Biden known as a blunt inquisitor

Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.'s best game is foreign affairs, an arena he cherishes.

Ask about the former Soviet Union, Bosnia, Middle East or almost any part of the globe, and he knows the history and the players. He's visited Iraq more than seven times.

Not bad for a kid from Pennsylvania who broke into politics as a councilman from New Castle County.

While his blunt style is a flashpoint for criticism, Biden's a foreign policy wonk whose uninhibited style engenders respect among Senate colleagues from both parties.

As Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive Democratic nominee for president, prepared to announce his running mate this week, Biden flew to the former Soviet territory of Georgia. U.S. interests there have clashed with a newly resurgent Russia. The trip further fueled speculation that Obama would select the Delaware senator as his choice for vice president.

Never short of an opinion, Biden is a favorite of the Sunday morning talk shows. He is a mesmerizing figure, brazen and outspoken, and nearly untouchable in Delaware politics. In some respects, his storybook life rivals Obama's.

In his recent autobiography, Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, Biden says he began to understand in 1972 how despair led people to "just cash it in" and how "suicide wasn't just an option, but a rational option."

At the time, the newly elected 30-year-old senator had lost his wife, Neilia, and baby daughter, Naomi, in a car crash and his two sons were badly injured. He'd leave the hospital and walk the darkest, seediest neighborhoods he could find, "always looking for a fight."

"But I'd look at Beau and Hunter asleep and wonder what new terrors their own dreams held, and wonder who would explain to my sons my being gone, too," wrote Biden, now 65. "And I knew I had no choice but to fight to stay alive."

Written in his own candid voice, Biden's 365-page narrative portrays some of his darkest moments — the loss of his wife and daughter, the collapse of his 1988 presidential campaign amid plagiarism charges and the struggle to regain his health after near-fatal brain aneurysms.

But it's a personal journey less about despair than surviving — or, as he wrote, the need to "get up and keep moving."

Published by Random House, the book also includes behind-the-scenes exchanges with presidents and other world leaders throughout his 35-year Senate career, and sharp criticism of the Bush administration and its prosecution of the war in Iraq.

"But I believe the president failed to lead," he wrote. "History will judge him harshly not for the mistakes he made — we all make mistakes — but for the opportunities he squandered."

Some readers will be surprised to learn that there was a time when Biden hated public speaking.

He got tagged with the cruel nickname "Joe Impedimenta" in high school because of an embarrassing stutter. He overcame it by memorizing long passages of Yeats and Emerson and rehearsing the act of speaking in front of his mirror.

Later, another memorized passage would get him into trouble. Biden described in detail the implosion of his 1988 candidacy when he forgot to attribute a long passage he recited from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock.

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