Off the Cuff Won’t Cut It, Mr. President

Joe Biden. (Photo by John Rudoff/Anadolu Agency via Getty Images)

In the early 1980s, I was the minority staff director on the Senate Select Committee on Intelligence, serving under Democratic New York Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan, vice chairman of the committee. It was an especially interesting time to be working on the staff, as questions about verifying arms control agreements, covert action programs, espionage cases, and insurgencies and counterinsurgencies in Central America and Afghanistan kept everyone busy.

At the time, the committee’s membership included some of the Senate’s biggest heavyweights— Chairman Barry Goldwater, Sens. Daniel Inouye, Richard Lugar, and Henry “Scoop” Jackson—but it was designed to be more bipartisan than others. Unlike most committees, the ranking minority member was the vice chair and, hence, the acting chairman when the chairman was not present and the two parties’ staff directors shared information. In a traditional committee structure, the next senior member in the majority presides when the chairman is not available. This design, along with the ideological diversity within parties that still existed in that era—with hawkish Democrats, more liberal Republicans, conservative Republicans, and more liberal Democrats—made it possible to work across the aisle. Nevertheless, given the contentiousness of the committee’s topics, it was a never-ending dance to construct a working majority on any given issue. 

You could learn much about the ways of the Senate and Washington if you paid attention. And one senator whom you couldn’t help but pay attention to was the Democrat from Delaware, Joe Biden. Though only in his early 40s, he was already in his second six-year term, and like a few other youngish senators at the time, he believed he was the next John F. Kennedy. 

Among the reasons you couldn’t ignore Biden was his habit of going off script. There were a number of times that he would begin to make a statement or just ask a question and more than a few minutes later you’d begin to wonder how he had gotten from point A to point B, with even more uncertainty as to when, if ever, he would get to point C, a conclusion. Indeed, with the overwhelming number of committee hearings behind closed doors, on several occasions other senators signaled their impatience to me as Biden rambled on with a witness. His staff had almost certainly prepared questions and background material far more focused than what he was actually saying. 

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