Surprised to find this review here? Me too. I’m still semi surprised to find this book on my Kindle.

I was a late convert to Joe Biden, but quickly fell in love the night Joyful Heart Foundation honored him in 2016. It wasn’t that I didn’t like him as VP-I did- I just don’t have a great love of politics or politicians. Biden was an exception and when I heard he was coming to NYC on his American Promise tour, I knew I had to be there. Promises to Keep is not the book Biden was promoting when I saw him on that tour in November 2007 and while I could say I read this for background, I’d be lying. I just didn’t pay attention to the title of the book I requested from NYPL and it was only as I got toward the end and was still in the thick of the Bush administration I knew there was no way this was going to cover his eight years as Vice President, let alone Beau’s illness and death. Oops.  Still, this was an amazing read.

“Joe Biden represented Delaware for 36 years in the U.S. Senate before serving as 47th Vice President of the United States from 2009 to 2017. As the Vice President, Joe Biden addressed important issues facing the nation and represented America abroad, traveling over 1.2 million miles to more than 50 countries. He convened sessions of the President’s Cabinet, led interagency efforts, and worked with Congress in his fight to raise the living standards of middle class Americans, reduce gun violence, address violence against women, and end cancer as we know it.” ~Goodreads Bio

I went into this book knowing the Biden of the last few years of the Obama administration. I definitely didn’t know he’d run for president in 1988 and I’m not sure I knew of the 2008 campaign either. I still remember “voting” for Dukakis in a mock election in elementary school. On some level I knew how long he’d been in the Senate because I knew the stories of his first wife passing just after the election, but I don’t think I realized just how long he’d been “Senator Biden from Delaware”. As he said, so much has changed in that time.

“Things have changed in my six terms, for better and for worse. I served with the last of the southern segregationists, but I was there to see Carol Moseley Braun and Barack Obama sworn in. There was not a single woman in the Senate in 1973. Today there are sixteen, and one of them has a real shot at the presidency.

I love the storied Senators who he worked with throughout his tenure. Because I didn’t yet realize when he’d written this book, I didn’t realize that the Senator he was talking about was probably Hillary Clinton. While he talked a lot in his intro about the decline in decency, I don’t think I realized how common that was now until I found myself surprised at the degree of bipartisan discussion and debate that marked his time in the Senate. Or how the Bork senate confirmation hearings went. I really like how he interwove his speeches and those of other colleagues in to fill out the stories he recounted in this book.

Part of this book that I found most interesting was how much different campaigning was. I loved the inside look into how he ran for both New Castle County Council and Senator in a time where campaigning was physically much harder. I feel like his sister Val, who ran every one of his campaigns, would make for a fascinating biography.

While the story of how he survived his first wife & daughter’s death is well known, I don’t think his survival of the aneurysm is nearly as well documented. I said to a friend while I was reading this that his wife Jill may be the only reason he’s still with us today, it is truly amazing what he survived in 1972 and again in 2015. I love how this book also included so much about his first wife’s family, and how divisive marrying a Catholic Democrat would have been in the late 1960s, yet Neilia‘s parents supported him and them throughout.

“Neilia’s parents came to town in the last days of the campaign to help out. Actually, Mr. Hunter had been helping all the way. The hardest thing in the campaign, I can say without equivocation, was being able to run and eat. I was getting a little share from my new law firm, but things were tight. Neilia’s father, a good Republican, became a quiet provider for the Joe Biden Jr. family. If we were down to nothing, Neilia would reach in her pocket, and there’d be a hundred dollars. “Where’d you get a hundred dollars, Neilia?!” But I always knew. Her father’s faith in me actually flattered me. Six years after he stood trembling at the door of the Catholic church in Skaneateles, Mr. Hunter was still ready to take a chance on me.”

I am too young to remember Biden’s work in the 1970s and 80s, but he played a key role in one of the international news stories that I followed intently: the breakup of the former Yugoslavia. While I remember the Berlin Wall falling and the fall of communism and the USSR, the Balkans was a major news item throughout high school and college and I followed it closely. Sarajevo to me was what the battles of WWII, Korea and Vietnam were to the older generation. I loved reading about Biden’s meetings with Tito-and later his trips to Afghanistan and what a Senator’s role is in such negotiations.

Because he wrote this on the eve of his 2008 campaign, September 11 (which served as an intro as well) and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan were fresh in Biden’s mind. There was a lot from Bush/Cheney/Powell that was news then and is history now… it’s amazing how much ten years and the Trump election could change the lens. With Biden’s disappointment in Bush’s defeat of John Kerry, I can only imagine how he took Trump’s defeat of Clinton.

There’s no question that Biden’s life has impacted American history: his perseverance after Neilia’s death, and his decision not to run for President a third time after Beau’s. Overall, I think we as a society are lucky to have had him in office for so long. This book is a really insightful look at the first thirty years, now I look forward to reading the book I intended to. Two politics books from me in the space of a year? It could happen.

3 thoughts on “Review: Joe Biden’s Promises to Keep”

  1. Oh this sounds fascinating. I have what I’d expect is an average level of understanding of the US political system for a UK person – would I be lost or would it be OK to understand?

    1. I think you’d be fine. Two things that will help you: you’re slightly older than I am so you’d have better memory of the things I remember but didn’t fully understand. There’s also a fair amount of European politics/history in his role with the Foreign Relations Senate committee: he worked with a fair number of European leaders on things including the fall of the USSR/Yugoslavia. FOr as much time as he spent on the Reagan era I was surprised not to see more Thatcher.

      Also, you strike me as curious so things that are slightly arcane and/or US-centric (supreme court judge confirmation hearings, for one) might sent you down the Wikipedia rabbit hole

      Curious what you think if you read it

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