PHILADELPHIA—The fan had asked for an autograph on his copy of Sen. Joe Biden’s new book, but Biden held his pen poised over the empty page while he launched into the story of his meeting with Serbian strongman Slobodan Milosevic.
“And then I said to Milosevic,” Biden said, “I think you’re a damned war criminal.”
The man was listening intently—a good thing, since Biden was just getting warmed up.
The famously verbose senator from Delaware may have “Promises to Keep,” as the title of his new book suggests, but he also had hours to go before he really had to be anywhere. It was an end-of-summer vacation day in his campaign for the Democratic nomination for president, which left plenty of time for chatting.
And while his bottom-tier showing in the national polls pales in comparison to his lengthy tenure in the Senate, Biden’s recent success with a New York Times best seller has given him a new source of esteem. At one point this month, “Promises” ranked directly behind runaway favorite “Freakonomics” in the nonfiction category.
To be sure, total sales somewhere between 8,000 and 15,000 copies don’t promise an uptick in opinion polls. Prominent friends and longtime colleagues have helped to promote the book by hosting parties, promotion events where local booksellers typically offer copies for purchase.
But an appearance at No. 15 on the New York Times best-seller list is a valuable achievement for the marketing of a book—and a candidate—even if it only lasted for one week before dropping several slots.
Biden claims to be more shocked than anybody else.
“I never thought I’d write a book, let alone one that people would want to read,” Biden said after the event at the Free Library in Philadelphia Aug. 27. “It surprises me more than anyone.”
Over time, politicians have had mixed success with books. “Profiles in Courage” won John F. Kennedy a Pulitzer and Al Gore soared with “Earth in the Balance.” “Faith of Our Fathers” raised the profile of John McCain, while Barack Obama’s best sellers have helped light a fire under his young political career.
At the same time, though, lots of political books have ended up as nothing more than doorstops, a risk any politician runs when submitting his or her career to such critical and popular review. The risk often seems worth it to candidates trying to ignite a national campaign. Just about every leading candidate in the 2008 race has published a memoir.
As with most authors, Biden owes his rank on the extended best-seller list partly to timing.
“It was very smart of Random House to release this book at a time when there were not a lot of other politically oriented books coming out,” said Sara Nelson, editor-in-chief of Publishers Weekly. “It seems to have fit a niche between the Hillary Clinton bios and the Bill Clinton book that will come out in September.”
Aides to Biden say his campaign organization did not purchase any copies of the book and that none have been given away as premiums or thank-you gifts for contributors. A spokeswoman for the New York Times, which screens for bulk sales in compiling its list, says there is no sign they were used to pump up the sales number.
The Biden camp also says the publisher paid for the travel for the initial media tour promoting the book, which took place in the first two weeks of August, and that the expenses for the two or three campaign events during that time were paid for by the political fund. Now that Biden is out on the campaign trail full-time again, they say the campaign is paying for travel and the publisher is picking up expenses related to the book readings on his schedule.
Politicians have not always been careful about following the rules. Former House Speaker Jim Wright of Texas was forced to resign when it came to light that political supporters had bought large quantities of his memoirs and that Wright had received unusually high royalty fees for sales.
Regardless of how a book makes it to the New York Times or Publishers Weekly best-seller lists, said Nelson, landing there at all “is an achievement. We publish something like 300,000 books a year and to get in the top 25 is a big accomplishment.”
The question in the industry, she said, is how long it will stay there.
The question for Biden is whether it will help a campaign that hasn’t yet caught fire. Veteran campaign observers think it’s not likely to make much of a difference.
“There’s no question being on the best seller’s list is a great honor, but does it translate electorally?” said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist. “The jury is still out on that question. While both Sens. Clinton and Obama have also been best sellers, their rock star status began long before publishing their books.”
Presidential historian Fred Greenstein also considers it an unlikely campaign boost.
“I see no way that having his name on a book would help him,” said Greenstein, “except possibly to position him for a Cabinet position in Democratic administration.”
But the people around Biden say that was never his intent. His son, Delaware Atty. Gen. Beau Biden, says his dad started working on the book several years ago when he wasn’t even thinking about running for president.
The candidate insists he was mainly interested in paying off school loans for his children’s education.
Biden has no shortage of material. The book details his political career, which saw him elected to the U.S. Senate when he was only 29 years old, and covers more than 30 years of legislative fights, campaign battles and encounters with the leading American and world leaders of his time.
He writes of his proudest moments: helping stop President Ronald Reagan’s effort to put Judge Robert Bork on the Supreme Court, passing legislation against domestic violence and working to build public opposition to Milosevic’s genocide in the Balkans.
The book covers personal tragedy, including the death of his young wife and baby daughter in a traffic accident shortly after he joined the Senate, as well as the two life-threatening aneurysms he suffered years later.
He also writes about the damaging allegations that he plagiarized part of a statement he gave at an Iowa debate during the 1987 presidential campaign. Biden says he frequently liked to cite the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock while on the stump and, in that instance, ran out of time before crediting the original speaker.
In the new book, Biden offers only one acknowledgment. A writer named Mark Zwonitzer “helped to refine and arrange the stories I wanted to tell into an overall narrative,” Biden writes. Zwonitzer also transcribed, polished and fact-checked Biden’s stories, according to the book’s acknowledgment page.
As Biden spoke to the crowd at the Free Library, first in a reading and then during the book signing, he made it clear that he’s rarely at a loss for his own words. Biden can tell a longer story about a pair of cuff links than most people could muster about a whole department store.
In a nutshell, Biden didn’t have cuff links for the shirt he’d borrowed from his father for an eighth-grade dance, so his mother made a pair out of nuts and bolts. The point of the story is that his mother taught him to make do with what he had and to carry himself with pride even when things weren’t going well.
With his poll numbers in the low single digits, Biden seems intent on doing so now.
“The vast majority of Democrats, over 90 percent, have not made up their mind, every poll shows, as to who they’re going to support,” Biden said. “This is still wide, wide open. The Democrats haven’t begun to make up their minds yet.”
Watching from the sidelines as the Biden book event stretched into its third hour, his younger brother, Jimmy, shook his head and laughed.
“Joe Biden hasn’t changed since he was 17 years old,” he said. “He’s going to stay until he has talked to everybody.”