Posted: Feb. 16, 2005
By Celia Cohen
U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. is thinking about writing a book. In fact, he met Monday with someone from the publishing industry, although he does not know whether he will follow up.
What sort of book Biden would write is unclear, as is why he would write it.
At 62, Biden is a six-term Democrat who has spent more than half his life in the Senate, since he was elected in 1972 at the precocious age of 29. It has been a kaleidoscopic life of accomplishment, tragedy and farce played out on the national stage, including the car accident that took his wife and tiny daughter, the charges of plagiarism that short-circuited his presidential candidacy and his firsthand participation in the country's fortunes.
People in Biden's position usually write books because they are nearing the end of their careers, because they want to run for president or because, like Winston Churchill, they need the money.
"I don't know that any apply," Biden said. "Over the past several years there have been several [book] agents who have asked to see me. I don't know that I have the time to do it."
It could be a political book. "The only thing that has me even thinking about it is somebody in the Democratic Party has to seize the day and lay out where the country would go and why," he said.
It could be something else. Amid all the talking that Biden is known for, he is a storyteller who can bring a crowd to him and keep it, especially when he tells tales of the Senate.
One story he has been telling of late, including as recently as Monday when he spoke to the Delaware State Chamber of Commerce, is about a table. It once was used as a desk in the Senate office of Richard B. Russell Jr., a Georgia Democrat who served from 1933 until his death in 1971, the year before Biden was elected. The Russell Senate Office Building is named for him, and Biden's own office is located there.
Russell was an icon of the Old South, a vastly influential figure who was as contradictory as Thomas Jefferson, the president who wrote soaringly of freedom but kept slaves. Russell was called "a senator's senator," a revered leader who used his talents for segregation's last stand. He was one of the originators of the "Southern Manifesto," a 1956 declaration from Southern members of Congress in defense of states' rights and resistance to integration.
"The Table" is a story of redemption occurring over decades in the Senate. "Respect for the other person wears off in the Senate. People change," Biden said.
With minor editing, here is the way Biden told the story as part of a eulogy he was invited to give in 2003 for U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Dixiecrat-turned-Republican who signed the Southern Manifesto but came to see a different way:
"When I first arrived in the Senate in 1972, I met with John Stennis, another old Southern senator who became my friend. We sat the end of this gigantic, grand mahogany table he used as his desk that had been the desk of Richard Russell's.
"It was a table upon which the Southern Manifesto was signed, I am told. Sen. Stennis patted the leather chair next to him when I walked in to pay my respects as a young senator, which was the order of the day.
"He said, 'Sit down, sit down, sit down here, son.'
"He looked at me, and he said, 'Son, what made you run for the Senate?' Like a darn fool, I told him the exact truth before I could think.
"I said, 'Civil rights, sir,' and as soon as I did, I could feel the beads of perspiration pop out on my head, and I got that funny feeling.
"He said, 'Good, good, good," and that was the end of the conversation.
"Eighteen years later, we'd become friends, and I saw him sitting behind that same table, although this time in a wheel chair. His leg had been amputated because of cancer. I was going to look at offices because in my seniority his office was available as he was leaving.
"I went in, and he looked at me as if it were yesterday, and he said, 'Sit down, Joe, sit down,' and tapped that chair. He said something that startled me. He said, 'Remember the first time you came to see me, Joe?'
"I shook my head. I didn't remember. He leaned forward, and he recited the story.
"I said to him, 'I was a pretty smart young fellow, wasn't I, Mr. Chairman?'
He said, 'Joe, I wanted to tell you something then that I'm going to tell you now. You are going to take my office, aren't you?'
"'Yes, Mr. Chairman.'
"He ran his hand back and forth across that mahogany table in a loving way, and he said, 'You see this table, Joe?' This is the God's truth. He said, 'You see this table?'
"'Yes, Mr. Chairman.'
He said, 'This table is the flagship of the Confederacy. From 1954 to 1968, we sat here, most of us from the deep South, the Old Confederacy, and we planned the demise of the civil rights movement.'
"He looked at me and said, 'And now it's time, it's time that this table go from the possession of a man against civil rights to a man who is for civil rights.'
"I was stunned, and he said, 'One more thing, Joe. The civil rights movement did more to free the white man than the black man.'
"I looked at him. I didn't know what he meant.
"He said, in only John Stennis fashion, 'It freed my soul. It freed my soul.'"