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2 Families Cruise Toward Catastrophe In 'Do Not Become Alarmed'

The title of Maile Meloy's new novel is misleading: Do Not Become Alarmed sounds like a suspense story. Granted, I did read it in two nights; but, while I'm a unapologetic fan of thrillers, Meloy's novel is something else, something trickier to characterize. I'd call it a very smart work of literary fiction that exposes how very thin the layer of good luck is that keeps most of us from falling into the abyss.



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Other segments from the episode on June 15, 2017

Fresh Air with Terry Gross June 15, 2017: Interview with Joe Biden; Review of Maile Meloy's new novel "Do Not Become Alarmed."


TERRY GROSS, HOST: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Today we have an interview with Joe Biden. He talks about his years as vice president, his thoughts on the Trump administration and Russia's interference in our election, and he offers some personal reflections.

Biden was elected senator from Delaware in 1972 when he was 29. During his 36 years in the Senate, he chaired the judiciary and foreign relations committees. In his two terms as vice president, he worked closely with President Obama on foreign policy and national security issues. He negotiated budget deals and headed the initiative for gun safety legislation after the shootings at the Sandy Hook Elementary School.

Last January, in President Obama's final week in the White House, he surprised Biden with the nation's highest civilian honor, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, with distinction. In March, Biden received the Congressional Patriot Award from the Bipartisan Policy Center in recognition of his work crafting bipartisan legislation with Republicans and Democrats.

He's out of office now but still active in politics and diplomacy. This month, he launched a new PAC called American Possibilities. He heads the University of Pennsylvania's new Penn Biden Center for Diplomacy and Global Engagement and the new Biden Institute at the University of Delaware's School of Public Policy and Administration. He also heads the Cancer Moonshot to accelerate cancer research. His son Beau died of brain cancer two years ago.

I spoke with Joe Biden Tuesday evening at WHYY where he was the recipient of the WHYY Lifelong Learning Award for his distinguished career in public service and commitment to education. Other recipients have included Tom Ridge, Gwen Ifill, Robert MacNeil, Jim Lehrer and Cokie Roberts. Biden is a familiar face to some of the crew of WHYY because WHYY is licensed in Delaware, Biden's home state, as well as Philadelphia and has studios in both states. Here's our interview.

You were elected senator when you were 29. You had to wait at least two weeks before turned 30, which was the youngest you're allowed to serve as senator. And then after many years in Senate, vice president - and now it's been a few months that you're not in elected office. So after a life in elected office, you have plenty to keep you busy. You've got the Moonshot. You've got your thing at the University of Pennsylvania and another institute at the University of Delaware. You're involved in so many things. But are you going through a bit of an identity crisis (laughter) not being in elected office anymore?

JOE BIDEN: Well, you know, the one thing that was the hardest - and I was talking with the president about this - is this is the first time in not just eight years - probably 15 years I haven't gotten up, and a CIA agent...

GROSS: (Laughter)

BIDEN: No, I'm serious - not brief me on what's going on in Ramadi or somewhere in South Korea or whatever. And that's the biggest change. But I've been able to do what I've always wanted to do, which is to continue to work on policy.

GROSS: So what do you consider your greatest achievement and your greatest disappointment or frustration in your years as vice president?

BIDEN: Playing the role, I did in stopping the Bosnian genocide, the Violence Against Women Act, being the first person to publicly - I told them I was not - I didn't need to mature on the issue - coming out publicly for same-sex marriage, being engaged as deeply as I have been in matters relating to the criminal justice system. They're the things that have been the things that I have been most engaged in. They all relate to the abuse of power.

The greatest disappointment I had - and I wrote the gun legislation that banned assault weapons and set background checks in place. And I was incredibly disappointed because the only way you could get it passed was - it had a 10-year renewal on it. And you know, but for Florida, Al Gore would've been president, and we would've not had this plethora of, in my view, God-awful shootings that have occurred with automatic and semiautomatic weapons. And that was my greatest disappointment - that George Bush let all this lapse.

And after Newtown, the president asked me to handle that. We put together a program that - somewhere between 82 and 87 percent of the people throughout America agreed with me, including 56 percent of those were members of NRA and rational gun policy, including modern technology to have smart weapons. So only you who own the gun with your fingerprint could fire the gun, et cetera. And I was so disappointed that the far-right was able to so effectively frighten the hell out of enough members of the House and Senate that they would not - we could not get them passed.

GROSS: So President Obama was the first African-American president, the only African-American president. Do you think racism figured into your ability to move your agenda forward? And what was the effect of racism on the White House when you were there?

BIDEN: Well, first of all, Barack Obama's most self-aware man or woman I've ever met in my life. He has a full, complete understanding of who he is, what he is and the realities he faces. And so I used to get very upset sometimes when the body language of people in the Oval would be disrespectful. And I remember one day going out after a congressman, literally walking out, then Barack grabbing me and pulling me back and saying, what are you doing? I said I'm going to teach that guy some lessons.


BIDEN: No, I'm not joking. I meant it. I meant it. It was incredibly disrespectful. And he looked at me and he said, Joe, you take the good with the bad, Man. He said, do you think I would have beaten you in 2008 if I had been a 43-year-old white boy? He said, what do you think Joe? What do you think?

But the fact is there is racism. It does exist. He was the brunt of it many times. But because of his caliber and because of his integrity, because of his humanity, he was able to rise above the - what I would have found difficult to dismiss and go on and get a lot of business done.

GROSS: So when President Obama was elected, Mitch McConnell, who was your colleague for many years in the Senate, said that the single most important thing he wanted to achieve is for President Obama to be a one-term president. Here's your former colleague pledging to basically be obstructionist and that that would be his goal - to, like, prevent Obama from getting elected. What was your reaction to having your colleague in the Senate, which is supposed to be so collegial, say that?

BIDEN: Terry, I listen to you all the time, and I really do mean that - for years and years. And you've reported on this. It wasn't just that McConnell did that. There was a meeting of McConnell and the eight leading Republican figures in the United States of America before we were sworn in, making it clear they were going to not let Obama agenda pass.

I don't think that was based on racism coming in. What it was based upon was the decline of collegiality in the Senate as a whole since the Gingrich revolution. My friend John McCain, who hollers like hell at me - we fight like hell, but if I called him tonight and driving back to my summer place with my granddaughters and said, John, I need you to meet me at 7th and Vine in St. Louis tomorrow, he'd get in a plane and come without asking. And there used to be some real collegiality. But what's happened is they - John used to refer to it after the Gingrich revolution - he said the Khmer Rouge has arrived.


BIDEN: And it became, you know - we continue to dumb down American politics and decide that the way to win was to denigrate the institutions and individuals. That became the pattern. And by the time we won, it had reached its apex. And I thought it was disastrous. I thought it was a gigantic mistake. And it's still going on to some degree, and it has to be turned around. And Democrats are not free from that attitude either.

GROSS: Did you see any new techniques being used to block the legislation you were trying to move forward...

BIDEN: Yeah.

GROSS: ...Because that was part of your job. Part of what President Obama wanted you to do as a very experienced senator is to move a legislation forward.

BIDEN: Well, I was able to do that in most cases if you noticed. But part of the reason why I was is because up in the Hill, they all know that I have respect for them in both parties. The vast majority of the members of the House and Senate and both parties are there because they genuinely believe they want to change things for the better, including my very conservative friends. I mean it's heartfelt. There are some that are there now that are just extremely mean-spirited and want to see the institutions diminished because look; all the institutions we have out there are designed to control the abuse of power. And the aggrandizement of power is enhanced when you, for example, attack the press, you attack the courts, you de-legitimize what's going on. And - but they are a minority.

What worries me is the Supreme Court decision on campaign contributions are the most damaging thing that's occurred in my career institutionally. Because, for example, when we - when Garland was nominated by Barack, everybody talked about Garland - you know, you reported extensively - all those Republicans, this is the guy. And Barack went out of his way to do what should be done as a student of that, gone out and found someone who could be - gain the respect of Republicans. And they stiff-armed him.

So I called 14 of my colleagues. Every - Republicans - every single one of them acknowledged me they were wrong. Every single one said, Joe, I know this isn't the right thing to do. But, Joe, if I change - if I do such and such, the Koch brothers will come in with $5 million in my campaign or I'll end up with a primary coming from the right in my party or whatever. That's no profile on courage, but it relates to how the nature of campaigning and the impact of big money can have an exponential impact quickly and immediately. And in the Senate and the House, it's even worse with gerrymandering.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with former Vice President Joe Biden in front of an audience at WHYY. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to the interview I recorded with former Vice President Joe Biden Tuesday evening in front of an audience at WHYY.

I would really love to know, if you care to share it, what you were thinking when you watched Donald Trump take the oath of office.

BIDEN: Oh, I can tell you what I was thinking. I was hoping - and I mean this sincerely - I was hoping that he'd rise to the office. And let me explain what I mean by that. In fairness, I don't think Donald Trump ever expected to win, number one. Number two, he's - the only administration who won or lost that I'm aware of since 1972 that during the campaign did not have a transition team in place.

And so I knew - I was hoping he would know what he didn't know and not let the bravado get in the way of acknowledging what he didn't know and reaching out to really talented people to fill the void for him. I was hoping he would he would step up in a way. And I still hope that will happen as reality sinks in. I mean, here's a man who said he was surprised. And I believe him. He was genuinely surprised that being president was as difficult as running a real estate empire.


BIDEN: I just - but, by the way...

GROSS: For our radio audience, can I just say that you just crossed yourself? (Laughter).

BIDEN: No, but I - but look. This is - we're one country. I give you my word as a Biden. I've been rooting for his success. It's desperately in all of our interest to do that. And if you notice, Barack and I have not gone after him personally. We've not gone into that mosh pit. We have taken issue with him when we think he's wrong, which is - to be very blunt about it - most of the time.


BIDEN: No, no, but here's the thing. He is not ideological in my view. So Barack and I talked about it. The hope was that he would be able to find some common ground, he would reach out. But it seems as though his leadership style has gotten away of what intellectually I don't think he has a problem with.

GROSS: So if you're willing to answer this, there are current investigations into President Trump's ethics, his business practices, his campaign's communications with Russia. What are your biggest concerns now about the Trump presidency and the issues that are being investigated?

BIDEN: I am going to say something outrageous. I think I'm as informed on foreign policy as anybody in America. And that's a awful thing to say. I'm not running for anything, so I can say it. And I've been doing this for 44 years of my life. I've spent as much time as anyone in public life trying to learn the detail. And I think I - no, I've known every major world leader in the last 37 years. And I've known them by their first names.

And one of the things that concerns me is that I know - let me say it again - I know Russia is deeply involved and was deeply involved not just in trying to alter our electoral process and undermine our democracy but all of Europe. If I could give you the classified information, don't even have to go there. Look what they attempted to do in France, what they're doing now in Germany, what they did in Moldova, what they have done in the Balkans, what they have done throughout Europe.

It is a conscious means to undermine the institutional structures of each of those countries. Now, this is not hyperbole. This is a fact. And so to anybody who thinks that Putin - look. Putin has one overarching objective, not to reestablish the empire but to break down the post-World War II liberal order that erected institutions to prevent the abuse of power, from the physical abuse by setting up NATO to Bretton Woods to the United Nations to domestically here at home.

And so what this is all about, it's about making sure that there is no unity in Western Europe allowing us to have the kind of leeway we have to influence the rest of the world. And when that occurs, there's only medium-sized powers that, in fact, Russia has to worry about, which fundamentally alters their ability to use corruption as a tool to undermine Eastern and Central Europe. That's what this is about. These guys are for real.

I am desperately worried that we are not going to - this administration will not and maybe even try to prevent finding out the truth about the depth and the breadth of the Russian attempts to undermine our electoral process. And the other relates to what I find it hard to believe how the Republican Party cannot be apoplectic about the impact of Putin in particular and Russia generally in trying to fundamentally alter our democratic processes.

It's real, and it's not going to stop. Mark my words. It is not going to stop until we respond as swiftly and as directly as Barack did when it became clear to 17 agencies what was being done. And so it just really baffles me. I just wonder when they're going to gain the willingness to stand up and say enough, man, enough.

GROSS: So you and President Obama, it's my understanding that you knew during the campaign that Russia was trying to interfere in the election and that you and the president decided not to say anything to the public about it. What I've read - and you can tell me if this is accurate or not - is that there were a couple of reasons for it.

One is that you didn't want to give the appearance of interfering in the election in a way that would support Hillary. And the other was you didn't want to do Russia's work for Russia, since Russia's goal was to create chaos and have Americans lose faith in the electoral process. Do you have any regrets about not having said something at the time?


GROSS: How come?

BIDEN: The people who had to know were informed. There was no direct evidence that we could find of them actually able to manipulate the actual machines and/or voter rolls. And you know in this environment - and I think president was right - in this environment, we would have been accused of being engaged in trying to manipulate the election by using information that was not self-evident to the public, would require the release of classified information to prove. It would have been, I think, far worse.

GROSS: So the Trump administration is trying to repeal and replace Obamacare, the Affordable Care - Health Care Act. They've been undoing EPA regulations, pulling out of that Paris climate accord, considering restricting trade and travel with Cuba. Do you feel like you're watching the Obama-Biden legacy being undone? And what is your reaction to watching these things being undone?

BIDEN: What I feel like is that I watched the national consensus of Republicans and Democrats being undone. Everything you mentioned, every previous Republican president to some degree or another shared our view. And we built on the progress and the progression that had been made. What I see being undone is basically the attempt to undo the liberal post-war order. I see being undone the consequences of Paris. I meet not irregularly - I get calls from heads of state and other countries.

And I make sure to let the vice president of the United States know that I'm having the meeting, so it's not like I am doing policy. And I ask if they have a position they want me to take. But there is an apoplexy out there on the part of an awful lot of people because what happens is there's such an overwhelming consensus among business across the board on the Paris Agreement, on states and governors and legislators and in other countries, China.

And what we're doing is we are forfeiting our leadership in the world order. And I really mean that. Our judgment is being put so much in jeopardy by some of the things that are decisions that are being made that have nothing to do with the environment. They say my God, if somebody would do that, what the hell are they going to do with - why am I going to follow them on A, B or C? That's what's happening around the world today relative to some of the decisions that have been made that have been so, so contrary to what is in the interest of the country and interest of the world.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded Tuesday evening in front of an audience at WHYY. After a break, we'll hear more of the interview in which we talked about presidential tweeting, Biden's thoughts about a possible run for president and he'll reflect on his family losses. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Let's get back to the interview I recorded Tuesday evening with Joe Biden, the former Democratic senator from Delaware and the 47th vice president of the United States. We spoke at WHYY in front of an audience of about 360 people.

Can you explain something to me about Twitter? I always thought that, like, presidents and vice presidents operate in this, like, world of, like, super secure communications. And we know now that President tweets alone in the middle of the night and says, you know, a lot of things of consequence and some things that are incoherent.


GROSS: So, like, what are the rules for communication? Like, 'cause he - is it OK - did you have social media when you were vice president? And, like, what rules were you expected to follow?

BIDEN: Not that old. Yes, I...


BIDEN: I had social media.

GROSS: I thought they take that stuff away from you.

BIDEN: I have social media - had it. And we have millions of people following us. But there's a difference between using the modern media and the means of communication than there is being irresponsible or irrational in the way you do it and just venting. You know, words matter. Words matter. When presidents speak, the world listens. And look, the idea that somebody, no matter what they do - no matter what their profession or their interest is - that gets up at 3 or 4 o'clock in the morning and tweets vitriol, what it does - it fundamentally alters the view of the character of the presidency in the rest of the world.

You know what I heard? I was just in Greece and Italy and meeting a lot of national figures in each of those countries. You know the one thing that's done the most damage? When the president of the United States stiff-armed and moved - no, I mean it. I'm not joking. I'm not - and then stood like this. That was the image of America, almost the image of the ugly American. That it just - it has such resonance. And I don't understand, at this point, why the president doesn't understand that it matters.

GROSS: I want to ask a few questions about you and your life. You've been touched by death several times. Beginning when you - just before you took the oath of office as senator, your wife died. Your baby daughter died. Your two sons were hospitalized 'cause of a car accident. Your son Beau died not long ago. You were read last rites when you had your aneurism. Thank God you survived (laughter).

The Senate is a place where it's real hardball. I mean, collegial or not, it's about politics. It's about hardball. It's about power to get your agenda passed and so on. A lot of people are there because they like power, because they really value power and want to have it.

So coming from this place where you've been exposed to mortality and to, like, the ultimate meaning of life, what was it like to be in the Senate, where it's not a place where I'd imagine it's easy to express vulnerability, where you have long, reflective conversations about the meaning of life (laughter) and that kind of thing? Was it ever hard to hold on to the principles of what you had to do as senator or what happens in the Senate and those, like, deep feelings that you surely were carrying with you at all times?

BIDEN: No, it was never hard. And the Senate wasn't like that. A lot of my colleagues - Republican colleagues, Democrats - saved my sanity. They were incredibly empathetic. I never once was in a situation where - well, that's not true - once, a senator from Texas. But never once was I in a situation where there wasn't some degree of sympathy or empathy. But it's because we used to know one another. We used to eat with one another, and we'd have lunch with one another.

You know, it's awful hard when I learn that, God forbid, your mother has breast cancer or you have a child who's a drug addict or you have a serious deficiency in that you stuttered badly, like I do, or whatever - it's hard to dislike you when I know the human frailty and the pain that you're suffering. You can disagree and extensively disagree, but you don't then question motive. You actually embrace one another in times of difficulty.

I'll give you one example. When I first got to the Senate - and one of the meanest guys I ever met was the senator from the state of Arkansas, McClellan. And he used to eat privately in the Senate Dining Room. And so my AA said you got to go down, and you got to meet some of these guys. I walked in. He was eating by himself, Senator McClellan. I was 30 years old. And I walked over and said, hello, Senator, and he put his hand to me and said - hey, you're the kid just had your - tractor trailer just killed your wife and daughter, right? And your kids are in tough shape?

And I felt like reaching out and ripping in his Adam's apple out. And I said, yeah. He said, you're mad at me, aren't you? And I said, I don't have any more to say, Mr. Chairman. He said, well, let me tell you. He said, when I was your age, I was riding home. They didn't used to pay to get our family home, and my wife and kids were in the Ozarks heading home. And she dropped dead. She had an aneurism. And then, he said, my son worked for Aramco. 1966 - I was on a NATO trip. I got a call saying he got crushed in an oil rig and he died. And I was going to meet his body - I was going to meet the casket at the airport in Little Rock. And he said, I was there. And while I was waiting for the plane to unload, I heard a crash at the gate. My other son on a motorcycle was killed on the way in. So he looked at me said - so son, work. Just work. Work.

You don't know the pain other people have had. I'll bet - I won't do it - if I surveyed all of you, every one of you had tremendous loss.

GROSS: This is really a personal question, and perhaps I shouldn't be asking it. But I think - I think most people have not been read last rites and survived. You have. Did you think you were dying when they were - read it to you. And what goes through your mind when you hear that?

BIDEN: Look, my mother used to have an expression, for real. So as long as you're alive, you have an obligation to strive, and you're not dead till you've seen the face of God. And so I am - they told me to say goodbye to my sons, and they came in. They were - they were young men in high school. And, you know, I really wanted to meet the test I thought you should have to meet to be able to tell them what you expected of them and do it with dignity and move on. And, you know, they told me I had somewhere between a 30 and 40 percent chance of living. And I thought, for real, I thought well, what the hell? That's 3 in 10. Why not me? It's going to, you know...


BIDEN: Because look, you know - I don't talk about it, and I'm not going to tonight. But I find great solace in my faith. I happen to be a Roman Catholic, a practicing Catholic. And in Washington, you know how many sophisticated, particularly liberal people, over the last 40 years have come and say, are you really a practicing Catholic? Like, can you be that stupid?


BIDEN: And no, it's not a joke. It's - and I always say - rather than when I was younger, want to punch them, I would say, yeah, for two reasons, nuns and Jesuits. And we got a great one now.

But at any rate - but I find great solace in my faith. I am able to - I know I'm not all that spiritual. But I've found that, for me, the externalities in my faith bring me a sense of peace. And so, you know, when my son died, he had this set of rosaries on. And I've been wearing it since, and I will wear it till I die. And I find myself just having it - I'm not saying when I pray the rosary, God's going to help me. I'm not making that case. It's just solace.

GROSS: We're listening to the interview I recorded with former Vice President Joe Biden in front of an audience at WHYY. We'll hear more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. Let's get back to my interview with former Senator and Vice President Joe Biden recorded Tuesday evening in front of an audience at WHYY.

Do you love that a lot of people in America call you Uncle Joe?


BIDEN: More - I really quite frankly don't like it a whole lot. It makes me feel really old, but...


BIDEN: But what I've found is, Terry, that I learned how to become one of the most popular politicians in America. Announce you're not running for president.


BIDEN: And be authentic because I think what people are looking for today is someone they can look at and say, this guy or this woman is gracefully telling me the truth, not being bitter, not being obnoxious but saying this is where I stand. This is why I stand here, and this is what I believe.

GROSS: If I heard you correctly, you said with - the way to become a popular politician is to say you're not running for president.

BIDEN: That's right. It helps.

GROSS: So did you just say you're not running for president?


BIDEN: Let me be completely straight with you.


BIDEN: Now, I have a bad habit of answering questions straightforwardly. I have no intention of running for president, but I'm a great respecter of fate. I am not going to commit I would never run for president. What I'm doing is two things. I decided to try to continue to be a force in the exercise of public policy, foreign and domestic. Like I said, I am an enormous respecter of fate. I don't...

GROSS: So...

BIDEN: ...Have any plans to do it, but I'm...

GROSS: But...

BIDEN: ...Not promising I wouldn't do it.

GROSS: OK, so I'm hearing you're leaving the door open a little bit.

BIDEN: Absolutely.

GROSS: OK, but here's my question. And I don't mean to sound ageist in saying this...


GROSS: But...

BIDEN: I'm in better shape than anybody you know.


GROSS: That is probably true. But just in terms of, like, the...

BIDEN: That's one of the reasons I'm not making the decision.

GROSS: But just in terms of the human body, you know, you'd be 77 if you were elected. And you know, the body at 77 - anybody's human body, a top athlete's human body - is not the same. It's not the peak point of life. Like, do you think it would be, you know, realistic?

BIDEN: Well, look; as a guy who - one of your colleagues who's on "Morning Joe" all the time - he used to write for The Boston Globe - said, yeah, I think Biden should run, but I can hardly wait to be up there in New Hampshire following him in his walker.


BIDEN: As I said to President Trump - he said - remember when I said I think I can take him, and I said, if he ever said that about my sister, what I would have done in high school? And so I kidded with him, and he said, we ought to play golf. I said, I'll give you a stroke. She'd be carrying your bag.


BIDEN: Look; he's going to be 75 years old. Come on, man. This is not an ideal age to run for anything. But the flip of that is, you know, look, guys and women. I agree with Satchel Paige. He got elected. He got elected. He won a game when he was 47 years old, probably the greatest pitcher in history if he'd been able to play in the majors, but he was an African-American, couldn't - didn't get there till 45.

And he won a game on his 47th birthday. And the press came in and said, Satch, 47 - you're winning the bigs, never happened before. How do you feel about being 47? He said, boys, that's not how I look at age. And they said, how do you look at it, Satch? He said, how old would you be - the way I look at is, how old would you be if you didn't know how old you was?


BIDEN: I don't know about you. I'm 42.

GROSS: So...


GROSS: What I'm hearing is...

BIDEN: Oh, it matters, Terry. It matters.

GROSS: What I'm hearing is that you think it's OK for someone to run as president when they're 77.

BIDEN: Look; it's great. I'd like nothing better if my son were alive to be the nominee for president. He was he was Biden .20. He was a hell of a lot better than I was. But - and there's a lot of young people out there. So I am not - I - look; I don't want to live in the White House. I'm not one of these guys - I mean there's a lot - I've been around a long time.

This is not something - the only thing you want to do is you want to have somebody who is prepared to make - and you have the confidence; they have the capacity, background and understanding; and you can have that at 42, and you can have that at an older age - to be able to make the right judgments to take this country to the heights it's about ready to assume and ascend.

And so that's why when you say, am I going to run, tomorrow, if, God forbid - and as I said, I'm a great respecter of fate - you know, my son went to Iraq, volunteered to go, spent a year there, came back as the fittest person in his regiment in the testing they did. Nine percent body fat, and a year later, he was dead with glioblastoma. So look; I understand how it works. My wife was in enormously great shape, and a tractor-trailer broadsided her and killed her. And - but if in fact there was something that would prevent me physically from being able to do the job if I decided to run, which I obviously have not, I wouldn't be this candid with you.


BIDEN: No, I'm serious. I mean it's not like I'm looking to do it. It's like, God, I can hardly wait to go out there and run. It's not that at all. But I think I am more - I think this moment - let me put it this way. The only reason you should ever do anything you're going to do is if it's a purpose-driven life and you honest to God believe that you are at that moment in time the best person for the job.

I thought last time I was because what was - the folks were looking for, what the country and the world was looking for was someone - someone with gravitas, knew a great deal about foreign policy, had extensive experience in domestic policy and was authentic enough that people would say I believe what he's saying to me. That may not be the case a year and a half from now. This is just much too early to make the decision.

But one premise I do reject is per se because you are 75 years old when you announced to run for president - if that were to occur - that that's a disqualifying on its own. Look at Churchill. Look at de Gaulle. Look at all the great leaders in the world. How old were they, Terry? You know your history. They were in their late 70s and early 80s.

GROSS: No, I don't know how old they were. I figured you could.

BIDEN: I can tell you how old they were. I can tell you how old they were. And that was before modern medicine.


GROSS: Yeah. So we are...


GROSS: We are over time, but there's just one more thing I'm going to ask you. How hard is it when you were vice president and President Obama was giving his State of the Union address and you'd be sitting behind him with a camera on you for the whole address? That strikes me as the most awkward - you were wonderful doing it (laughter). I mean, you looked relaxed and comfortable and happy to be hearing him, but it strikes me as the most awkward position to be in.

BIDEN: I knew exactly where Barack's speech was going to be, except when he gave me assignments. He always - that'd be surprised. But look, I have such admiration for Barack. He has such enormous integrity. He has such enormous character.

I've not met any elected official in my life that has more character than this man has. And I've been around for, as you point out by my age, more than anybody else doing it. So it was an honor. But what I did learn is that every time I'd look out at somebody like this, all of a sudden, this became the issue. So the hard part was continuing to look at the back of his head.


GROSS: I hope you get to keep in touch with the president.

BIDEN: Well, we do. We still - we're still having lunch together, playing golf occasionally. And he is - he's the only person who is his better is Michelle. She is - by the way, she's one of the finest first ladies in American history in my view. So, anyway...


GROSS: So I just want to say I want to thank you for your - all of your service to our country. And I want to thank you for being here this evening, for honoring us with your presence. Thank you so very much.

BIDEN: Terry, I want to thank you. Look; guys. I'm glad you're there, Terry. And I hope you keep going, kid, even though you're only 24. Thank you.


GROSS: My interview with Joe Biden was recorded Tuesday evening at WHYY in front of an audience attending a dinner in which Biden received WHYY's Lifelong Learning Award. The interview was produced for broadcast by Amy Salit with Mooj Zadie and technical director Audrey Bentham and audio engineer Charlie Kaier.

Coming up, Maureen Corrigan reviews the new novel "Do Not Become Alarmed" that begins with this epigraph from Teddy Roosevelt. Americans learn only from catastrophe and not from experience. This is FRESH AIR.


This is FRESH AIR. Maile Meloy is a prolific writer known for, among other things, her two domestic novels, "Liars And Saints" and "A Family Daughter," and more recently her "Apothecary" trilogy written for young adults. Her latest novel, as its title suggests, goes off in a different direction. Here's our book critic Maureen Corrigan's review of "Do Not Become Alarmed."

MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: The title of Maile Meloy's new novel is misleading. "Do Not Become Alarmed" sounds like a suspense story. Granted, I did read it in two nights. But while I'm an unapologetic fan of thrillers, Meloy's novel is something else, something trickier to characterize. I'd call it a very smart work of literary fiction that exposes how very thin the layer of good luck is that keeps most of us from falling into the abyss.

Meloy begins her book with an epigraph from Teddy Roosevelt that warns, Americans learn only from catastrophe and not from experience. The two American families at the center of this story think they're setting off for a cruise down the California coast to Central America, but instead, they're in for a catastrophic learning experience.

Nora and Raymond are couple number one. She's white. He's black and a recognizable Hollywood actor. They have a little girl and an 11-year-old boy who seems to have a mild case of Asperger syndrome. Nora's cousin Liv and her husband, Benjamin, both white, are the other couple, and they have a boy and a girl of similar ages.

Even before the massive ship lumbers out into international waters, we readers sense this won't be a lighthearted Disney family cruise. Flipping on the TV in his cabin, a bored Benjamin comes upon the ship's own channel where stewardesses and other workers are being interviewed and are surprisingly blunt about the grueling hours they put in every day. Why would they put this on the TV, Liv asks when she comes into the room. I don't know, Benjamin jokes. Couldn't they find one cheerful kid who wants to see the world or that Ukrainian girl who's just happy not to be in Crimea?

Meloy is intent on contrasting the below-decks workers' firsthand knowledge of deprivation and danger with her privileged characters' relative sense of security. The weaknesses inherent in insularity become more evident once the ship reaches Central America. The two husbands accept an invitation to play golf on shore while the moms and kids sign up for a zip line tour of a rainforest canopy. That plan is derailed, however, when their tourist van is hit by a car.

To pass the sweltering hours before help arrives, their guide suggests that the group trek to a nearby beach and swim. You promise there's nothing dangerous in that water, Liv asks the guide, who naturally reassures her. But it's the water itself that's dangerous. As the moms doze in the sand, the tide shifts, and the kids playing with inner tubes are gently carried off up the river that feeds into the lagoon. When the moms wake up to an empty beach, their kids are already lost deep in the jungle.

That's just the opening crisis of "Do Not Become Alarmed," a title that's of course sarcastic. There is indeed much to be alarmed at in this world, especially in terms of the horrors that children everywhere are subjected to. And Meloy, without being heavy-handed or voyeuristic, doesn't shy away from depicting those grim truths.

A parallel storyline chronicles the parents' agony as they wait for news of their missing kids. Stress fractures in the marriages widen as the husbands and wives find all sorts of inventive ways to blame each other and themselves. In the grip of fear, Nora, the white mom of the biracial kids, worries that she taught her kids to be too polite, too obedient in order to fit into, for instance, the community of their white private school. Nora tells her black mother-in-law that she's afraid her two kids are huddled somewhere being good, like I taught them, and they won't take a chance, and so they won't be rescued, and it will be all my fault.

That's an unexpected moment in a novel that's filled with them. Meloy is such a deft writer that she keeps the adventure plot whizzing along even as she deepens our sense of the characters and the unfamiliar culture they have to navigate. You may mistakenly think that you don't want to enter the nightmare world of this novel, but Meloy makes you realize what a luxury it is to have that choice.

GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "Do Not Become Alarmed" by Maile Meloy.


GROSS: If you'd like to catch up on FRESH AIR interviews you missed like my onstage interview with Seth Meyers, the host of NBC's "Late Night" and "Saturday Night Live's" former head writer and Weekend Update anchor, check out our podcast. You'll find lots of our interviews.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Ann Marie Baldonado, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie and Thea Chaloner. John Sheehan directed today's show. I'm Terry Gross.


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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