Senator Biden appears on NPR's Fresh Air

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


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.


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.


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.

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