By Michael D. Shear, Paul Kane and Jonathan Weisman
By selecting Sen. Joe Biden as his running mate, Barack Obama has picked a Senate colleague who has a long and friendly rivalry with Obama’s Republican opponent, Sen. John McCain.
From their perches on the leading foreign policy committees, Biden and McCain have shadowboxed across the globe, building reputations as experts in their respective parties on war and peace.
But their clash over the direction of the war in Iraq — and now the prospect of a high-stakes political campaign this fall — has strained that collegial relationship, leaving both men more than willing to do battle with the other.
“He has respect for McCain but he’ll be the first to angered by the sort of cheap shots they’re throwing at Obama now,” said Sen. Charles Schumer (D-N.Y.), who predicted that Biden will relish the role of playing a lead attack dog on McCain.
Over the years, Biden and McCain have traveled broadly, often returning from war zones to spar with each other on the Sunday morning talk shows. As chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs committee, Biden visited Iraq more than 7 times; McCain has returned to Iraq eight times as the senior Republican on the Armed Services committee.
The result was a rivalry — and a friendship — built on respect, people in both parties said. In 2005, Biden told comedian Jon Stewart that “John McCain is a personal friend, a great friend. I would be honored to run with or against John McCain because I think the country
would be better off.”
Asked in 1999 what he would do on the first day of his presidency, McCain said he would “call in Joe Biden and John Kerry and Zbigniew Brzezinski and Carl Levin and like-minded Republicans” for a frank discussion about the need for a bipartisan foreign policy.
“They actually have a long and good relationship. They’re friends,” a senior Biden aide said Saturday morning.
McCain called his colleague early Saturday morning to congratulate him, aides said. In his first speech as Obama’s running mate, Biden acknowledged that McCain is “genuinely a friend of mine” before proceeding to blast his friend for being a wholehearted backer of the Bush-McCain policies that Biden said threaten the future.
That friendship dates back decades, to the time that a young John McCain served as a staffer to senators like Biden. It was then, McCain has said, that he first wanted to become a member of Congress.
In a biography of McCain, author Robert Timberg wrote that “McCain was much in demand for overseas escort duty…He was fun to be around, his wit appealing, his natural exuberance infectious. In an Athens taverna he danced on a table with Senator Joseph Biden’s wife, Jill, a red bandanna clenched in his teeth.”
Later, as senators, the pair sometimes joined forces, especially on military and foreign policy matters. In 1999, a “McCain-Biden” bill would have authorized President Bill Clinton to use “all necessary force,” including ground troops, in Yugoslavia.
Democrats and the Republican Senate leadership opposed the bill as too broad and too open-ended, and rejected it, but the partnership was an example of their willingness to work collaboratively.
Biden and McCain both have sons in the military, giving each a personal connection to the war they see so differently. McCain’s son, Jimmy is a Marine who served in Iraq until Feburuary. Biden’s son, Beau, a reserve officer who is the Attorney General of Delaware, reports to Iraq in October.
They are also both shaped by tragedy. McCain spent five-and-a-half years in a Vietnamese prison after being captured when his plane was shot down. Biden’s wife and infant daughter were killed in an auto accident shortly after his first election.
On a lighter note, both Biden and McCain were among the most frequent guests on Don Imus’ radio show, often heaping praise on each other. During one show in 2006, Biden was effusive about McCain’s efforts to stop the Bush Administration’s torture policy.
“You know, I mean, thank God for John McCain in saying, whoa, what are you guys talking about?,” Biden told Imus.
But that friendship is likely to be strained further during the
upcoming election, as Biden is tasked by Obama to attack McCain. It is a task he had already begun even before being picked.
In April, Biden gave a speech at Georgetown University in which he said there is “no daylight between John McCain and George Bush. They are joined at the hip.”
In the speech, he called McCain “a man I greatly admire, a man I consider a personal and close friend.” But he went on to slam what he called a “myopic” view of foreign policy and said that “fundamental change” will require “more than a great soldier. It’s going to require a wise leader.”
Last month, in another speech, Biden accused McCain of “profound confusion” and “twisted logic” on the fight against terrorism and urged him to “study history” on the subject.
It is on terrorism and Iraq that there are likely to be the greatest clashes.
Both supported the authorization for war in Iraq, though Biden argues he was trying to give Bush the strongest hand possible force United Nations weapons inspectors back in. After the invasion, Biden preceded McCain in arguing for additional troops.
But in 2006, the two broke irrevocably. With sectarian violence spiraling, Biden argued that 500,000 troops wouldn’t bring peace if the Iraqis couldn’t reconcile.
Since then, they have traveled separately and returned with
opposite conclusions. About the time McCain earned criticism walking around a Baghdad Market in a flak jacket and offering a rosy assessment, Biden was marooned in Fallujah in a sand storm. Stuck in a room with Iraqi politicians, he was struck by the discord and lack of
will to reconcile.
Staff researchers Alice Crites and Lucy Shackelford contributed to this report.