WASHINGTON — Under cover of night, Sen. Joseph Biden Jr. drove up to a yellowed stucco mansion in Belgrade where Yugoslavian leader Slobodan Milosevic was waiting. It was April 1993, about a year after Serbian forces and paramilitary gangs armed by Milosevic had unleashed a murderous campaign against Bosnia's Croats and Muslims.
Biden had been calling for sanctions and NATO air strikes against the Serbs and lifting a weapons ban on the Bosnians. All that would happen later, but at the time he was getting nowhere. Milosevic was paying attention, though. He invited Biden to his palace for a private chat.
As Biden tells the story in his memoir "Promises to Keep," the Serbian leader argued that the Serbs weren't persecutors but victims. Biden responded with accusations of Serbian atrocities. Milosevic denied them.
Finally, Biden recalled, "Milosevic could tell I had just about had it with his lies, and at one point he looked up from the maps and said, without any emotion, 'What do you think of me?' "
"I think you're a damn war criminal, and you should be tried as one."
The incident defines much about Biden. He's known for being blunt and plainspoken. He's also highly regarded in the Senate for his knowledge of the world. As for Milosevic, the air strikes Biden pushed for eventually helped lead to his surrender; Milosevic was tried for war crimes and died in prison.
Biden, 64, is running for president largely on the strength of his foreign affairs expertise. People who know him, however, say that the character he's shown since he experienced tragedy at age 29 is an equally important part of who he is.
In 1972, Biden's wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident. His two young sons were hospitalized with serious injuries. The accident happened a week before Christmas and six weeks after Biden had been elected one of the youngest U.S. senators ever.
One of his sons, Beau Biden, now 38, the attorney general of Delaware and the father of two children himself, recalls that his father said at the time: "Delaware can get another senator, but my boys can't get another dad."
"Those weren't just words," he added. "He lived them."
Beau Biden remembers that his father stayed constantly at the hospital with him and his brother. The boys recovered, and Biden's sister, Valerie, moved in to help care for them.
Biden wrote in his memoir that he told the then-Senate majority leader, Mike Mansfield, that he wouldn't become a senator, but Mansfield persuaded him to give it at least a six-month try.
He began a daily commute by train — 80 minutes each way between Wilmington and Washington — rushing to get home in time for dinner, or at least dessert, and to tuck his children in at night and be there when they woke up. His son said that Biden put his children first, making sure he got to ball games and other important events.
Biden has never had a home in Washington. He's always made the commute.
Biden grew up in a close Roman Catholic family in Wilmington. His father worked for a car dealership. In his memoir, Biden said that his family taught him what he called the "first principle of life" — that "the art of living is simply getting up after you've been knocked down."
Biden and his second wife, Jill, rebuilt the family after they married in 1977, Beau Biden said. They also have a daughter, Ashley. Jill Biden earned a Ph.D. in education and teaches at a community college.
Biden has taught law on Saturday mornings at Widener University since 1991. His income is his $165,200 Senate salary and $20,500 from teaching. In a 2005 ranking of the 100 senators for wealth, he was 99th. In other words, unlike most other presidential contenders, he isn't a millionaire.
"He's not even close," said David Wilhelm, who was Biden's campaign manager during his first run for the presidency in 1987 and is now a senior adviser to Biden.
Biden comes across as "a middle-class guy with middle-class aspirations, sometimes middle-class resentments," Wilhelm said. "I think it's something the folks inside the Beltway miss about him. But he's an outstanding retail politician with an innate ability to connect with folks."
In 1987, Biden was dividing his time between campaigning for president and, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, running the hearings that eventually led to the defeat of Robert Bork's nomination to the Supreme Court.
Campaigning in Iowa that year, Biden frequently quoted British politician Neil Kinnock's comments about opportunity. Then, at the end of one debate, he quoted Kinnock without attribution. A staffer for Michael Dukakis' rival campaign sent a video to reporters, and news stories accused Biden of plagiarism. He dropped out of the race.
In 1988, Biden twice underwent surgery for brain aneurysms and an operation for a blood clot. He fully recovered.
As he presses his second presidential campaign, the respect and affection that his colleagues hold for him are evident in interviews.
Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., said that Biden as president would be "very good at bringing people together and sitting down and working through problems. He'd know how to get the business done."
Colleagues say Biden is a hard worker who puts in a lot of time learning from experts. He speaks publicly in a conversational way — not flowery, not flat — and usually not brief, either. In fact, his tendency to talk at length is well known.
Kerry remembers one Senate Democrats' retreat, when Massachusetts Sen. Edward Kennedy's dogs were in the room and Biden was getting more and more heated talking about Iraq, "and the dogs went nuts."
Everybody laughed, Biden included.
One veteran Senate Republican, Orrin Hatch of Utah, worked with Biden on the 1994 crime bill that provided federal funding to boost community law enforcement. One part of it was Biden's Violence Against Women Act, which increased training and resources for those who respond to domestic violence and sexual assault.
"He's willing to work with you," Hatch said. "That's why we got a lot done together."
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