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Choice Cuts: Richard Ben Cramer On Biden

From What It Takes, of course:

The first thing you've got to know about Joe is the house. Probably the first thing he'd show you, anyway. You talk with Biden about anything. ... somehow it gets back to home. And the house is gorgeous, an old du Pont mansion, in the du Pont neighborhood called Greenville, outside Wilmington.  It's the kind of place a thousand Italian guys died building--hand-carved doorways, a curving hand-carved grand staircase that Clark Gable could have carried a girl down, a library fit for a Carnegie, or Bernard Baruch, someone like that. ...

Joe found it one night, a couple of years after he became a Senator. He was driving around, like he did back then. He was snooping around Greenville, streets of his dreams, when he saw it, all overgrown, boarded up. Some developer was going to knock it down because the four and a half acres were worth more than the house. ...

Joe did a $200,000 deal for the house. That was more than he had, of course. But Biden never let money stand in the way of a deal. He got in the developer's face and started talking--fast. ...

Anyway, when he moved in, he started finding out about the place. First winter, first three months, he used three thousand gallons of fuel oil. The top of the house was wide open. Squirrels were living on the third floor. So the second year, he had to get storm windows for the whole place. Of course, he didn't have the money, so he had to sell off a couple of lots. He lived in fear that the place would need a new $30,000 slate roof. Meanwhile, the place was chock full of asbestos. He had to hire a guy to clean that out, but the guy wanted too much money for labor. So there were weeks when Joe was down in the basement, in a moon suit, ripping out asbestos.

When he moved in, the old winding driveway led from Montchan Drive. But Joe couldn't buy all the land that held the right of way, and then he pissed off the owner of the front lot, who put boulders in the driveway ... so Joe had to build a new one around the front--which was great because everybody who drove in would have to see the whole place. But he didn't have the money to get that paved, so it turned to soup when the weather went bad ... and anyway, he sold the corner lot that held the start of that driveway, so he had to build a third driveway--a little one in the back that he could actually use. But he never liked that dumpy little third one, so eight years later he made a deal with the new owner of the front lot--cost him another fortune in landscaping--but he got the original driveway back. ...

Meanwhile, he planted. He liked hemlock trees. He found some old Czech guy who ran a nursery up in Pennsylvania. Joe didn't want any three-foot saplings, no. This guy had big hemlocks. Rhododendron bushes, great ones. Yews--big old yews! See, Joe had to have privacy. When he started have to sell off lots, he had to plant more, so he'd have privacy. ...

His pal Marty was with him that day: Marty Londergan, a dentist, Joe's buddy from high school. "Joe," Marty said. "How we gonna get all this shit back?"

"Get a truck," Joe said. Like everybody's brother had a forty-foot flatbed in the garage.

"Yeah," Marty said. "Who's gonna drive it?"

"I'll drive," Joe said. "Used to drive 'em all the time."

Sure enough, Marty found somebody's brother who'd lend a truck, and Joe drove the thing, overloaded, rocking and pitching, with trees hanging off the tail, down the back roads, an hour and a half, back to Wilmington. Then he started digging--a forty-five-foot trench, three feet deep and three feet wide, through blacktop and paving stones. He was out there in gym shorts and hiking boots, sweating like a pig, with the headlights of four cars shining upon his ditch, with Jill leaning out the window to yell, "Come to bed, honey!" ... while an old friend or two propped the trees and bushes up in the ditch, so Joe could wall away his realm.

"No, tighter!" Joe'd say.

"I don't know, Joe..."

"Tighter," Joe said. He had to have privacy. The rhododendrons, he planted them two feet apart. Next weekend, he's back for yews. He built a wall of yews around the swimming pool. Never mind there was no room for them to spread their roots.

"Whaddya think?" Joe asked, grinning.

Two years, of course, they're all dead.

--Noam Scheiber