After a hiatus, this column will now resume on a regular basis. My new book, with Todd Pittinsky – Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy – was published on October 29 by Cambridge University Press. My next book, title to be later revealed, will be published by Cambridge University Press next year.
Joe Biden is the quintessential American politician – with one exception. There is a single thing about him that always has stood out and does so still. His passion, his ambition – his lust for success.
Notwithstanding his congenial persona and companionable style, notwithstanding his congenital backslapping and glad-handing, and notwithstanding that big, bright, broad Irish smile for which he was known for so long, his personality is steely. Biden is made of far sterner stuff than his public persona would seem to suggest.
From an early age, Biden has never, ever, let anything stop him. No matter how long the path, no matter how high the hurdle, no matter how ghastly the tragedy, his trek to the top continued. What, for Joe Biden, was the top? The American presidency – no less.
Even early on, as a teenager and then as young man, he was known for his boundless ambition. In high school he was class president in both his junior and senior years. Later, though he shunned the political protests of the 1960s and 70s, he made it a point nonetheless to be politically engaged. A supporter from Biden’s home state of Delaware, Gilbert Sloan, remembers Biden from all the way back, when he was “very young and ambitious.” What Biden wanted though was not to march in the streets – but to run for political office.
His single-minded drive extended to his personal life. He made it a point to meet Neilia Hunter, a pretty, young woman from a well-to-do family near Syracuse. He additionally made it a point to tell his future mother in law that what he wanted was to be president of the United States. What, we have to wonder all these years later, did she think of this still callow young man, so apparently relentlessly driven? In 1966 Joe Biden and Neilia Hunter were married. He was still in law school – he had decided to attend Syracuse University College of Law to be close to his future bride – and within a few years they had three children, Biden worked at law firms in Wilmington, and became involved in Democratic politics.
Just six years after his marriage, just four years after receiving his law degree, and just 29 years old, Joe Biden ran for and won a seat in the U.S. Senate from the state of Delaware. The ensuing catastrophes are all too well known: the death, in a ghastly accident, of his wife and one-year old daughter, in the early 1970s; his own brain surgeries in the late 1980s; and the death, of a brain tumor, of his fiercely beloved son Beau, at the age of 46, in 2015.
Any single one of these disasters would have felled or at least stopped most of us. They did not, not even strung together, stop Joe Biden. Biden, whose first of several runs for the White House was more than three decades ago. For most of the last five years, Biden’s almost unbearable grief in the wake of the death of his son appeared debilitating. Beau’s death visibly aged Joe Biden, diminished him, depressed him. But, came the 2020 campaign, the old warhorse was all in once again, driven by the passion that has personified him lifelong – the passion to be president.
In Leaders Who Lust: Power, Money, Sex, Success, Legitimacy, Legacy, we define lust as a “psychological drive that produces intense wanting, even desperately needing to obtain an object, or to secure a circumstance. When the object has been obtained, or the circumstance secured, there is relief, but only briefly, temporarily.” Joe Biden’s unslaked drive to occupy the White House fits this definition perfectly. He ran for president for the first time in 1987. He ran for president for the second time in 2007. He was joined at the hip to the president as vice president, between 2009 and 2017. And he ran for president for the third time in 2019.
Here then my prediction: No chance in hell that if Joe Biden does win a narrow victory, and that if Donald Trump does make trouble, Biden will go quietly. Barring a big victory for Trump, Biden will fight to be president to the end. Literally.