenary power in time of war. And
you just go finished telling me, Mr. Attorney General, the time of war could
go on for decades.' So this is a pretty open-ended thing.

The way that I think of it, Terry, is this, I can't imagine our Founders
having concluded the president has so much authority that he could go for
literally decades engaging in activity that may or may not violate the civil
liberties and constitutional rights of innocent Americans without anyone at
any time ever being able to go back and review whether or not it is
appropriate.

GROSS: Senator Biden, you not only serve on the Senate Judiciary Committee,
you're on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee. I want to ask you about Iran.
The UN Atomic Energy Agency voted on Saturday to report Iran to the Security
Council. And after the vote, Iran announced it would immediately end its
voluntary nuclear cooperation with the agency and would begin full-scale
production of enriched uranium, which could be used for nuclear weapons. Iran
was named by President Bush as part of his "axis of evil" before we invaded
Iraq. Do you think the Bush administration is considering a military option
in Iran? Do you think that the Bush administration would try to eventually
convince the Security Council of seeking some type of military approach or
that it might be considering a unilateral military approach like it did with
Iraq?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, I don't think there is anything, to use the colloquial
phrase, that the administration has "taken off the table," in terms of
potential options to move against Iran if they viewed it as necessary. But
the fact of the matter is there are not many options. Unlike the program that
existed in Iraq, as opposed to Iran years ago when the Israelis very famously
took out the Iraqi nuclear reactor, all the experts will tell you there is no
single military action from the air and/or through sabotage that could, quote,
"end their nascent nuclear program." And so the options are more limited.

I would make two other points. The administration has, I think of late,
meaning the last year, adopted the correct policy with regard to Iran, and
that is to attempt to further isolate Iran by cooperating with and getting the
consensus of the European community, Russia, China and others to say to Iran
that, `If you continue to act in this sort of, in a generic sense, this
anti-social behavior internationally, there will be consequences for you.'
Notwithstanding the fact that the present president of Iran has been somewhat
bellicose, the very day they said they're going to renew their effort to
produce material and come out from underneath the IAE safeguards, he also said
that the possibility of Russia being a vehicle for the--dealing with the
enriched uranium that occurs as a consequence of this civilian nuclear power
plant, of all of it being shipped back out to Russia, it was still on the
table. So I don't think we know nor do they know exactly where their end
position is.

I think the administration is going at it the right way right now. And I
think that we won't know until the international community finally decides, if
it does, to sanction them, what the result is likely to be.

GROSS: The president has made creating democracies in the Middle East a
priority, but it seems the majority of voters in that part of the world don't
seem to have that same agenda as the United States. Iraq's constitution says
that laws have to be compatible with Islamic law. Iranians elected a
president who thinks Israel should be wiped off the face of the map, and the
president is also defying the international community with its nuclear
program. The Palestinians elected Hamas, which is on America's list of
terrorist groups. Do you think that the push for democracy is kind of
backfiring on the United States?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, look--choose my words here. You may recall, it was about
four years ago this month, President Bush made his famous "axis of evil"
comments in speeches. And he talked about the need to isolate these
countries. That was the policy adopted by the administration.

In that four-year period, you have Korea acquiring four times as much nuclear
capability as they had before he made the speech. You have Iran on the verge
of becoming a nuclear power in contravention to its pledges and what the
international community wants. And you have a constitution like you just
cited in Iraq where you have a Shia-dominated religiously leaning
Iranian-allied government that has emerged. And then on top of that you have
in Lebanon, you have Hezbollah having one--elections. And you have in Egypt,
the one election that took place of late, having the Muslim Brotherhood gain a
foothold.

I think it all reveals, A, that the administration doesn't have much of a
policy. And, two, democracy is more than rhetorical assertions and more
likely take time to be put in place than imposed. And I'm not sure the
administration has fully grasped that reality at this point. The end result
has been, as a consequence of a failed foreign policy in my view, a much more
dangerous Middle East and much less stable international environment.

GROSS: You were an observer of the Palestinian election, and you've said you
think that `Unless Hamas recognizes Israel, we should not recognize them.' But
how do you push for democracy and then say, `Oh, but we don't like the
decision you made so now were not going to recognize you.'

Sen. BIDEN: Well, see, I was--as you may or not know, you implied by your
first question was I have never agreed with the president's view on what he
calls "how you acquire democracy in the Middle East." Democracy comes about as
a consequence of long-term investment and institution building. Institution
building in supporting through nongovernmental agencies, a free press, an open
economy, transparent financing, etc.. And I think in the Palestinian area, I
also was an official observer of last year's election where they elected a
president of the Palestinians. And immediately after coming back in January
of last year, I contacted the administration and laid out in some detail what
I thought we had to do to equip President Abbas with some credibility to be
able to compete in the elections that took place, as they now have, in the
following January, meaning this January, and indicated that we had to give
direct help and assistance to him being able to build schools, hospitals, pay
for college tuition, etc., all of which were being provided by Hamas on the
street. And this administration, coupled with the right-wing Republicans in
the--not all Republicans are right wing--right-wing Republicans in the House
of Representatives did not allow us to have any direct aid to Mr. Abbas and
Mr. Fayad in the duly elected personnel of the administration of the
Palestinians. And you see the results.

Senator Lugar, conservative Republican from Indiana, chairman of the Foreign
Relations Committee, and I sent a letter to the president last March saying,
`Mr. President, unless we do some more, in effect, democracy building in the
Palestinian areas, Hamas may very well win this election.'

The bottom line is the administration thinks that an election produces a
democracy. Elections do not--are necessary for a democracy to exist but they
do not result in a democracy. You need compromise. You need political
institutions that foster ability to compromise. They do not exist in the area
of the world the president is trying to democratize.

GROSS: Let me move on to Iraq. John Negroponte, the new national
intelligence director, said last week that al-Qaeda's reach and appeal has
been expanded through its merger with al-Zawahiri's operations in Iraq. How
do you interpret that?

Sen. BIDEN: Exactly like the ambassador said. It's true. It has been
expanded. You may recall prior to us going to war in Iraq, the president was
saying this was a hot bed for al-Qaeda, etc., and there are many of us on both
sides of the aisle saying that's simply not true. But the way in which we've
conducted this effort in Iran--I mean in Iraq has been so mishandled, it has
resulted in it becoming a haven for terror.

GROSS: Do you regret that you voted to authorize the president to use force
in Iraq?

Sen. BIDEN: I regret that I--if I had known that this administration would
be so incompetent--and I use that word advisedly in the way in which it went
into Iraq and what it did since it was in Iraq, shortchanging our military in
terms of everything from body armor to the number of forces it needed,
miscalculating so drastically in terms of the forces that they were backing in
Iraq, I would have never given this president that authority.

GROSS: You told the Council on Foreign Relations in November in terms of the
question of was the invasion based on bad information, you said, `We all
operated on bad information, but the only one who took the information that
was most questionable and asserted it as fact was the administration.' Do you
feel misled by the Bush administration?

Sen. BIDEN: Yes.

GROSS: In what way?

Sen. BIDEN: In multiple ways. First of all, we did not know--the public nor
did we in the Congress know--how much disagreement there was within the
administration and within the intelligence forces within the administration on
what the state of play and the danger presented by Saddam Hussein was. In
that sense, we were misled.

Secondly, we were misled in a broader sense, and this is my greatest concern,
in that we assumed that the assertions made by the administration, the broad
assertions that they would seek international help, that they would give the
military all that was needed, that they would in fact pursue democracy and
democratization in Iraq in a way that made sense. Most of it turned out not
to be correct. Their assumptions were just simply, simply wrong. We went
with too few forces. When we realized we needed more forces, our commanders
were not given more forces. The result was a sense of chaos that existed. We
also found out that there was not nearly enough--there was no possibility of
oil paying for the cost of this war. We were told that the war would--that we
would be greeted with open arms. We were not. Although, I must admit, I
never believed we would be. So there was a lot of misleading assertions made
by the administration. Maybe they believed them. At a minimum, they were
dead wrong. At a maximum, they were misleading.

GROSS: Senator Joe Biden will be back in the second half of the show. We
promised we'd schedule an interview with him back in December when our guest
was Republican Senator John McCain. Like McCain, Biden is considering running
for president.

I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: Now, you presided over two very controversial Supreme Court justice
hearings when you were head of the Judiciary Committee. And I'm thinking of
the Clarence Thomas hearings in '91 and the Robert Bork hearings in '87. Now,
the rejection of Bork led to the verb "to Bork." This had an enormous impact,
I think, on the future of the confirmation process and perhaps on how justices
are chosen as well. I wonder what impact you think that the Bork hearings had
on the future of the confirmation process.

Sen. BIDEN: Well, it had a significant impact. First of all, the Bork
nomination was the first time in about 60 years we acknowledge that the
American public has a right to know what the constitutional methodology or
philosophy of a justice is, and they have a right to know it. I pointed out
in that hearing and prior to that and up to this time, one in every four
justices nominated to the Supreme Court have been rejected by the United
States Senate since 1789. The first one being rejected by a number of
signatories of the Constitution who were in the Senate at the time: Justice
Rutledge.

But what happened from that point on, actually particularly in the last 10
years, has been that it has become a bit of a stylized dance where whether
it's a moderate liberal or conservative nominee, they come before the United
States Senate Judiciary Committee very, very practiced, and practiced in
basically refusing to answer any questions directly on the grounds that it may
somehow jeopardize their independence on the bench. As a consequence of that,
there is very little known about their judicial philosophy. And in
complicated issues, it's either able to make it sound like they're giving
reasonable answers when, in fact, the answers being given may give significant
insight into a justice being put on the court who may very well change the
direction of the nation without the public being aware of it prior to that
occurring.

GROSS: You've actually said you'd like to end the whole judiciary
confirmation process and bypass the Judiciary Committee part.

Sen. BIDEN: Yes. Well, you know, up until 1953, with notable exceptions,
the nominees never came before the Judiciary Committee. The Judiciary
Committee would hold a hearing. They'd bring in outside witnesses. They'd
look at the spoken, written record of the nominee. They would make a
recommendation to the United States Senate as a whole on that issue, on that
nominee. The Senate would debate the nominee based on his or her public
record, and they would vote. What that does is that would put an incredible
premium on the nominees outside the system, that is not been before the
Judiciary Committee, to answer questions to the press and others as to what
they really believed about issues. And it would take away this sort of veil
that exists now where it appears as though questions are being answered, when,
in fact, there is no direct answer.

The basic premise, Terry, is, does the public have a right to know what a
member of a third branch of the government, equally as powerful as the other
two, is likely to do about the matters of life and death that affect them,
knowing that that person is going to be there much longer than any president
or any senator? That's the fundamental question. What is the public's right
to know? And these hearings basically say we're not entitled to know very
much of anything.

GROSS: So you think they're basically not even serving a function anymore.

Sen. BIDEN: I do think that.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Senator Joe Biden, Democrat
from Delaware.

When you entered the Senate in '73, you were the youngest member of the
Senate. You had just turned 30, and that's the minimal age for a senator, so
there couldn't have been anybody much younger than you. This year
Congressional Quarterly reported that 2005 was one of the most partisan years
since it began its record keeping, with people from each party voting more
often on party lines. How do you feel you've seen partisanship in the Senate
change in the years that you've been in the Senate?

Sen. BIDEN: It's changed drastically, Terry. When I got elected, I was 29
years old. Had to officially wait three weeks to be constitutionally eligible
after my election. And I came to a Senate that had--it was very, very divided
on matters of race. I joined a Democratic caucus that contained at least a
dozen people who I had strong disagreement with, from James Eastland, John
Stennis, etc., on race. But yet, it wasn't personalized in those days. The
partisanship was such that we spent time questioning each other's judgment but
not their motive. Around 1994, things really began to change, and what
happened was if you disagree with one of your colleagues, your motive was
questioned. You were either not moral or you weren't a decent person. It was
not, `Well, I understand your position. I disagree with this.' `You must be
immoral.' And that personalized it in a much, much deeper way. And then
political campaigns began to reflect that kind of attitude, and views began to
harden, and there was a lot of division.

GROSS: And what do you see as the starting point of that?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, it's gradual. But if you have to pick one moment, it was
1994 when so many members of the House of Representatives got elected to the
Senate. We changed--the Gingrich revolution, where it was burn the house down
to take back the house. And much of it, in fairness, was a reaction to the
dominance of the Democratic Party for so many years controlling both houses
and the frustration many Republicans in the House felt about basically being
muzzled for so many years. And they came to the United States Senate with an
attitude that was very, very attitude than traditional Senate attitudes. The
Senate is a different place than the House, not in terms of the men or women
who make it up but in terms of the rules and the design of the institution.
And I would mark the beginning of the real change occurring in 1994 in the
United States Senate.

GROSS: So what was different about how the new senators who came from the
House behaved?

Sen. BIDEN: Everything was viewed in personal terms and everything was
viewed in terms of an open war. For example, it used to be in the
Senate--I've been in the minority, majority, both before that time--when you
lost and you're in the minority, you got one third of the staff, the majority
got two thirds, and it flipped back the other way and it didn't matter. It
was just the way it was and you never made it personal. In 1994, when they
took over the Senate, it became very, very personal. It's gotten to the point
now that, for example, when you have a conference--I know you know this. It's
arcane. But Senate passes a bill on an issue, House passes the same bill.
They have some differences. They go to a conference where an assigned number
of senators, an assigned number of House members of both parties sit down and
work out the differences. Well, it's become standard rule now that the
Republicans in the Senate and the Republicans in the House meet, don't even
include the Democrats, and rewrite the legislation, and that's it. It's a
very different attitude, and it's a very different way in which we proceed.
And I fear if the Democrats win back the House or Senate, they may mimic that
same behavior. And I think it's very damaging to the body politic.

GROSS: What bill is an example of the process that you described of Democrats
being shut out of the conference process?

Sen. BIDEN: Every major bill last year, for example on the budget act, the
reconciliation bill, which is a tax bill, the bill relating to whether or not
we were going to, you know, pass parts of the defense bill. I mean, I've
never had occurred in my previous 30 years in the Senate where a House bill
passes, a Senate bill passes. They go to conference and they come out with a
bill that has a major element that wasn't contained in either of those bills
before they went into conference, which is totally inappropriate. It just
simply is not a place where you sit down and there is comity, where you say,
`OK, we disagree. How are we going to work this out?' It's more, `We won. We
may have only won by one vote or two votes, but this is it. It's going to be
our way or the highway.' And it doesn't lend itself to, in a heterogeneous
democracy, to good governance in my view.

GROSS: A lot of liberals have felt very frustrated with the Democratic Party
for being ineffective in opposing the Republicans. I'll read you an example
of what I'm talking about in the Monday, February 6th edition of the
Philadelphia Enquirer. There is a front page article by Dick Pullman. He
writes, "The Democrats are a mess. Right now they seem ill-poised to score
major gains at Bush's expense for several fundamental reasons. They can't
agree on what to stand for and what issues to fight for. They seem most adept
at fighting each other, with grass-roots liberals savaging the Washington
moderates and vice versa. Nor do they have a clue about who should lead
them."

What do you say to people who are criticizing the Democratic Party for being a
mess and ineffectual?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, I could start off and joke and say like Will Rogers that
`I belong to no organized political party, I'm a Democrat.' But the truth of
the matter is, Terry, that it's a reflection of two things.

Number one, no one, with the single exception of Newt Gingrich, has ever led a
congressional party when the party has been out of power. No one until they
got a nominee. No one. So they said the same thing about every party out of
power with the single exception of Gingrich in '94. That's number one.

Number two, the person writing the article talked about gaining at Bush's
expense. That's part of the problem. This isn't--we have one president, one
president of the United States. If he messes up in foreign policy, not only
makes him look foolish, America is hurt. Part of the responsibility, I feel,
particularly in the foreign policy area, is to try to encourage him where I
think he's doing the right thing and not make it about Bush. It's not about
Bush. It's about America's security interest. Now, the author of that
article may not have meant that, but that's what it sounds like to me.

Thirdly and most importantly, there is a reason why Democrats are so
frustrated. We have no organ of government we control, therefore there's
nothing that you and the press cover about what we have to say. I can make
all the speeches in the world I want, it's not going to get the kind of
coverage that we'd get if, in fact, we were able to hold three days of serious
hearings like I did when I was chairman before the war in Iraq, where close to
70 percent of the American people supported going to war before the hearings
began, and after the hearings were over, it was down below 50 percent. But
there isn't any--we don't get to put up a bill to, quote, "vote on Iraq."
We're not in the position to be able to get that vote to the floor. We're not
able to hold hearings.

Again, I'm not whining. Elections have consequences. And one of the
consequences of losing is you lose a platform.

GROSS: My guest is Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware. We'll talk more
after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Senator Joe Biden.

Let me ask you something about your own story. You were elected, but right
before you were sworn in, you nearly withdrew because your first wife and your
infant daughter were killed in a car crash right after you got elected. And
you considered withdrawing. You were talked into staying. You were actually
sworn in at the hospital bedside of one of your sons, who was also injured in
the crash.

How did you make that decision about whether to stay or whether to withdraw?

Sen. BIDEN: I listened to my dad. And my dad used to say--he's passed away
now--he said, `You know, in moments of real crisis, you can,' he said, `just
decide not to decide. Decide not to decide. Just let things settle a little
bit till your mind is clear.' I agreed in response to a request by a
wonderful, wonderful man, Senator Mike Mansfield from Montana, who was the
majority leader, to get sworn in and stay for six months and reconsider at the
end of six months whether or not to stay. My greatest concern was I didn't
think I could be the kind of father I wanted to be and be the senator I wanted
to be. And that's when I started commuting. My two sons were very badly
injured and hospitalized. They're fully recovered. They are grown men now.
But it was never one of those decisions, I think, like most people listening,
Terry, you don't make long-term decisions about your life. You make decisions
as they come. And I agreed to stay for six months, and here I am 33 years
later. But if you'd ever ask me when I made that decisions did I plan on
trying to stay this long, the answer would have been absolutely not. I didn't
intend this.

GROSS: What are some of the things that you were able to do to manage both as
a single father of two injured sons and as a new senator?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, I had the incredible gift of having a sister. We have an
expression in my family, `If you have to ask, it's too late.' By the time, I
came home from the hospital with my sons, and I was not injured, came home
with my sons, my sister and my brother-in-law--who is a wonderful close
friend, a very successful lawyer--they had given up their home and moved into
my home to help me raise my children. And roughly five years, six years
later, when I fell in love again, lucky as I was, and got remarried, we came
home after being married, and they had moved out. And my mother and my
brother, my father, they all lived in the area, and I was close enough to be
able to commute every day. And I still commute after 33 years. And I got
very lucky. God was good to me. And I fell in love with an incredible woman
I've been married to for now 28 years. And so I was just very, very, very,
lucky.

GROSS: Were you in the car when it crashed?

Sen. BIDEN: No, Terry. I was down here. One of my regrets. It was a
Monday, December 18th. I was interviewing staff here and a tractor trailer
broadsided my wife and my three children. My wife and my young daughter were
in a car seat in one side of the car, and my two sons were on the other side.
And they needed the jaws of life to get them out. And the volunteer firemen,
who I owe my sons' life to, were able to free my sons in time for them to
survive.

GROSS: Were you afraid to drive after that?

Sen. BIDEN: No. But I was afraid for them to drive. And I, well, I was--it
was not a good time.

GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Senator Joe Biden.

Senator, you are seriously considering a run for president. You are testing
the waters, and you've said if it looks good, you're going to run. You've
talked a little bit about how you think partisan politics have changed in the
Senate and how things have gotten more personal, so that if somebody opposes
you, there might be a more personal or moralistic attack against you. Do you
think that the same holds true in terms of campaigning? And if so, are you
prepared for more personal attacks against you than you faced in, say, 1988?

Sen. BIDEN: Well, you know, I don't know if anyone is ever prepared for
that. I expect that will be the modus operandi. Whoever the Democratic
candidate is and depending on who the Democratic candidate is, that may be the
modus operandi of attacking the Republican nominee. I deplore it, but look,
this is--as I kid with my family and others--I say, `Look, in other countries
when you lose, they shoot you. In this country, they give you a pension.' So
as rough as it is, it's not as rough as it is other places. And it is worth
the candle.

There is so much at stake for this country. There is so many opportunities
that are being squandered that I think you either have to just sort of suck in
and say, `OK, there's nothing going to be enjoyable about this but it is worth
the opportunity to be able to change the direction of the country.' And you go
out and you do it. How you handle it is part of the process. And God only
knows how I'll handle it until it is thrown at me, whatever it is.

GROSS: One thing you know you're going to be asked about is a speech that you
are alleged to have plagiarized from something that British Labor Party leader
Neil Kinnock had said. And that came up in the 1988 run for president. So if
that comes up again, how are you going to deal with it?

Sen. BIDEN: Oh, I'm sure it will come up again, and it should come up again.
And I will deal with it honestly by saying, `I made a mistake. I was arrogant
in thinking I didn't have to prepare for a debate in which I failed to quote
Kinnock on that occasion.' I quoted him many other times. But it was my
fault. I should have quoted him. The fact that I didn't quote him was my
fault, was legitimate for the opposition to raise it. And I made a mistake.

GROSS: You are friends with John McCain.

Sen. BIDEN: Yes.

GROSS: What if you decided to run for president, he decided to run for
president, and you ended up getting your party's nomination, then you were
running opposite each other? What would that feel like to you?

Sen. BIDEN: I'm going to say something that's going to sound strange to you.
I think the country would not lose in that circumstance. I would be
dumbfounded if John McCain would ever engage in a personal attack, and he
knows I never would with him. When they were going after John McCain in South
Carolina and when they were going after John McCain for having not being in
full control of himself because of his days in the prisoner of war camp in the
Republican primary, I called John and said, `John, where do you want me? I'll
show up anywhere in America.' He was in California. `And I will testify to
your integrity and testify to the soundness of everything you do.' I think
John would have done the same thing for me. Does it mean that each of our
parties won't try to do that kind of stuff? I don't know, but I cannot
believe that this country would not be treated to a campaign with real
differences but with very little if any personal attack.

And, look, we cannot lead the world as a red and blue nation. We literally
cannot. That is hyperbole. We cannot lead the world as a divided nation.
And whomever is the next president of the United States has to unite this
country. And as was pointed out by many others, this division is not, in my
view, so deeply substantive. Six years ago, Clinton probably would have won
re-election had he been able to run. He won in those red states, or got
significant support in those red states, as did Bush One the first time he ran
in some of the blue states. This is not a nation divided. It's being forced
to be divided by the political parties.

GROSS: Senator Biden, thank you very much for talking with us.

Sen. BIDEN: Thank you. I appreciate it very, very much.

GROSS: Senator Joe Biden represents the state of Delaware. We promised we'd
schedule an interview with him back in December when our guest was Republican
Senator John McCain.

Coming up, jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD by a group that
performs the music of Thelonious Monk. This is FRESH AIR.

(Announcements)

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews "Monk's Bones," a
new CD by Monk's Music Trio
TERRY GROSS, host:

The big jazz record of 2005 was a concert recording by Thelonious Monk, who
died in 1982. Before his death, few jazz musicians specialized in playing his
tunes, although there were exceptions like Steve Lacy and Roswell Rudd. Since
Monk passed, bands on several continents have dedicated themselves to playing
his music. Jazz critic Kevin Whitehead reviews a new CD by California's
Monk's Music Trio, joined by a couple of guests.

(Soundbite of "Monk's Bones")

Mr. KEVIN WHITEHEAD: The Bay area pianist Si Perkoff knew Thelonious Monk
and knows plenty of his tunes. Five or six years ago, drummer Chuck Bernstein
invited him to join a trio devoted to playing Monk. That was a good idea.
Sometimes the pianist's son, trombonist Max Perkoff, would guest with the
trio. And then Bernstein had the idea to pair him up with another slide
trombonist, the legendary, make that beloved, Roswell Rudd. That was a very
good idea. Rudd has played in a few Monk specialty bands going back to the
early '60s and enjoys romping with other trombones, so he took to this lineup
like a duck to plum sauce.

(Soundbite of "Monk's Bones")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Two trombones, that'll wake anybody up, especially when they
smear one note up against one right next to it, the way Monk would on piano.
I like the previous albums by Monk's Music Trio, but "Monk's Bones" leaves
them in the dust. Base player Sam Bevan is new to the band, but everybody
knows the repertoire so well they know just how to stay in or out of each
other's way. And you can always tell trombonists apart when Rudd is one of
them. He's always the bigger extrovert. Max Perkoff favors a fairly
straightforward tone. The integrity of his lines is what counts. Rudd's
improvising is frowsier, often colored by various mutes to give a more
vocalized sound, as in Duke Ellington's band.

(Soundbite of "Monk's Bones")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Monk's tune "Little Rootie Tootie." Another reason Roswell
Rudd has made some great records, aside from the way he plays, is the way he
treats the musicians he works with. Rudd is so warm, enthusiastic and
committed, so obviously knocked out by what they're playing, they can't help
feeling motivated.

(Soundbite of "Monk's Bones")

Mr. WHITEHEAD: Thelonious Monk's compositions are central to the jazz
tradition now, but only a couple of decades ago many musicians found his
pieces hard to play. Typically, they'd either imitate Monk and his band
playing not too many notes or they treated his tunes like any other excuse to
run their horns. On the CD "Monk's Bones," you hear five players who really
understand the material and play it their own way, some friendly Monkish piano
planks aside. The quintet get the logic of Monk's pieces, literally get into
the swing of them. In the end, that's way more important than how few or many
notes they play.

(Soundbite of "Monk's Bones")

GROSS: Kevin Whitehead teaches English and American Studies at the University
of Kansas. And he's a jazz columnist for eMusic.com. He reviewed "Monk's
Bones" by Monk's Music Trio on the CMB label.

(Credits)

GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Monk's Bones")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

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