Cottle, Michelle, Newsweek
Byline: Michelle Cottle
Yes, Joe Biden is gregarious. But he's a lot more complicated than his public persona.
It was a little after 11 a.m. on a Wednesday morning in mid- January, and Joe Biden was settling into a conference room on the second floor of the Eisenhower Executive Office Building. In his role as head of the administration's gun-control task force--which President Obama had asked him to lead after the massacre in Newtown--Biden had convened a group of gun- control advocates for a frank discussion about preventing future deaths. It was to be a personally delicate conversation, with multiple attendees having either lost loved ones to gun violence or themselves been victims.
The session, like all those his task force was holding with experts and advocates, was meant to be private, so after five minutes of introductory remarks, Biden booted the small gaggle of journalists from the room. He then zeroed in on the 17 men and women gathered around the long conference table, specifically reaching out to those who had endured tragedy by briefly relating his own story of loss. (Biden's first wife and baby daughter died in a car crash in 1972.) "He did a good job making a connection with the survivors in the room and making them comfortable to speak about a delicate and sensitive occurrence in their lives," says Hildy Saizow of Arizonans for Gun Safety. "He has grieved before, and that was important," says William Kellibrew, head of an eponymous foundation aimed at breaking the cycles of violence and poverty. (At age 10, Kellibrew saw his mother and 12-year-old brother gunned down by his mom's ex-boyfriend, who then forced Kellibrew to beg for his life.)
Biden voiced admiration for the victims and survivors working to turn their private nightmare toward the public good. And then the vice president--widely considered perhaps the most insufferably talkative person in Washington, the loosest loose cannon in a city full of them--did something completely out of step with his public persona: he basically shut up. Going around the table, Biden (with Attorney General Eric Holder at his right) had each person spend a few minutes sharing their story or recommending three action items they considered key to reducing gun violence. Participants were supposed to hold it to three minutes, recalls Kellibrew, "but you know some people are going to forget." At no point, however, did Biden try to rush the process. Only once or twice did he break in with a question or quick word of encouragement. He mostly just sat there, briefing book in front of him, listening and taking notes. Lots of notes. Pages of notes. "He had this whole system with some things written in some places and some in others," says Dan Gross, head of the Brady Campaign and Center to Prevent Gun Violence, who sat diagonally across the table from Biden. Gross says chuckling, "I started trying to figure out which page of notes I wanted to go on."
Once everyone had finished, Biden flipped back through his notebook, responding to specific suggestions and stories. "There was no doubt among anyone in the room," says Gross, "the extent to which he had been genuinely listening."
Four years into the Obama administration, Biden remains one of its more curious creatures. Critics deride him as Obama's court jester, his big mouth a perpetual source of heartburn, headaches, even national embarrassment. And yet, as longtime Obama counselor David Axelrod put it in a recent interview with Newsweek, Biden continues to be "the go-to guy when a difficult assignment comes up." Disentangling the United States from Iraq; building early bridges to Chinese president-in-waiting Xi Jinping (a diplomatic assignment he pulled in 2011); hunkering down with Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell to avoid a fiscal-cliff dive; and, most recently, tackling gun control, item No. 1 on the president's agenda--these do not seem obvious missions for an allegedly embarrassing windbag. …