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Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics Paperback – August 25, 2008
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About the Author
From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.
Joe Impedimenta. My classmates hung that nickname on me our first semester of high school when we were doing two periods of Latin a day. It was one of the first big words we learned. Impedimenta—the baggage that impedes one’s progress. So I was Joe Impedimenta. Or Dash. A lot of people thought they called me Dash because of football. I was fast, and I scored my share of touchdowns. But the guys at an all-boys Catholic school usually didn’t give you nicknames to make you feel better about yourself. They didn’t call me Dash because of what I could do on the football field; they called me Dash because of what I could not do in the classroom. I talked like Morse code. Dot-dot-dot-dot-dash-dash-dash-dash. “You gu-gu-gu-gu-guys sh-sh-sh-sh-shut up!”
My impedimenta was a stutter. It wasn’t always bad. When I was at home with my brothers and sister, hanging out with my neighborhood friends, or shooting the bull on the ball field, I was fine, but when I got thrown into a new situation or a new school, had to read in front of the class, or wanted to ask out a girl, I just couldn’t do it. My freshman year of high school, because of the stutter, I got an exemption from public speaking. Everybody else had to get up and make a presentation at the morning assembly, in front of 250 boys. I got a pass. And everybody knew it. Maybe they didn’t think much of it—they had other things to worry about—but I did. It was like having to stand in the corner with the dunce cap. Other kids looked at me like I was stupid. They laughed. I wanted so badly to prove I was like everybody else. Even today I can remember the dread, the shame, the absolute rage, as vividly as the day it was happening. There were times I thought it was the end of the world, my impedimenta. I worried that the stutter was going to be my epitaph. And there were days I wondered: How would I ever beat it?
It’s a funny thing to say, but even if I could, I wouldn’t wish away the darkest days of the stutter. That impedimenta ended up being a godsend for me. Carrying it strengthened me and, I hoped, made me a better person. And the very things it taught me turned out to be invaluable lessons for my life as well as my chosen career.
I started worrying about my stutter back in Scranton, Pennsylvania, in grade school. When I was in kindergarten, my parents sent me to a speech pathologist at Marywood College, but it didn’t help much, so I went only a few times. Truth was, I didn’t let the stutter get in the way of things that really mattered to me. I was young for my grade and always little for my age, but I made up for it by demonstrating I had guts. On a dare, I’d climb to the top of a burning culm dump, swing out over a construction site, race under a moving dump truck. If I could visualize myself doing it, I knew I could do it. It never crossed my mind that I couldn’t. As much as I lacked confidence in my ability to communicate verbally, I always had confidence in my athletic ability. Sports was as natural to me as speaking was unnatural. And sports turned out to be my ticket to acceptance—and more. I wasn’t easily intimidated in a game, so even when I stuttered, I was always the kid who said, “Give me the ball.”
Who’s going to take the last shot? “Give me the ball.” We need a touchdown now. “Give me the ball.” I’d be eight years old, usually the smallest guy on the field, but I wanted the ball. And they gave it to me.
When I was ten, we moved from the Scranton neighborhood I knew so well to Wilmington, Delaware. My dad was having trouble finding a good job in Scranton, and his brother Frank kept telling him there were jobs in Wilmington. The Biden brothers had spent most of their school days in Wilmington, so it was like going home for my dad. For the rest of us, it felt like leaving home. But my mom, who was born and raised in Scranton, determined to see it as my dad did; she refused to see it any other way. This was a wonderful opportunity. We’d have a fresh start. We’d make new friends. We were moving into a brand-new neighborhood, to a brand-new home. This wasn’t a hand-me-down house. We’d be the first people to ever set foot in it. It was all good. She was like that with my stutter, too. She wouldn’t dwell on the bad stuff. Joey, you’re so handsome. Joey, you’re such a good athlete. Joey, you’ve got such a high IQ. You’ve got so much to say, honey, that your brain gets ahead of you. And if the other kids made fun of me, well, that was their problem. They’re just jealous.
She knew how wounding kids could be. One thing she determined to do when we moved to Wilmington was hold me back a year. Besides being young and small, I’d missed a lot of school the last year in Scranton when I’d had my tonsils and adenoids removed. So when we got to Wilmington, my mom insisted I do third grade over—and none of the kids at Holy Rosary had to know I was being held back by my mom. That was just another of the ways Wilmington would be a fresh start.
Actually, we were moving to the outskirts of Wilmington, to a working-class neighborhood called the Claymont area, just across the Pennsylvania state line. I still remember the drive into Delaware. It all felt like an adventure. My dad was at the wheel and my mom was up front with him, with the three of us kids in back: me, my brother, Jimmy, and my six-year-old sister, Valerie, who was also my best friend. We drove across the state line on the Philadelphia Turnpike, past the Worth Steel Mill, the General Chemical Company, and the oil refineries, all spewing smoke. We drove past Worthland and Overlook Colony, tightly packed with the row houses that the mills had built for their workers not long after the turn of the century. Worthland was full of Italians and Poles; Overlook Colony was black. It was just a mile or so down the road to Brookview Apartments and our brand-new garden unit. A right off the Philadelphia Pike, and we were home.
Brookview was a moonscape. A huge water tower loomed over the development, but there wasn’t a tree in sight. We followed the main road in as it swept us in a gentle curve. Off the main road were the “courts.” One side was built, but the other was still under construction. We could see the heavy machinery idling among the mounds of dirt and red clay. It was a hot summer day, so our car windows were rolled down. I can still remember the smell of that red clay, the sulfurous stink from the bowels of the earth. As we arced down the main street toward a new home, my mom caught sight of these airless little one-story apartments. They were the color of brown mustard. My dad must have seen my mom’s face as she scanned her new neighborhood. “Don’t worry, Pudd’,” he told her. “It’s not these. We have a big one.”
He pulled the car around to the bottom of a bend, and without getting out of the car, he pointed across an expanse of not-quite lawn, toward the big one. Our new home was a two-story unit, white, with thin columns in front—a hint of Tara, I guess—and a one-story box off each side. “There it is,” he said.
“All of this?” Mom asked.
“No, just the center,” my dad said. Then, “Don’t worry, Pudd’, it’s only temporary.”
From the backseat I could tell my mom was crying.
“Mom!? What’s the matter, Mommy?”
“I’m just so happy. Isn’t it beautiful? Isn’t it beautiful?”
Actually, it didn’t seem bad to me. It was a miniature version of a center hall colonial, and we had bedrooms upstairs. I had the bedroom in back, which meant from my window I could gaze upon the object of my deepest desire, my Oz: Archmere. Right in the middle of this working-class steel town, not a mile from the mills and directly across from the entrance of Brookview Apartments, was the first mansion I had ever really seen. I could look at it for hours. John Jacob Raskob had built the house for his family before the steel mills, chemical plants, and oil refineries came to Claymont. Raskob was Pierre du Pont’s personal secretary, but he had a genius for making money out of money. He convinced the du Ponts to take a big stake in General Motors and became its chairman of finance. Raskob was also a Catholic hero. He used part of his fortune to fund a charitable foundation, and he’d run the campaign of the first Catholic presidential nominee, the Democrat Al Smith. In 1928 the Democrats had political strategy sessions in his library at Archmere. Raskob went on to build the Empire State Building.
The mansion he built in Claymont, the Patio at Archmere, was a magnificent Italianate marble pile on a property that sloped down to the Delaware River. Archmere—arch by the sea—was named for the arch of elms that ran on that slope to the river. But after the working man’s families, not to mention the noise and pollution from the mills, began to crowd the Patio, Raskob cut his losses and sold the mansion to an order of Catholic priests. The Norbertines turned it into a private boys’ school. Archmere Academy was just twenty years old when I moved in across the street.
When I played CYO football that year, our coach was Dr. Anzelotti, a Ph.D. chemist at DuPont who had sons at the school. Archmere let Dr. Anzelotti run our practices on the grounds of the school. From the moment I got within the ten-foot-high wrought-iron fence that surrounded the campus and drove up the road—they actually called it the yellow-brick road—I knew where I wanted to go to high school. I didn’t ever think of Archmere as a path to greater glory. When I was ten, getting to Archmere seemed enough. I’d sit and stare out my bedroom window and dream of the day I would walk through the front doors and take my spot in that seat of learning....
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Top Customer Reviews
I'm 9 years younger than Joe Biden and have been involved in politics since the 1960 presidential election when I was 9 years old. So, when I heard that Joe Biden was running for the Senate at age 29, as the Democratic nominee, I was envious as hell and have followed his career ever since.
I remember when his wife and child were killed in the car wreck, although I didn't realize it was before he was sworn in, when he was one of the earliest supporters of Jimmy Carter because I lived in Georgia and was supporting Carter as well, and when he was sent to Russia to talk to Kosygen and Breshnev about SALT II. It was reported at the time that this was done because Carter didn't have a good relationship with the Russians.
I knew about his civil rights work, but I didn't know he quit a prestigious law firm because he didn't want to defend a corporation against an injured worker. I also didn't know how strong his family is. To this day, he goes home to Delaware every night after work at the Senate. His wife is a school teacher. He is obviously a religious man who keeps his religion out of his work.
I especially enjoyed reading about how he get's himself in trouble by taking fine points on each side of an issue because I do it too, and it has gotten me in trouble all my life as well.
His perseverance in overcoming his stutter was amazing to me because I had no idea he ever had a stutter - you certainly wouldn't know it now.
I've read most of the recent political autobiographies and memoirs. Other reviews have talked about this book being a page turner - it is. And, others have cut it down as being arrogant and egotistical.Read more ›
politics and girls with the guys. Joe graduated from the University of Deleware and Syracuse University's Law School. His grades were mediocre but he had a burning drive to succeed in politics.
Biden married early to a fine lady who was the daughter of a wealthy Repbulican. He became a member of the town council and in a surprising upset defeated a longterm incumbent Republican to became the youngest man in the United States Senate. Biden was only 29 in 1972 when he took his seat in the US Senate Chamber where he still serves with distinction.
Biden has had a difficult private life. His first wife Neilia and their young baby daughter Cora were killed in a horrific traffic accident soon after his election to the Senate. In 1988 Biden suffered from a serious brain aneuryism which almost cost him his life. A second marriage to wife Jill and the birth of a daughter kept Biden from the pit of suicidal despair. He has a strong faith in God and believes in the promise of America as a beacon of democracy and hope for the huddled masses throughout the world.
On the political scene he ran for the presidency in 1988 but had to withdraw from primaries due to the scandal of his plagarizing a speech made by British Labor Leader Neal Kinnock. He was accused of cheating on a law school exam (he was not cheating but the damage in the press had already been done!). Biden is now in a very uphill race to seize the nomination for the Democratic flagbearer in the 2008 race.Read more ›
Most Recent Customer Reviews
My wife and I listened to the audio version of Joe Biden: Promises to keep in our car on vacation. If you really want to know what makes Biden tick, this memoir is pretty thorough... Read morePublished 3 months ago by James Lateer
An amazing person who has a great life story! A good person in a world where three aren't all that many good people!Published 5 months ago by Wini Daniel
I learned a lot about VP Biden's life as well as his take on major events in history, such as the former Yugoslavia and the crisis that followed; how democrats and republicans once... Read morePublished 6 months ago by Kindle Customer
Joe is one of my favorite Delawareans and I have been a fan of his for a long time (I lived in Delaware for 55 years before moving to California). Read morePublished 6 months ago by Ruth A. Eastburn