A day of Biden

Thursday was one of the most exciting days I’ve had to date as a government reporter.

I won’t necessarily say fulfilling — but exciting? Definitely.

When Missourian editor Scott Swafford asked Wednesday if I’d like the chance to interview Sen. Joe Biden, I was taken aback.

Are you kidding me?

In my two years of reporting, I’ve interviewed such ‘high-profile’ sources as Joint Chiefs of Staff chairman Michael Mullen and former Sprint Nextel Corp. CEO Gary Forsee, but neither was a one-on-one encounter — the opportunities both came while alongside other members of the press.

After setting up the interview with a member of the Obama campaign, with Scott’s help I jotted down a list of potential questions to ask the vice presidential candidate. We wanted to ask Missouri-specific questions; Scott wanted to get as far away from canned “kitchen table” responses as possible, and he told me this was probably the only one-source story he’d ever let me get away with.

Our list included: how important the state is to the Democratic campaign; what an Obama/Biden administration could do to bring manufacturing and high-tech jobs to Mid-Missouri; how to reduce health care premiums; how to lower gas prices; and how to bridge the state’s urban-rural divide.

I left the newsroom on a high, replaying what I would ask and how I would ask it.

Two thoughts kept creeping into my head: “don’t screw this up” and “wait until I tell my friends and family.”

But as much as I kept blabbing about it to my girlfriend, I tried to suppress those thoughts as much as possible. I’d wait until after the work was done to spread the word about my big day.

I made a conscious effort to tell myself, “This isn’t about you.” Heck, for all intents and purposes, this wasn’t about Joe Biden. This was about the readers of the Columbia Missourian and all the residents of this state and others who would relish the opportunity to ask potentially the next national second-in-command just one question.

I keep thinking, “What would someone without my unique opportunity ask if they were in my shoes?”

I can’t say I completely succeeded.

Originally I thought I’d have 30 minutes. But when I got to Jefferson City Thursday morning, I was told I’d have seven. Biden would call on the road between campaign stops in Liberty and Jefferson City.

My list of questions quickly dwindled to seven, then six and by the time the interview was over, I’d only gotten in three (for audio excerpts from that interview, click here).

I covered three issues — health care, energy policy and interstate funding — three areas I thought would be present in the minds of Missouri voters and that Biden’s administration might actually have some control over if elected.

What was he like?

I guess I can’t really say. I only spoke to the man for seven minutes.

He began the conversation with, and I paraphrase, “How ‘bout Mizzou and those tigers — number two in the country. You guys gotta win, and we’ve got to win this state.”

I gave an obligatory laugh and jumped right in. I was on the clock, and it was my duty to get as much information as possible.

I ended the conversation by saying — and again, I’m paraphrasing — “next time you’re in Missouri look me up and I’ll take you to the Heidelberg.” (Not the most professional thing to say, but, hey, the interview was over)

This time it was Biden who gave the required chuckle and said something along the lines of, “You better be careful. I’m like a poor relative; I might just take you up on that. Those rich guys, they won’t call you back.”

After typing up a question-and-answer-format article based on the interview, I had an interview with a candidate for state office — cheap plug, look for that story to come — and then it was off to Biden’s actual campaign event, held at Memorial Park in Jeff City.

At the event I spoke to a handful people who had procured tickets before going in. It was interesting to note that, no matter who I talked to — Republicans or Democrats — everyone seemed pretty much decided on how they would vote. I think I remember asking every single person I talked to whether anything that was said at Thursday night’s event would change who they voted for in November, and no one said that it would.

It seemed this event was more of a rallying cry for the party faithful and, I began to realize, for members of the press. These were carefully crafted messages that Biden was sending out.

While reporting for a news story (which you can find here), I tried to take into account as much how Biden presented himself as what he actually said. With secret servicemen positioned around the outdoor shelter and flashbulbs firing away, Biden delivered a 50-minute address.

I couldn’t help but notice the ways in which he framed his speech, one of three that he gave in America’s heartland Thursday.

Behind him sat 40 observers — apparently picked at random from the event’s guests — on hay bales. Corn husks hung from the wood-paneled wall.

As Biden read from a nearly invisible teleprompter, his speech was filled with colloquialisms. He addressed the audience again and again as “folks;” he said at several different points — and I’m not sure of the exact quotes — “Like my mother said,” “Like my father said,” or “Like my brother said;” within the first five minutes of his speech he mentioned his son Beau’s service in the U.S. military; he gave Missouri an “Ah” rather than “ee” sound at the end.

Who am I to say whether these inflections and euphemisms were specifically targeted to a Midwest audience?

I tried asking campaign advisor Sam Myers what Biden’s message needed to be after the event but was told he wasn’t the one to officially comment.

So instead I asked members of the audience what they thought.

The result was clearly one-sided.

“It just made me totally motivated,” Nancy Rahner, a special education teacher from Columbia said.

“I’m just so impressed,” Don Ruthenberg, of Holts Summit added.

For Linda Eisinger, of Jefferson City, “It was exciting … I really like the energy.”

And energy there was. At points, Biden yelled into the microphone.

He castigated his Republican opponents, while at the same time chastising them for running a negative campaign.

“Don’t lecture me on patriotism,” Biden roared in regard to a comment from Republican vice presidential candidate Sarah Palin that he saw paying taxes as patriotic.

“We will end this war responsibly,” he said pounding the lectern with each word for emphasis.

His sharp witticisms drew laughs from the crowd.

In talking about his party’s perceived result in the three previous (presidential and vice presidential) debates, Biden said “Now if this were the playoffs in a baseball series, and it was the best out of five, this would be over by now.”

Biden said that on Sept. 15 at 9 a.m. Sen. John McCain stated the fundamentals of the American economy were “sound” but at 11 a.m. he called the situation a “crisis.”

“That’s what we Catholics call an epiphany,” he quipped.

But for all the rhetoric and one-sidedness, I can’t help but look back, initially, on Thursday with a sense of excitement, without a sense of being part of — for better or worse — a historic moment. That excitement, I feel, would have been just as palpable had Palin, or McCain come to speak. But I can’t say that for sure. I’ll have to wait until they visit Mid-Missouri themselves.

 

 

 

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