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Biden is the mouth that roared, and that may be good politics

WASHINGTON—There's candor. There's bluntness. And then there's Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del.

"That's malarkey, pure malarkey," he told Alberto R. Gonzales when Gonzales was the nominee for U.S. attorney general.

"He doesn't know from Shinola about the treaty," he said of President Bush's familiarity with the Geneva Conventions.

"For God's sake, don't listen to Rumsfeld. He doesn't know what the hell he's talking about on this," he instructed Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, speaking of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

"Cockamamie" was his word for the president's tax-cut and Social Security proposals.

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr. tells it like he thinks it is. In a city that exalts euphemisms, delights in doublespeak and celebrates circumlocution, the 62-year-old lawmaker sticks out like a heretic in the Vatican.

Biden's remarks routinely draw gasps and laughter in Senate hearings. "Ol' buddy," he said while questioning Gonzales recently, "I love you, but you're not very candid so far."

As Biden contemplates another run for president after a failed try 17 years ago—damaged by a charge of lifting someone else's words in a speech, of all things—people are waking up to the fact that Smilin' Joe, who was elected to the Senate when he was 29, talks like a regular guy and doesn't put on airs on the TV talk shows.

He knows he utters cringe-worthy things, but he resists sounding like the lawyer he is.

"I think people are tired of and suspect of language that is too cute by half," Biden said the other day. "I don't think I'm impolite, but it's easy to misunderstand being blunt from being rude. I think I'm being direct. I hope I'm not sterile."

Sterile? Well, let's ask Slobodan Milosevic, the former Serbian strongman, who once solicited Biden's opinion of him.

"I think you're a goddamn war criminal, and I'm going to do all in my power to see you're tried as one," Biden replied.

Milosevic is on trial for war crimes in The Hague, Netherlands.

Christopher Madison, a former press aide, said Biden "has always been willing to say most anything that comes into his head—and that's his charm. He's effective because he disarms people. He always had a unique way of expressing himself. He's totally unrestrained in his verbal communications with the world."

The senator's staff long ago gave up trying to rein in his colorful speech.

"He hasn't changed," said Ted Kaufman, who worked as an aide to Biden for 21 years. "He says what he thinks, and it works for him. He's not being disrespectful; it's the way he talks."

Kaufman recalled a meeting at a late 1970s treaty signing in Moscow between Biden and former Soviet Premier Aleksey N. Kosygin. As the Kremlin chief peppered his remarks with a denunciation of the United States as a corrupt imperialist power, Biden grew increasingly irritated.

The American reached across the table and gently laid his hand on Kosygin's arm.

"Listen," Biden said, "where I come from we say, `Don't kid a kidder.'"

Not everyone is a fan.

Biden was criticized by some after Sept. 11 when he was asked about Osama bin Laden and said: "I hope he doesn't come out of a cave waving a handkerchief, because I'd like to shoot the son of a bitch."

That's one he wanted back.

"Not a good thing for a U.S. senator to say," he admitted.

White House officials don't particularly enjoy Biden's barbs, but neither do they consider him reckless.

"He's a loyal Democrat who sticks pretty close to the party line," presidential counselor Dan Bartlett said. "There have been some issues we've been able to work together on, but he was very committed over the course of the political campaign to his party. That's understandable."

Said Biden's foreign relations aide Mike Haltzel: "He's been brutally frank with a lot of people, but there's always a policy reason for his anger. It's not because his wife was mad at him that morning."

Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, who felt the lash of Biden's tongue at a Judiciary Committee hearing recently, said: "I don't have any problem working with someone who's willing to state his views loud and clear. Straight talk saves a lot of time compared to the games that get played in the political arena."

Some of Biden's friends said the senator's daily 108-mile commute from Wilmington, Del., has kept him grounded and inoculated against Washington-speak.

Wilmington lawyer Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III said his father wasn't any different at home.

"I've grown up with it," the younger Biden said. "At the dinner table. Playing football with my friends. On C-SPAN. That's the way he is."

After Rice's confirmation hearing before the Foreign Relations Committee, Biden hugged the nominee and, by his account, whispered to her: "I'm telling you, Condi, don't listen to them. Rumsfeld and Cheney. You gotta be tough."

In the same account, which appeared in Rolling Stone magazine, Biden said he voted to confirm Rice "not because I have faith in Condi to execute a decent foreign policy. I don't. But the president is entitled to choose the people he wants to surround himself with, even if I think his views are cockamamie."

Political consultant David Doak, who worked on the senator's 1988 presidential campaign, said Biden was a believable public figure, which went a long way in modern politics.

"The strength about this guy is that he speaks plainly, but he has complicated ideas," Doak said. "Sometimes the bigger the words are, the harder they are to believe."

Biden said he wouldn't decide on a presidential bid before late 2006. He's certain that some consultant will suggest he change his style—but it won't happen.

"I made a judgment awhile ago that if I'm ever going to lose politically, I want to lose on my own terms," he said. "I am who I am. For me to pretend differently ... it's not worth the effort."

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(Knight Ridder correspondent Ron Hutcheson contributed to this report.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Biden

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