• Show Notes
  • Transcript

On this week’s episode of Stay Tuned, “Who is Joe Biden?” Preet answers listener questions about former President Trump’s final pardons and about Doing Justice, the new podcast adaptation of his bestselling book. Listen to an excerpt on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, or wherever you get your podcasts..

Then, Preet is joined by Evan Osnos, a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now, to talk about President Biden’s long road to the White House. 

In the Stay Tuned bonus, Preet and Osnos talk about their shared philosophy professor Michael Sandel and the political relevance of his ideas about meritocracy. 

To listen, try the CAFE Insider membership free for two weeks and get access to the full archive of exclusive content, including the CAFE Insider podcast co-hosted by Preet and Anne Milgram. 

Sign up to receive the CAFE Brief, a weekly newsletter featuring analysis by Elie Honig, a weekly roundup of politically charged legal news, and historical lookbacks that help inform our current political challenges.

As always, tweet your questions to @PreetBharara with hashtag #askpreet, email us at [email protected], or call 669-247-7338 to leave a voicemail.

Stay Tuned with Preet is produced by CAFE Studios. 

Executive Producer: Tamara Sepper; Senior Editorial Producer: Adam Waller; Technical Director: David Tatasciore; Audio Producer: Matthew Billy; Editorial Producers: David Kurlander, Noa Azulai, Sam Ozer-Staton.

REFERENCES & SUPPLEMENTAL MATERIALS

Q&A: 

  • Preet’s Tweet about Sheldon Silver, Twitter, 1/19/2021
  • Jen Chung and Christopher Robbins, “Trump Grants Clemency To 144 People, Including Steve Bannon, But Not Sheldon Silver,” Gothamist, 1/20/2021
  • Greg Sargent, “Trump ends it all with one final scam — and it bodes badly for Trumpism’s future,” Washington Post, 1/20/2021

THE INTERVIEW: 

  • Evan Osnos, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now, Scribner, 10/27/2020
  • Evan Osnos, Wildland: The Making of America’s Fury, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 9/14/2021

THE INSURRECTION 

  • Evan Osnos, “Mob Rule in the Capitol,” The New Yorker, 1/6/2021
  • Evan Osnos, “Pulling Our Politics Back from the Brink,” The New Yorker, 11/9/2020
  • Evan Osnos, “Foreign Correspondence,” The New Yorker, 3/24/2009
  • “Who were they? Records reveal Trump fans who stormed Capitol,” Associated Press, 1/12/2021

BIDEN’S LIFE

  • Evan Osnos, “‘We Bidens,’ An American Family,” The New Yorker, 6/1/2015
  • Evan Osnos, “Biden, Alone in a Crowd,” The New Yorker, 9/11/2015
  • Evan Osnos, “Why Biden Didn’t Run,” The New Yorker, 10/21/2015
  • Evan Osnos, “Can Biden’s Center Hold,” The New Yorker, 8/23/2020
  • “Biden gives remarks before leaving for Washington,” ABC News, 1/19/2021
  • Chris Welch, “Stephen Colbert’s interview with Joe Biden is the best he’s ever done,” The Verge, 9/11/2015
  • Hank Stuever, “2019’s best TV moment? It was Stephen Colbert answering Anderson Cooper’s question about grief,” Washington Post, 12/23/2019
  • “Biden Resting After Surgery For Second Brain Aneurysm,” New York Times, 5/4/1988
  • Meredith Newman, “What Joe Biden learned from his life-threatening brain aneurysms,” Delaware Online, 3/18/2019
  • Brian Naylor, “Biden’s Road to Senate Took Tragic Turn,” NPR, 10/8/2007
  • Peter Baker and Maggie Haberman, “Joe Biden Concludes There’s No Time for a 2016 Run,” New York Times, 10/21/2015

BIDEN’S RUN

  • Evan Osnos, “The Biden Agenda,” New Yorker, 7/20/2014
  • Matt Flegenheimer, “Biden’s First Run for President Was a Calamity. Some Missteps Still Resonate,” New York Times, 6/3/2019
  • Michael Cooper, “Biden-Giuliani Smackdown Enlivens Campaign Trail,” New York Times, 11/1/2007
  • Xuan Thai and Ted Barrett, “Biden’s description of Obama draws scrutiny,” CNN, 2/9/2007
  • Jonathan Allen, “Why Jimmy Carter is a great American leader,” Vox, 8/20/2015
  • Jonathan Alter, Jimmy Carter: His Very Best, Simon & Schuster, 9/29/2020
  • Kai Bird, The Outlier: The Unfinished Presidency of Jimmy Carter, Penguin, 5/11/2021

BIDEN’S RISE

  • Jim Newell, “When Joe Biden Was the Candidate of the Young,” Slate, 6/11/2019
  • Jennifer Senior, “Meet Young Joe Biden, the ‘Wild Stallion,’” New York Times, 8/15/2020
  • Richard Ben Cramer, What It Takes: The Way to the White House, Vintage, 6/1/1993

BIDEN AND OBAMA

  • Michael Takiff, “Why doesn’t Obama like to schmooze?” CNN, 9/4/2012
  • “Tearful Joe Biden awarded freedom medal by Obama,” BBC, 1/13/2017
  • Alex Thompson, “‘The President Was Not Encouraging’: What Obama Really Thought About Biden,” Politico, 8/14/2020
  • Glenn Thrush, “Obama and Biden’s Relationship Looks Rosy. It Wasn’t Always That Simple,” New York Times, 8/16/2019

BIDEN’S PRESIDENCY

  • Abdul El-Sayed, “Message to progressives: This could be Biden’s LBJ moment,” CNN, 8/19/2020
  • Joshua Zeitz, “What Everyone Gets Wrong About LBJ’s Great Society,” Politico, 1/28/2018
  • Ritu Prasad, “Biden cabinet: Does this new team better reflect America?” BBC, 12/17/2020
  • Michael D. Shear and Michael Crowley, “Biden Cabinet Leans Centrist, Leaving Some Liberals Frustrated,” New York Times, 12/19/2020
  • Alana Austin, “Rep. Jim Clyburn shares his political philosophy through turtles,” Live 5, 5/22/2019
  • Calvin Woodward, “Obama, Trump and the ‘zigzag’ nation,” Associated Press, 11/9/2016
  • Jeanna Smialek, “A Look at What’s in Biden’s $1.9 Trillion Stimulus Plan,” New York Times, 1/14/2021
  • Michael Ettlinger, “5 ideas to reform the filibuster that Joe Manchin might actually support,” Vox, 1/19/2021
  • Joan Biskupic, “With Merrick Garland pick, Biden signals stark contrast with Trump on Justice Department,” CNN, 1/8/2021

How did President Biden overcome loss so many times?

Biden biographer Evan Osnos shares his thoughts on our 46th president

Evan Osnos has been covering Joe Biden at The New Yorker for a decade and has interviewed Biden at several pivotal moments in his Vice Presidency and 2020 campaign. Osnos joins Preet on the first full day of the Biden administration to share what he’s learned about what drives the new President and how we can make sense of his priorities as he takes office. 

Osnos focuses on how heartbreak and loss has shaped President Biden’s resolve to lead with respect. He recounts Biden’s loss of his wife and daughter in a 1972 car crash, his devastating 1987 aneurysms, and the 2015 loss of his son Beau. In these moments, Osnos suggests, Biden left behind the arrogance and bluster of his early career in favor of a more restrained political style that he brings to the White House today. 

***

Preet Bharara:

From CAFE, welcome to Stay Tuned. I’m Preet Bharara.

Evan Osnos:

The COVID epidemic created a moment in which suddenly a leader who is proficient in mourning and has the moral language to be able to talk about it honestly, not in the kind of baloney that you sometimes hear about thoughts and prayers from Washington. Suddenly, that became a super power in politics.

Preet Bharara:

That’s Evan Osnos. He’s a staff writer at The New Yorker and the author of Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now. Osnos has covered Biden extensively over the last decade, affording him a unique perspective on the president’s grief, strength and political philosophy. On this, the first full day of the Biden administration, we talk about the president’s prodigious rise through Delaware politics, his tenure in the Senate, his relationship with President Obama and how he got to this crucial moment. And before we dive in, a quick note, as you know, we host regular live virtual events and our next one is going to be special. I’ll be joined by CAFE’s four new contributors, Melissa Murray, Asha Rangappa, Barbara McQuade, and Joyce Vance. The event will take place on February 4th at 6:00 PM Eastern, and it will be over Zoom like everything is these days. Head to cafe.com/live to sign up for an invitation and the Zoom link will be sent a few hours before the actual event. We can’t wait to see you there. My conversation with Evan Osnos is coming up. Stay tuned. Now let’s get to your questions.

This question comes from Twitter user @crookedreviews, who writes, “I will absolutely listen to doing justice by Preet Bharara, but how does he have the time? Two current pods, a CNN gig and teaching at NYU Law? Does he sleep?” #askPreet #cafeinsider. Well, I’m glad we picked such a lovely self-serving Twitter question for me to answer. So Crooked Reviews is referring to a new limited series podcast that’s coming out in about a week that’s based on my best-selling book, Doing Justice. I do sleep, not a lot in the last couple of days given the inauguration and the pardons and everything else, but the only way you can get this done is by taking time and having a great team.

The great folks at CAFE Studios collaborated with Transmitter Media to produce, I think, what you’ll very much enjoy whether or not you read the book. I should emphasize that Doing Justice starts next Wednesday, January 27th, it’s absolutely free and it has its own feed. So look for Doing Justice and subscribe on Apple podcasts or wherever you listen to podcasts like this one. To get a flavor for the new podcasts, Doing Justice, go to the feed and you’ll find an excerpt from an episode about a case that was one of the most crazy and perhaps horrifying cases I ever dealt with as US attorney. So just search Doing Justice wherever you listen to your podcasts. I hope you’ll subscribe.

So this podcast is dropping on the first full day of the administration of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris. But I’m recording this one day before that, about an hour before Joe Biden takes the oath of office on Wednesday morning, January 20th. And lots of things have happened overnight. And there are a lot of questions about Trump’s pardons. I stayed up late to talk about it on CNN and have examined the document that the president put out and in total, in the last day, barring some other unforeseen pardons in the next hour, there had been 146 pardons, or commutations, 73 pardons, 70 commutations. And so people are asking what I find notable. Well, so far as we know, unless it’s secret somewhere, Trump has not yet pardoned himself, pardoned members of his family preemptively, has not pardoned Giuliani and so those are notable. He also didn’t pardon Edward Snowden.

He didn’t pardon Julian Assange because there were some speculations that he was going to do those pardons and grant clemency in those cases. I will also note that among the 146 acts of clemency, there were some almost for the first time in this administration that were granted to people through the normal pardon attorney process. And you can see that in the document that the White House put out. And so I don’t know those cases intimately, but it does seem that there are some pardons and commutations that are traditional in nature and grant clemency to people who are not famous, who didn’t know celebrities, who didn’t pay a lot of money for access to the president and that’s all to the good. And some of those pardons and commutations have been rightly praised by experts in the area.

But there are other pardons that are other piece with this president abusive of his pardon power, especially in the category of rewarding cronies, people who are his associates, or who did bad things on his behalf and chief among them, Steve Bannon, the person who ran his campaign, you may recall that Steve Bannon has been charged by my old office, the Southern District of New York in a wide ranging fraud, also with charges of money laundering for essentially lying to the public and which members of the public? Trump’s supporters who wanted to help build a wall. He and his organization told conservatives that they would take their money and not a single penny would line the pockets of the people running the organization.

And according to the indictment out of SDNY, that’s not what happened. Steve Bannon and the others aligned their pockets to the tune of hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars making suckers out of the people who gave money to try to aid in the wall building effort, but Donald Trump rather than allow the case to take its course, see what the proof was that trial, allow a jury to render its verdict, he has summarily pardoned Steve Bannon, his associate, and on again, off again, friend in a way that I think causes everybody to be concerned. So let me say a few things about that pardon, which appalls me. The whole discussion about whether Steve Bannon should or should not be pardoned has nothing to do with the nature of the charges, the strength of the evidence, the quality of the character of Steve Bannon, all the reporting you saw in the New York Times and in other places has been about whether or not the pardon of Steve Bannon would be in Trump’s interests or not.

There is speculation that Donald Trump wants to start a new party perhaps called the Patriot Party and that Steve Bannon can help in that effort, that Steve Bannon did not only have representatives lobbying on his behalf, but he spoke to the president directly and lobbied on his own behalf because he has special access to the commander in chief. Here’s another thing that’s telling in the document that the White House put out overnight about all these pardons and commutations. For each person getting clemency, there’s a paragraph or two essentially describing their explanation who was supportive of the act of clemency. Here’s what it says for Stephen K. Bannon, “President Trump granted a full pardon to Steven Bannon. Prosecutors pursued Mr. Bannon with charges related to fraud stemming from his involvement in a political project.” This is one way to put it.

“Mr. Bannon has been an important leader in the Conservative Movement and is known for his political acumen.” That’s it. That’s all. That’s the explanation given publicly for why this person who is credibly charged by the Southern District of New York should be able to evade trial, evade accountability, evade a prison sentence, because he’s an important leader in the Conservative Movement and well known for his political acumen. You can see why people are upset about that. And here’s a couple of other things about it. Steve Bannon was not the only one charged, the SDNY indictment charges four individuals, Steve Bannon, and three co-defendants. As far as I can tell, and please write in and correct me if I’m wrong because I’m capable of error, it doesn’t appear to be the case if the other three defendants were pardoned.

What does that tell you about the reason why Steve Bannon was given clemency? It had nothing to do with the case. He gets plucked out from among thousands and thousands of people who might be worthy of a pardon or some act of clemency. And not only that, he’s plucked solo from an indictment charging four people and the case that doesn’t even get addressed because he might be useful to the president. That’s another example of why this is an important pardon. A couple more things. Think about the worthiness of Steve Bannon for a pardon separate and apart from the charges in this case. Remember, Bannon is the person who suggested publicly that Dr. Anthony Fauci should be beheaded and his head put on a spike that his own attorney found so odious that he dropped Steve Bannon as a client.

And at the end of the day, probably this act of clemency is futile when it comes to saving Steve Bannon from criminal charges. The SDNY indictment recites pretty garden variety fraud misrepresentations made to people who are giving money all over the country. So it is likely the case that any one of a number of jurisdictions, any one of a number of district attorneys, not just in New York but in other places where victims may have been duped, have an ability to charge Steve Bannon. As has been suggested over the last day, SDNY can simply pack up its files and depending on whether there’s grand jury information or not, and whether they get a court order or not just give those files to a district attorney in Manhattan or elsewhere, and those charges can still be brought against Steve Bannon.

So he may be safe for now, my expectation is he will not be saved permanently. And there are other examples of the pardoning of corrupt public officials, which seems to be a pension for Donald Trump. In the past, we saw Chris Collins representative from New York who was pardoned, Duncan Hunter, another corrupt politician who was pardoned in the latest round. We have Rick Renzi who is a member of Congress, who he has pardoned. Duke Cunningham, another representative who was pardoned. There’s one interesting note for me personally at least and in the state of New York and that is there was reporting in the New York Times a couple of days ago that Donald Trump had decided to pardon the former State Assembly Speaker Democrat, Sheldon Silver, who my office prosecuted when I was the US attorney, obviously that made me unhappy. I said some things about it, but it turns out it also made a lot of other people unhappy.

There was an editorial in the New York post decrying the possibility of Sheldon Silver being pardoned, calling him completely undeserving of clemency. The New York State Republican party apparently got very upset too. And in a rare move, if you believe the reporting from Maggie Haberman and I do because she’s excellent, Donald Trump one night decides he’s going to pardon Sheldon silver convicted corrupt politician and he’s nowhere to be found on this list. So we had a change of heart. So what is interesting to me is Donald Trump seems to have no shame, seems not to care about what people think about his pardons. Certainly, that’s the case with respect to Steve Bannon, but sometimes he can change his mind if he thinks the blow back is too harsh. It’s hard to understand what goes on in Donald Trump’s head. And thankfully by the grace of God, we don’t have to do much of that anymore. But for whatever reason, Donald Trump was convinced that Sheldon Silver was a bridge too far, but that Steve Bannon wasn’t. Go figure. It’s time for a short break, stay tuned.

***

Evan Osnos is my guest this week. He’s a staff writer at the New Yorker and the author of Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now, an incisive book about what makes the new president tick. I asked Osnos how his book would be doing if Biden hadn’t won, what we can expect from the first days of the administration and how the new Commander-in-Chief has overcome loss so many times. Evan Osnos, thanks for coming on the show.

Evan Osnos:

My pleasure. Thanks for having me.

Preet Bharara:

It’s good to have you. People may guess why this is such an auspicious guest to have and it’s because you wrote a book called Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now, and this podcast will be available on the first full day of the Biden’s administration. So congratulations on the book.

Evan Osnos:

Thank you.

Preet Bharara:

Congratulations on Biden’s victory. I imagine that’s better for you. If Trump had won, would you be doing these interviews? I don’t know.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah. Probably the book would have had a slightly different life course, I think.

Preet Bharara:

Did you expect him to win?

Evan Osnos:

I did honestly. And had he not won, had Biden not in fact done what the polls suggested, it would have been one more unbelievable turn in a life of really remarkable turn. So it was thematically consistent if he didn’t win, but it wouldn’t have been great for the book. I’ll be blank right now.

Preet Bharara:

Let me ask you this, maybe this is a non-substantive question, but I’m just curious. Would you have spent the time to write this book if you thought Biden was not going to win?

Evan Osnos:

Probably not honestly.

Preet Bharara:

I like honest answers.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah. Well, that’s give you one, you’ve had your one now from here on now. But the reason is that particularly for the kind of book this is, I’ve written a long book on another subject and this is a short book and it was designed for very specific purpose, which was to say, okay, here’s a guy who we think we know, but there are things about him that you may not know. And perhaps analytical things about them that you may not know. And for that purpose, it had this really specific life. And I was interested in Joe Biden for a long time, but I don’t think I would have written a book about him of this kind had he not suddenly become clear that he was on the trajectory to the presidency.

Preet Bharara:

So I want to come back to Biden in a moment and ask you because you actually were in the Capitol, I believe, on the Capitol Grounds on January 6th. And before we get into the life and times of our next president, or I guess by the time people hear this, our current president, can you just tell us what it was like for you both as a reporter and as an American when that was unfolding on the 6th?

Evan Osnos:

I will say at the outset, I was at the Capitol, but I didn’t go inside. I mean, that was very much by choice.

Preet Bharara:

Well good, you might be under arrest.

Evan Osnos:

Right. Exactly. We’d be doing this under different circumstances. I mean, there were a lot of reasons not to go inside. One of which was, it just felt strange frankly, the idea of kind of forwarding that crowd and going in with them. On the other hand, there was terrific journalism that was done from inside and we’re all very much the beneficiaries of it. I arrived there with the intention to try to talk to people who were on the edge of it, who I could at least get a real conversation going with and to be blunt about it, Preet, this was a scene I never thought I would see. I mean, that almost is a cliche by now, but I’ve been a foreign correspondent for a long time. I’ve covered riots in places, in Baghdad, in Egypt, in China, where I was living for a long time and I did not experience the same set of sensations that I had there in the United States before. And here I was about a mile or so, a couple of miles from where I live.

Preet Bharara:

What were some of those sensations?

Evan Osnos:

Well, the thing that really… Look, there was a certain electricity in the air that was very disconcerting. I mean, I had some hostile encounters with people who when they heard I was a journalist, it got nasty and it was okay. I could get away. I don’t want to overdramatize it, but I was struck, number one, by how much of a reservoir of hostility there has been towards the press that has been stoked over the last four years, but I don’t want to lose off the hook. I think this is probably a long range phenomenon.

Evan Osnos:

The other thing though, really the second thing that struck me was that I was less surprised honestly by the thugs who were bashing windows and pouring in the door because that’s a universal phenomenon. At every moment in history and in every place, you will have some group of people who will do that. What surprised me were the grandmothers. It was the women who were standing on the outside in some cases literally with their children or their grandchildren who were looking on at this and saying, “Yes, this is what I want. I approve of this.” That I found really shocking, because that was a demonstration to me of how deep the rot goes.

Preet Bharara:

Were you also surprised given that by some estimates 90 to 95% of the writers are ardent New Yorker readers?

Evan Osnos:

Well, if you looked at the coded message-

Preet Bharara:

That was a joke folks.

Evan Osnos:

… they’ve been putting into the magazine, they followed our orders to a T. Yeah. No, I don’t think that was… It wasn’t a huge overlap with our readership but…

Preet Bharara:

Right. Do you wish now you had gone in and reported from the inside?

Evan Osnos:

No, I think there was… I have to say I have a long distinguished career of not being at the absolute front of things.

Preet Bharara:

May you live a long life.

Evan Osnos:

There’s an old line about mountaineers. They say there are old mountaineers and bold mountaineers, but no old bold mountaineers. There’s something similar in this kind of work I think.

Preet Bharara:

So let’s get back to Joe Biden. We’re recording this as I said on the afternoon of January 19th, the day before the inauguration. And just before I logged in to the Zoom, I was watching television and Joe Biden, I don’t know if you caught it. It was literally like three minutes before we started recording. And Joe Biden is giving a speech as he leaves Delaware for Washington and he gets emotional a few times. He has to wipe away tears.

Joe Biden:

Excuse the emotion. But when I die, Delaware will be written on heart, the hearts of all the Bidens.

Preet Bharara:

And I know that there’s some views of people who support Trump about what it means to be strong and a leader. I will tell you I found it refreshing and moving and something we need. How do you think Biden’s emotionality will play out in his presidency and how will the country react to it?

Evan Osnos:

It’s such an interesting issue. I think you’ve identified something about him that is sort of unannounced sometimes in the way that we talk about him in politics, which is that he wears his emotional life pretty close to the surface. And I’ve been with him at times when he has choked up, when he has had not tears running down his face but when he has really been overwhelmed by emotion and he’s comfortable doing that in front of a reporter. And I think there’s an element of this that it feels frankly sort of appropriate for the moment.

Evan Osnos:

I think a lot of us are walking around these days a little fragile, a little bit raw. I mean, in our house, my wife and I were talking about it and I said, “I think I’m experiencing a kind of existential exhaustion.” Like just this sort of sense that we are all pushed to the maximum of what we can absorb. And Joe Biden is in his own way as well, except that he is now confronting this moment of responsibility and challenge beyond reckoning, but he does not hide it. He doesn’t bury it. I will tell you, Preet, one of the most interesting interviews I had in the course of doing the book was with Stephen Colbert and-

Preet Bharara:

Oh yeah, I read that. That was a very moving part of the book.

Evan Osnos:

Right. It surprised me. Honestly, I didn’t expect it. I mean, for people who haven’t seen it, it was quite striking to me, Colbert, people may know, but he had a tragedy in his own life. His father died in a plane crash, his brothers died in a plane crash and he’s also a Catholic like Biden. And so there was a day when Biden was going to go see Colbert going on the show. They didn’t actually know each other at this point. It was shortly after Beau Biden had died in 2015 and Biden asked to see him backstage for a minute beforehand, just so they could get to know each other a bit. And I asked Colbert later, “I heard about the meeting.” I said, “What was that like?” And he said, “To be honest with you, it was one of the most affecting conversations I’ve ever had.”

Evan Osnos:

And I said, “What did you talk about?” And he said, “We talked about loss and we talked about our mothers and we talked about the rosary and we talked about grief.” And he said, “The thing you have to understand, and you won’t know this if you haven’t had the kind of thing that’s happened to me or that’s happened to Joe Biden is that grief is almost radioactive.” People don’t want to talk about it. They don’t want to approach you. They don’t want to… It’s almost like it’s contagious and Biden doesn’t allow that. He sort of thrusts it into public view and he says, “This is our collective artifact here people, everybody has some of it and you need to acknowledge it.” And there’s a greater meaning to that at this moment in our history I think.

Preet Bharara:

It reminded me when I was reading that passage in the book of a later interview, an extraordinary interview between Stephen Colbert and Anderson Cooper of CNN. I don’t know if you’ve seen it and they’re talking about grief and loss and Anderson had lost his mother.

Evan Osnos:

Right.

Preet Bharara:

And Stephen Colbert says…

Stephen Colbert:

It’s a gift to exist. It’s a gift to exist and with existence, comes suffering and there’s no escaping that.

Preet Bharara:

And it seems like that’s a little bit how Joe Biden thinks about life and death also.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah. That’s exactly. I mean, that’s the part of the reason why I wanted to write about this episode that we don’t often talk about with him, which is the aneurysms that he had when here he was, he’s in his 40s, he’s got a little young daughter at home. He’s got at that point two sons and he suffers this catastrophic set of brain aneurysms that leave him lying on the floor of his hotel room, unable to move eventually.

Preet Bharara:

Should we set up the context that is happening right after he drops out of the race kind of ignominiously and with a cloud back in 1987 and only because as you write only because he left the trail and had sort of time and inclination to see a doctor about this pain in his head, was the aneurysm discovered.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah. And had he not dropped out of the race, he very well might not have survived. And which is a strange thing. I mean, the surgeon said to him at one point, “You’re a lucky man.” And here he is facing brain surgery. And he’s thinking, how in God’s name am I a lucky man? But he came back from that and I think, Preet, what it gave him that experience and of course also the loss of his wife and his daughter has given him an acute awareness of fragility, the fragility in all of our lives. Like any one of us are just a hair’s breath away from all the things that we hold dear being kind of torn asunder. And I think he carries that with him in a way that’s pretty rare in Washington because a lot of people at the top of our politics, they haven’t had that, most people who have sort of had one series of success after another.

Preet Bharara:

Well, so what does fragility do to a leader? Is there a relationship between fragility and humility?

Evan Osnos:

Yeah, I think there is or there should be. Meaning that if you are aware of how fragile the good things are that you’ve got, how you’re never fully in control of your fortunes, it humbles you a bit before the fates.

Preet Bharara:

I would imagine it also gives you perspective you don’t sweat the small stuff.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

I mean, are you aware of that lots of politicians and leaders of any sort and all human beings generally, I guess, this pertains to the entire human race are irritable and get annoyed about things, I’m going to write this. I’ve seen important people lose their minds if the schedule gets disrupted, is actually Joe Biden?

Evan Osnos:

He has his moments of irritation. He can be kind of snippy. And it’s worth pointing that out that that actually sometimes surprises people because they say, hold on, I’m expecting you to have this kind of pastoral effect and here you are going-

Preet Bharara:

Aren’t we supposed to be hugging?

Evan Osnos:

Exactly. And you’re going berserk because your shake was too warm, but the truth is that what he doesn’t sweat is some other stuff that’s not the small stuff, but is the stuff that might ruin another person. I’ll give you a really practical example of this. I mean, I didn’t put it in the book and I probably should have, there was a moment right at the end of the… It was right at the depths of his presidential campaign. It was when it looked like he may not get through this thing. It was right after Iowa and New Hampshire, he was really at the bottom of the list. And one of his senior aides had the unfortunate task of calling him and telling him, “Look, Mr. Vice President, you may need to hold onto enough cash in the account in order to pay severance because we may be done in a week.”

Evan Osnos:

And I asked her about… It was Anita Dunn who did it. And I said, “Well, how did he respond to that? I mean, was he thundering at the heavens, what was he doing?” She said, “No, honestly, he basically said, ‘Look, if this doesn’t work, it doesn’t work. I’ve lost bigger things than this.'” I think that’s what fragility, that’s essentially kind of some of the lessons of his life.

Preet Bharara:

You’ve said so many interesting things that I’m going to deviate from my outline. I don’t know if people realize who listen to the show. I actually have an outline not with questions necessarily written out, but an arc for the interview.

Evan Osnos:

Does it look like the thing on the wall of Homeland or A Beautiful Mind? What does it look like?

Preet Bharara:

Exactly. I have a big white board and you’re screwing it up, Evan. You mentioned Beau and I was going to ask you about Biden and his relationship with his son and how he handled the grief of his loss a little later. But I think I’d like to bring it up now and people know about the loss of Beau and how close Joe Biden was to his son. Going back as you write in the book to when Beau was young and there’s great anecdote where this was before Joe Biden learned how to be a more terse and concise and Beau is muttering under his breath, “Finish dad.” So it was a special kind of relationship. And then Beau passes away and you write about how Joe Biden said he didn’t want to hear about a merciful God. And in writing the book and in talking with Biden and people around him, describe for folks how he got through that.

Preet Bharara:

And also what that means for what kind of president he will be. And then just one more. It’s a very long question, but I want to give you room to then talk it at your leisure. This I found fascinating, right? Because Joe Biden has changed over time. We talk about Donald Trump, he’s a pretty static character in the book, right? And a lot of people are fairly static characters. I worked in the Senate for four and a half years. He’s a pretty long-winded person often. And you write in the book after his son’s death aides saw a change, “The whole Beau experience just killed off the arrogant stuff. It was almost physical. You could see it in how he stood. He emerged as this sort of humbled, purposeful man.” So answer all those nine questions I asked you, including the business about the arrogance stuff being killed off.

Evan Osnos:

I mean, I think that’s the heart of the matter. Honestly, Preet, I think what you’ve identified is really the point at which it became possible that this guy might become president. So to go back in the narrative here, his life has had these phases to it that are very different. And I don’t mean necessarily just, okay, there was the phase in the Senate and the phase when he was the VP. No, I mean, sort of phases of in his mind and how he conducted himself, how he carried himself. Because the first part of his life was this rocket ship, I mean, here he is, he goes, he becomes a Senator by the age of 30, a huge upset win and it gave him this preternatural, I think probably a little sort of insufferable sense of confidence.

Evan Osnos:

That’s here’s a guy who made his way there by sheer will. And then this other thing happens, the death of his wife and his daughter. And that then becomes the counterpoint where all of a sudden he is off balance. I mean, in a deep and deep personal way. I mean, people may not know, but he was suicidal around the time after his wife died. I mean, he actually went to go see the bishop in Delaware and said, “I want to become a priest.” And the Bishop said, “I don’t think you’d make a great priest. I want you to take a year and think about it. I think your calling, your vocation is politics. So come back to me in a year and we’ll see you.” He of course did go on to the Senate and the Senate swaddled him. It kind of gave him a purpose. It gave him a sense of, I mean, literally a reason to get out of bed in the morning.

Preet Bharara:

What’s interesting you say swaddled, that is an interesting turn of phrase at this moment when we talk about the rancor in the Senate and for a body like that to swaddle a young man like Joe Biden after losing members of his family how far we’ve come.

Evan Osnos:

Totally. And I actually think that that change is going to be one of the things he has to contend with because he has some of this… He’s some of the habits of mind of a time when the Senate really was this community in which you go in there and let’s state the obvious, it was an exclusive community. It was mostly white, male, rich and mostly lawyers, I think, but no offense.

Preet Bharara:

Not taken.

Evan Osnos:

And I think… And he has deal with now-

Preet Bharara:

I’ve swaddled a lot of people in my day.

Evan Osnos:

This is for the good. And I think what he has to deal with is the fact that this community, this place, this institution that really was so good to him has been degraded. And he has to figure out how to deal with that. I think one of the key points you mentioned was this third phase, which is the life after Beau. And it was a period when he could have very easily gone off into retirement and done essentially the post vice-presidential life, call it the full Dan Quayle with no offense to Dan Quayle. But that’s not what he did, instead he hurled himself back into politics and finds himself now at this moment of impossible complexity.

Preet Bharara:

You said something else that reminded me of a passage in the book and a quote from Biden about how once the arrogant stuff slipped away in the words of that one aide, he could be in a position to become president, but he says something else sort of related to that. And this is in 2016 when he was thinking about not running and then Beau passes away. And he’s asked a question as you write in the book about whether he’s going to run or not and he says, after giving ritual denials, “I can die a happy man not being president.” And my question to you is, did he mean that number one, number two, did he end up succeeding at becoming president because once he didn’t need it so badly, he relaxed in a particular way that made the path clearer for him or is that silly?

Evan Osnos:

No. That’s 100% right. I mean, that is, I have to say at the risk of flattering the host here, I mean, seriously, that is the core of it because Joe Biden and a lot of us came to recognize in politics for so many years, he rubbed people the wrong way sometimes is the honest description. And it was just that he was leaning a little too far forward. And the Biden that finally came to this moment in history was somebody for whom he’d been relieved of that desperate desire to actually grasp the prize. For one thing, he had done something that he never expected in his life, which was he’d been tapped to be the vice president to the first African-American president and he had suddenly seen in himself that there was extraordinary nobility in having been somebody who helped Barack Obama succeed.

Evan Osnos:

And he really took pride in that and that’s not a chapter of his life he ever thought was going to happen. And so that calmed him and then the death of Beau gave him this sort of penetrating insight into the nature of all of our lives and the fragility to use that word again at the risk of overusing it, that we are all contending with. And I think people read that from him and then to add one more piece of it, Preet, which is perhaps obvious but worth stating clearly, which is the events on the ground, the COVID epidemic created a moment in which suddenly a leader who is proficient in mourning and has the moral language to be able to talk about it, honestly, not in the kind of baloney that you sometimes hear about thoughts and prayers from Washington. Suddenly, that became a super power in politics.

Preet Bharara:

Timing is everything, they say in politics. And it’s just fascinating to me. If you look at two different men and you look at how they performed in the late 80’s in that time period, early ’90s, you have Joe Biden who, by the way, I was very attracted to as a candidate. I was a sophomore in college when he ran the first time. Here I am an elderly man doing a podcast in my basement, and he’s becoming president.

Evan Osnos:

But it’s funny I have to interject, I’ve to say I had the same experience. There was something about Joe Biden when he ran, it was 2008 for me, that was the one when I just said, there’s something about this guy and frankly the candor, I just found kind of a-

Preet Bharara:

I mean, the problem and that I was back in 87, as you write about and people many have forgotten, he didn’t run a great campaign and he did plagiarize and he had some things to apologize for and he wasn’t right. He wasn’t right for that time. He didn’t get it at that time. And here’s another individual you might not expect me to mention from around that time period, who was making a big name for himself, and his name is Rudy Giuliani. And he was the break heads together and squeegee men. And in that general time period as US attorney and then as mayor, and now you fast forward 30 years, and who’s the joke and who’s the leader. Do you have any comment on that?

Evan Osnos:

Oh man, it is. In some sense, they are the two faces of a coin of late 20th century American male. And there are two ways you can play that experience. You either end up as Joe Biden, who is kind of has embraced life in all of its dimensions or you continue down the path that Rudy Giuliani went down, which was to become ultimately a kind of poison caricature of himself.

Preet Bharara:

It reminds me also, I think the most effective and also potentially fraught takedown of Rudy Giuliani was uttered by Joe Biden back… I forget which campaign this was, but Giuliani obviously-

Evan Osnos:

It was ’08.

Preet Bharara:

… proud of his performance after 911 and Joe Biden says… And it’s a little bit of a third rail to make fun of him for his leadership after 911 because even people who dislike him who were in New York, myself included, thought he said the right things.

Joe Biden:

Rudy Giuliani, there’s only three things he mentioned in his sentence, a noun and verb and 911. I mean, there’s nothing else. There’s nothing else.

Preet Bharara:

That could have gone wrong.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Do you know, by the way, was that a scripted line?

Evan Osnos:

No, I don’t know if that was a scripted line.

Preet Bharara:

It’s a brilliant line.

Evan Osnos:

And what’s important about that too is that that was the period. It was a great line. And he was saying… I mean, he did the thing that is the hardest thing to do, which is to say what everybody thinks but hasn’t quite reached the point of saying out loud and he did it without being gratuitously cruel. And what I think is fascinating too is that period when Biden said that, which was during the 2008 campaign, was the moment when Barack Obama started paying attention to him and said I can’t… It wasn’t that specific comment, but it was Biden’s performance on the debate stage that made Obama say, “This is somebody who may be part of my future.”

Evan Osnos:

And they had not had a great… Remember, they had had sort of an unfortunate moment in the campaign. Biden had said something really stupid. And he’d said that Obama was the first… I think I’ll paraphrase here. But he said he was the first clean, articulate African-American guy to run for president, which was an awful thing to say. And Obama actually let them off the hook and said, “Look, I know what’s in his heart. I know he didn’t mean what it sounded like he said.” But more importantly, Obama also said, “This is a guy who has a set of skills that I really want.”

Preet Bharara:

There have been criticisms of Biden but I think largely based on how you describe him in the book and his empathy and how he interacts with people, I think it’s fair to say he’s a good and decent person. Do you agree with that?

Evan Osnos:

I do. Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

My question to you and maybe this is unfair question, does that matter in a president? I mean, Jimmy Carter showed both before, during, and especially after the presidency that he was a good and decent person. Make the case for why that matters going forward.

Evan Osnos:

I’ve come to believe that it’s incredibly important. It’s like the dark matter in politics that you don’t often see and talk about explicitly, but it exerts all these gravitational forces, the presence or absence of decency and just basic human empathy is a huge ingredient in Washington, DC, where I live. It’s funny, Preet, before I wrote this book about Biden and I’ve been working for years on a book about the crisis of empathy in America. I mean, that’s the thing that I think is so much of the unifying fact across elements from… And I won’t go too far down this path, but I mean, it’s part of what explains some of our structural economic issues, structural racism, and so on. It’s the inability to understand what another person is truly feeling. And Jimmy Carter is having a moment right now.

Evan Osnos:

I mean, there’s a great new biography of him by Jonathan Alter. There’s another one coming just around the corner from Kai Bird who’s one of the great biographers. And part of the reason why I think people are suddenly interested in him is not only because he had a great post-presidency, but I think we’re trying to figure out why it was that his presidency itself was not a success by the usual metrics, but he then went on to have a life that was a moral example and what went wrong there. And I don’t have an answer for you about Jimmy Carter but what I do know is that empathy was a big part of Barack Obama’s political language. He talked about it, a huge amount, even back when he was in the state Senate. I mean, even back when he was running for Congress and in office. But he talked about it in very sort of grand terms. And I don’t mean that in a dismissive way.

Evan Osnos:

I mean, he really sort of situated in a context of Lincoln and saying that the ability to understand what was going on in the mind of your enemy and your opponent was an essential piece of democracy. The hard part was that Obama was operating in an environment in Washington in which that became increasingly sort of impossible. But it’s one of the things that binds Obama and Biden together actually.

Preet Bharara:

I have a lot to ask you about Biden and Obama, but before that, I want to go back to the Senate race. Can you explain to me how this 29 year old, not even constitutionally eligible to take the office on the date of the election who was a pretty crappy law student, right? I think you gave his rank. It was pretty low in his law school class, hadn’t really done a whole hell of a lot of anything, uphill battle. How does this guy win the Senate seat when he was 29?

Evan Osnos:

There was a couple of reasons and the fact that he was running it all is connected to the fact that he went to law school. I mean, this is one of those little details that I should’ve put it in the book actually. But he graduated from high school in 1961 the year John F. Kennedy was inaugurated. He was really taken with Kennedy because he was obviously an Irish Catholic who became the president. And he went into the library at Archmere Academy Catholic School in Delaware, and looked in the congressional directory to see what do senators do. How do people become senators? What are their backgrounds? And he discovered that a lot of them went to law school and that’s when he decided I’m going to go to law school. And he didn’t know anybody who was a Senator.

Evan Osnos:

He’d never met anybody who had any kind of life in any politics beyond the most local. He goes off, goes to law school, doesn’t particularly thrive as a lawyer. And he was waiting to run, waiting to run for office, but it was a wildly audacious thing to do. I mean, Kayla Bogs, who was this giant of Delaware politics, he’d been governor, he’d been Senator, he was a World War II vet. And the state… Delaware has about 12 people in it. And so everybody was going to vote for Caleb Boggs, except then Biden comes along and his wife and his three little kids are a very persuasive argument for something else. He called himself at the time, remember he ran with a slogan that was Joe Biden understands what’s happening now. And they went around the state. They met everybody and nearly Hunter, his late wife was a key piece of that campaign.

Evan Osnos:

And then they won by 3000 votes, just a tiny little hair’s breath of a victory, but it was an act of, I would say, kind of almost unreasonable audacity. And there’s a wonderful line in the great book, What It Takes by Richard Ben Cramer, which was about that 87, 88 race. He has a line about Biden that does hold up over the ages where he said of the young Joe Biden, that he had more balls than sense. And there was some truth to that but it happened to work in his favor in some cases.

Preet Bharara:

We’ll be right back after this short break with more conversation with Evan Osnos. And bringing down the fourth wall again, I’ve so many things to ask you about with respect to Joe Biden’s earlier life and career. And I can ask you all of these because then we’ll go three hours in a fast forward to the relationship between Joe Biden and Barack Obama. And here’s the most interesting thing from your book about that that I had not really understood. And you write, “They were both prideful men and they had not expected to learn from each other, but over time, the effect of their relationship was visible to those around them.” And then you quote an aide is saying, “Each one feels like he is the mentor.” That’s fascinating to me, explain that. How were they mentors to each other simultaneously?

Evan Osnos:

Yeah. That’s one of those wonderful little moments of unexpected management chemistry. They really didn’t expect to be friends. And they certainly didn’t expect to have something that you would describe as kind of coeducation. I mean, they were very, very different not just 19 years apart and one’s chatty and one’s quiet, no, they are really different. And yet then they found themselves in the situation in which they discovered that each one had this thing the other could do and that they could learn from it. In Biden’s case, he’d been in the Senate for 36 years, meaning that he was essentially a fully formed political man. He knew how to speak. He knew what he had or didn’t have to prepare, or at least he thought he did. And he never used a teleprompter back then, he would just sort of improvise or go off of notes. The improvises not right, he would use actually prepared notes, but there were elements of his political habits which were a little looser, more flexible than what Obama was comfortable with.

Preet Bharara:

Joe Biden is also the opposite of aloof.

Evan Osnos:

Yes. Oh man. I mean.

Preet Bharara:

What is the word for opposite? What is the word? I guess it’s Biden.

Evan Osnos:

I think it’s Biden. It’s a verb. Exactly. It comes from the Gaelic for very, very close. But there is something and actually it was fun. I once interviewed John Kerry about Biden. They are roughly contemporaries and Kerry of course comes much more from the aloof kind of-

Preet Bharara:

He’s in the aloof school.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah. I mean, he looks a little sometimes like a statue who has stepped down off the pedestal and is kind of… And there’s something wonderful about that. You feel like you are in the presence of a great statesman. And he said to me about Biden, he said, “Biden practices this very tactile politics real.” And what I was struck by when he said, he said, “And it’s not a put on, it’s all true.” And I thought that was a really revealing little moment where he said it’s not a put on. I like that. I should say we should point out that there are some people who felt uncomfortable about Biden getting too close. And there were women who came forward in the early part of the campaign who said that they didn’t like the fact that he was kind of putting his hands on their shoulders and pulling them forward. And all of which was needless to say a legitimate complaint. And he responded to it basically saying, “Honestly, I didn’t know that I was making people uncomfortable.”

Preet Bharara:

One of the most moving moments of not just the presidency, but a reflection of the relationship between Obama and Biden was that amazing moment when he, as a surprise, awards his vice president the presidential medal of freedom. Do you have a view about how quickly they became so close and how sincere it was? Because I think there’s a lot of cynicism about these kinds of things. People learn later in the history books that president didn’t like the president or there was tension, how genuine is this friendship?

Evan Osnos:

It’s real. And there are also limits to it. I think there’s some interesting texture on that. I mean, early on when Biden first was coming into the White House, honestly, he was doing it with some unease because he thought he should have been the president of the United States. He’d run for the office. And here he was, this much younger person who’d barely been in the Senate for a couple of years and he just found it was a little hard to process. And then after a few months of very specifically watching the way that Obama mastered the intricacies of the financial crisis and the politics and all of the incredible complexity associated with that, that began to transform Biden’s perception of his boss. And he began to realize, okay, he’s able to do something that I really just can’t quite do.

Evan Osnos:

And he said to David Axelrod who then relayed the story to me and he said, “Honestly, I was wrong and the best man won and I’m honored to be able to serve him.” And that was the beginning of something. But then it took a moment for Obama to begin to sort of respect Biden in a different way. There was a moment… Remember early on, it was kind of it was awkward. Biden had said something off the cuff and it hadn’t gone perfectly. He basically said that we’ll be lucky if we’re able to achieve 50% of what we’re setting out to do, which is something that classic Washington GAF, meaning that it’s the truth you’re just not supposed to say it. And Obama made a joke about it and said, “Well, we don’t know exactly what Joe was trying to get at.”

Evan Osnos:

And they had a private meeting they had over lunch and Biden said to Obama, “Mr. President, if you’re going to kind of do a wink, wink, jab at me and sort of make sport out of me, this isn’t going to work.” And President Obama to his credit recognized in that moment he’s right. Actually, we have to be lashed together. And that was the beginning of something. And then it was quite fully realized. And they really did by the end of that presidency, I think partly because of all the opposition they’d encountered, let’s be blunt because of the racism that surrounded Barack Obama’s presidency, the birther lie, and so on, that pulled them together a bit. And they ended up kind of forged in the fire of that experience.

Preet Bharara:

Did the Obama staff come along? And the reason I ask that is you mentioned some of this in the book. And I had my own personal experience after Obama got elected. I remember sitting in the cafeteria in the Senate talking to one of Obama’s Senate staff, and this was during the transition period and the person kind of rolled their eyes when I mentioned Joe Biden and had a view that I think was maybe more common than is understood that Joe Biden should thank Barack Obama every day for the rest of his life for rescuing him from sort of an obscure final few years in the Senate and making him vice president. And the suggestion was a little bit that he was undeserving. Did that view change not just on the part of Barack Obama, but the people around him as well?

Evan Osnos:

It did among some, and to be honest, it didn’t among some others. There were people in Obama’s orbit who began to appreciate what Biden brought to the equation. And he was able to put them in touch with the white working class at a time when we didn’t really even use that language. I remember him, he was ringing the bell back in 2014 saying, “We’re not doing enough. The Democratic Party is not paying enough attention here.” And even then there were some in Obama’s circle who said Joe Biden’s reading out of an old political Hindle, he’s wrong.

Evan Osnos:

We’re a different kind of party now. So I have to say, there were some people in Obama’s world who have come to that generous view a little more recently than others. Even when I was first doing a profile of Biden in the New Yorker in 2014, I do remember there was quite a fair bit of snickering out of the side of their mouth, people who just said to me more or less, “We like Joe.” It was kind of condescending. And they would say, “We like Joe.” And they didn’t treat him as what Obama really believed him to be, which was a key piece of his political mind, the White House’s political mind.

Preet Bharara:

Let’s talk about the future. Today if you’re listening on the first day the pod drops is the first full day of the Biden presidency, as I mentioned. And there’s a lot of talk about what the constraints are going to be, the Democrats do have the Senate barely for a little while at least. And there are two prior presidents who get mentioned sometimes in the same breath when there’s a discussion about how Biden sees himself and how history might judge him in the next term because there’s lots of interest on the part of some people in America at least for sweeping change, significant change.

Preet Bharara:

And those two presidents both easily identifiable by their initials are FDR and LBJ. And you quote Ron Klain at the time an adviser, by the time people listen to this, he will be the chief of staff. Some people say the second most powerful person in the country. And he says, which I found to be a fascinating analysis, “LBJ might not have been the wokest coolest hippest Democrat, but he’s the person who got the most actual social justice legislation done since FDR.” Talk about Biden, Johnson and Roosevelt.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah. That is a piece of the puzzle that I think people weren’t seeing as clearly during the presidential campaign as the people around Biden were seeing it. I mean, Ron Klain was telling me this at a time when it was still considered wild the idea that Joe Biden might be able to attract any interest or enthusiasm from the majority of the party much less particularly progressive activists. And what Klain believed and it wasn’t just him, Jake Sullivan some of the others, Mike Donilon, all of whom I should point out are now at the core of Biden’s world in the White House. They all were of the view that the way to achieve real progressive movement in this country in Washington, DC, is that you have to do it from the middle, which can sound counterintuitive.

Evan Osnos:

We’re supposed to be at the ramparts when we’re trying to achieve the most aggressive social reform. And they would say, no, no, the language is going to be the same on the page, but the way that you go about it matters. And in the case of LBJ, what you had was somebody who was, to call him a centrist, is probably even a little casual. I mean, he was a conservative Democrat who was uncomfortable by change in the country in some ways, but also felt this very strong mission to try to achieve progress on civil rights and on poverty. And because he was coming from the middle, he was able to talk to people on the right. He was also able to make some of those really close quarters, political, negotiated compromises that are the essence of getting something actually achieved.

Evan Osnos:

And that’s where Biden leads. His belief is I can go for ambitious legislation partly because I’m going to be talking about it in a way that disarms the people who oppose it. And interestingly, Preet, there’s been some polling by progressive activists who have looked into this and they say sort of in some cases to their surprise, that’s true. It looks to us as if it’s going to be easier to sell more ambitious climate policy if we talked about it as job creation rather than talking about it as a moral obligation to future generations. And I think that’s an insight into the way Biden is going to go about achieving or trying to achieve things that people might not have assumed.

Preet Bharara:

There’s not much similarity between Joe Biden and Donald Trump obviously, except let me take a stab at it in the following weird way. And that is, isn’t it the case that people who ascend to the presidency who had sort of long shot status and who decided to things their own way, they get to the presidency and then they have aides and staff telling them, “Okay, now you have to do things this way to get things done.” And then there is a little bit of arrogance on the part of the guy who won, who will say, “Well, you told me to do this other stuff before and all these critics were telling me to lurch left or lurch right or stop saying crazy things in the case of Donald Trump. But I won following my own gut and following my own instincts. So you all should just take a seat.”

Preet Bharara:

And that’s a little bit true of Donald Trump who had some basis, whether you think he’s crazy or not to say, “I did it my way and I got to the presidency.” I think it turns out that he was wrong about how he conducted his presidency. And he might’ve been more successful had he moderated, but he did have a basis in saying, “You guys were all wrong before so I’m going to do it my way.” Is there a little bit of that potentially on the part of Joe Biden as well when he talks about bipartisanship and overly optimistic perhaps about working with Republicans, doesn’t he have the same argument to make within himself and to his staff, “Look, you guys all told me I had to be scorched earth when I was running. I want on my own terms. And I’m going to govern on my own terms mistake or good.”

Evan Osnos:

Yeah, it’s actually a really important point. In this case though, it’s not going to be his own staff because strangely enough, they were more or less in agreement. He had this group around him that they really did see it the same way. What they were up against was the political press. And they were up against other Democrats. I mean, they were constantly being told by people in my profession and by a lot of Democrats who were saying, “Boy, that Biden campaign is operating on Mars. They just don’t understand that they’re not on Twitter in any real way. They’re not fighting the fight. They’re way too far to the right.” And through that period, they were convinced they were correct.

Evan Osnos:

And that is a risk actually. I mean, you’re absolutely right to identify because they come into office with in a sense if you come into office with the confidence that you were speaking the truth when others didn’t see it, it creates this cognitive bias in favor of being able to reject all the pressure because you are going to be inundated constantly now with people telling you, “No, you’re not doing it right.” “I got to do it my way.” And he’s going to have to be able to keep some sense of the belief about what is in fact the right way forward. So that’s not an insignificant risk, I think.

Preet Bharara:

But do you think in his heart he wants to do big things? I forget who he’s saying this to in the anecdote from the book, but it’s a great line. And you’re right, whoever he was saying, and you’ll of course know, and educate me, he got a big laugh. I think it was maybe in Russia, he says, “What’s the point of dying on a small cross?”

Evan Osnos:

Actually amazingly, he said it in Jerusalem.

Preet Bharara:

Jerusalem. Yes. To Bibi.

Evan Osnos:

He said it to Bibi. Yeah. And in fact it was the Israeli ambassador who told me the story and was laughing. He was like, here’s an Irish Catholic vice-president telling the Israeli prime minister there’s no sense dying on a small cross. But you know what? To answer your question, yes, I actually really do think that Joe Biden does want to achieve big things in the presidency, meaning ambitious transformative legislation. And I know that sounds wild to people and there are going to be… I can hear eyes rolling in some parts of the country when people hear that, because they say this guy has been timid, cautious, never at the forefront of change, but you have to look at… It goes back to one of the earliest observations you made in this conversation about the phases of his life.

Evan Osnos:

And he is at a phase in his life now when he’s discovered that having been the person who helped Barack Obama succeed in the presidency, and now let’s remember opened the door to the first vice-president who is African-American, Indian, a woman. He believes really deeply, I mean, look at the composition of his cabinet. It is now half white, half non-white. He really believes this stuff. And that doesn’t mean it’s not going to survive its first collision with the political reality. But I would not doubt his seriousness about it. Put it this way, even if you’d sort of doubt his ambitions, don’t doubt his personal ambition. And he sees himself very much now in the tradition of an FDR who was called by history and circumstance to make bigger changes than even he might’ve imagined he was going to need to pursue.

Preet Bharara:

What’s Joe Biden’s ideology? Does he have one?

Evan Osnos:

His ideology is more about a mode of how societies work than a single issue. And what I mean is to be precise, he really believes in the idea that there is such a thing as common ground even among people who rabidly disagree with each other. And that is a more radical idea than it might sound like at first. I mean, to imagine that you can go into the United States Congress in 2021 and actually negotiate some sort of negotiated compromise on anything is a wild idea. And it is a big enough idea that it constitutes an ideology. I sometimes like to think of it in shorthand terms that his ideology is centrism by which I mean, I know that sounds odd. What I mean is that he believes that the Democratic Party moves over time and it’s his job to see where it’s moving and move with it.

Evan Osnos:

I actually want to give a word in this case to one of his confidants James Clyburn the great Congressman from South Carolina who really delivered the crucial endorsement that made this presidency possible. Clyburn has this image of centrism that he said to me which has really stayed with me. He said, “American politics swings from one extreme to the other, but that means it always passes through the center and spends twice as much time in the center as at the extremes.” And there’s an elegant simplicity of that which is true. And Biden buys into that. And that’s his natural political home.

Preet Bharara:

And you also describe some art that Clyburn has on his wall, right?

Evan Osnos:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

What does that art depict?

Evan Osnos:

There are actually figurines. He has turtles and tortoises all over his office.

Preet Bharara:

And what’s the metaphor there?

Evan Osnos:

The metaphor there is slowly, slowly and-

Preet Bharara:

Slow and steady wins the race.

Evan Osnos:

Exactly. Slow and steady-

Preet Bharara:

How inspiring is that to the millennials?

Evan Osnos:

Well, that’s the thing. He gets some millennials in his office and they’re like really?

Preet Bharara:

Like the turtles. Even an eagle maybe.

Evan Osnos:

Exactly. I mean, and he’s a civil rights leader. He’s one of the people that… He is a person who believes in the power of punching through the crust of history and making big change. It’s just that he believes you cannot do it simply by waving your hand. I’ll get a little in my old China mode for a moment, it’s like water on a stone, it’s one drop after another drop, after another drop and eventually you bore a hole.

Preet Bharara:

There was an extraordinary point that Biden makes. It’s basically a confession that he was wrong about how idealistic he had been. And I’m paraphrasing, I’m not going to get it quite right, that you know what? Things do change, things do change. And then he reflects at some point late in the Trump presidency, you know what? They do change but the hate doesn’t necessarily go away it hides. And then if you have a leader who gives an oxygen, it comes out. And the reason I mentioned it is that’s a little bit of emergence from innocence on the part of a pretty seasoned leader. And I kind of feel that way too. And I think a lot of Americans feel that way too. Then that’s relevant to a lot of things.

Preet Bharara:

But my thought was when I was reading that and thinking about this interview, could that be a reason why people on the left progressives might be a little bit more tolerant of the Biden approach because we have been given to understand in a very tangible way what happens if we let a bad man come into the presidency who gives oxygen to bad thoughts and conduct on the part of a subset of the American people? Does that make any sense?

Evan Osnos:

It does. It’s a huge point actually. I mean, his life up into a certain point… I mean, for a long time, well up into his 70s had persuaded him that the arc of moral universe bends in a reliable way towards justice. I mean, here’s a guy who grew up in segregated Wilmington and eventually becomes the vice-president to the first African-American president, my God. He said, “That right there is the American story.” And then Donald Trump happened and it was this bracing alarming reminder of just how actually we’re back to our word, how fragile that progress really is. And Obama uses a different way of framing it. He says, history will zag, it’ll zig, you’ll take two steps forward one step back. But I think there is part of the reason why Biden ends up being curiously suited to this moment is that he doesn’t say I am the transcendent president who will solve all your problems. He doesn’t even say it in high-minded terms. What he says is I’m going to try to nudge us forward a little bit.

Preet Bharara:

He says, “I’m the bridge.”

Evan Osnos:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

He’s a piece of infrastructure.

Evan Osnos:

It’s the infrastructure way.

Preet Bharara:

That’s not the way, it’s the infrastructure.

Evan Osnos:

Finally, it’s the infrastructure way.

Preet Bharara:

Oh, I’m looking forward to infrastructure way, believe you me. Maybe that’s a good segue to ask what you think concretely Biden can achieve in the first sort of 100 days or 365 days. What can we expect? When people look back on this interview a few months from now, what will you be prescient about?

Evan Osnos:

Well, I think he is very wise to the realities of Congress. And that is to say that even though he’s got an edge in the Senate, that doesn’t necessarily deliver him to the promised land, there’s a lot that could go wrong. Meaning you could get conservative Democrats who get hung up on ideas and on policy ideas. What I think you’re likely to see is they are determined to move as fast as possible because they think that if you let the bones set, that it will become really hard to make dramatic change again. That you have to use in a sense this moment of dislocation of the post-Trump, the wilderness that we’re all in to say we have a moment to do big things. And look a $1.9 trillion legislative package that encompasses everything from stimulus payments to individuals, to $20 billion for vaccines to a $15 minimum wage, I mean, this is an extraordinary Rooseveltian level piece of legislation. If they can pull that off, that will be a substantial achievement.

Preet Bharara:

What about the filibuster?

Evan Osnos:

The filibuster is about as live and issue is you can possibly get. I mean, I literally was on the phone with a Biden senior aide last night, pressing and trying every way I could to figure out what the state of the art thinking is. And the honest answer is that he is pretty sincere when he says he doesn’t want to get rid of it at this point because he believes that-

Preet Bharara:

And how are we going to get this other stuff? Didn’t ask this aide that question?

Evan Osnos:

It might gone. It might be gone within a few weeks. It might be gone within a few months. He’s not going to stand around with his hand extended if there’s nobody there to shake it. That’s the honest answer. And I think he probably will get rid of it, but I don’t think he wants to telegraph that now. And that’s partly strategic, partly sentimental.

Preet Bharara:

How’s he going to navigate this whole business of dealing with the conduct and misconduct of Donald J. Trump?

Evan Osnos:

I think you’ll have a better answer to this question and I really want to hear it. And I’ll give you my short version, which is, I think he’s pretty serious when he says he doesn’t want the president to be making those choices. And the most interesting conversation that none of us will ever get to hear is the conversation between Merrick Garland and Joe Biden about how Biden wants Garland to handle that question. What I think is going to happen is Biden is essentially going to say, all right, we have a Congress that is in charge of impeaching a president of the United States. That’s its charge. That’s its job.

Evan Osnos:

And we have a department of justice that is in charge of prosecuting people for relevant crimes. And then we have commissions and we have inspectors general, all of which can surface evidence that would ultimately lead to prosecution. But one thing he really does not want to do is allow himself to be part of that process because he thinks it’s not just that he doesn’t want it to crowd out his presidency, he really believes that one of the things Donald Trump did that made him unworthy, unfit for the presidency was getting personally involved in prosecution. Now I’ll turn it over to you.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah, well I believe that completely and totally. And I’m not sure how interesting that conversation actually would be. Even if you were a fly on the wall, I think you essentially outlined it. I think two things are true and why I feel some hope about the justice department that I love so much and one is the person who is taking over at the helm himself has the view and articulates it that the attorney general and department of justice doesn’t serve the president, it serves the public and it’s loyal to the constitution, not anyone political leader, but that’s not enough. That’s only half of it.

Preet Bharara:

On the other side of the coin, the president himself articulates that, says that, and I know believes it. And so you have both sides being careful about this stuff. That doesn’t mean that in that conversation or in other communications, the president wouldn’t say something like, look, the country has to heal and I don’t want to get bogged down, but I trust you and the justice department to make determinations because it is also true that no one is above the law. It is also true that accountability is important. And it’s important to healing and going forward. So my thought is that he would lay out the considerations in a thoughtful way with the perspective and then say, “But I’m punting to you because that’s the proper order of things.”

Evan Osnos:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Right. And it’s probably better for him to stay out of it completely.

Evan Osnos:

Is there a meaningful difference between accountability and vengeance when it comes to a moment like this?

Preet Bharara:

Yeah, I think absolutely. Vengeance is something that I think of as being disproportionate governed by passion and a whim and hatred as opposed to what we do in the courts every day. When we prosecute ordinary citizens for robbery or rape or murder or whatever else, it may be true if you watch movies that members of those families, one vengeance and think of it as vengeance, but professionals who are responsible for it should not feel any particular hatred or animosity towards the defendant. You can feel a sense of violation but it should be done with a sense of duty, not vengeance.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

And your question is a good one because I do think there are a lot of people who do feel that way and don’t really care what it is that Donald Trump is charged with prosecuted for, and potentially sent to prison for so long as it happens. So it’s very result oriented because there’s a belief that he violated the law. It’s a lock him up mentality that some people have, which I think is unfortunate. So I think you got to… I think the spirit of your question to me suggests that if there’s going to be accountability for Donald Trump either in the Senate or someplace else, it has to be done calmly and dispassionately and separate from politics. And look, that’s hard to do because people’s passions are very inflamed.

Evan Osnos:

And I think in some ways, Nancy Pelosi hit on the right word when she said that her approach to impeachment the first time was prayerful. She was going about this in a tone in which she said this is an ugly episode in American history. And we’re going to seek the appropriate resolution here. And it needs to be done. I mean, let’s be clear here. Crimes were committed and people need to be held accounted for it. But there is a point at which that becomes a self perpetuating cycle in politics. And that worries me too.

Preet Bharara:

I predicted something and I’m going to say that I’m proud of myself. There are two categories of things, right? There’s a category of things that we all knew about and was all sort of focused on and excavated. And that’s the Mueller report and that’s Ukraine. And the question is, do you do anything criminally or otherwise with respect to those things that have already been investigated and shown in the public square? And then there’s stuff inevitably that he will keep doing. And it becomes very hard as a matter of equal justice before law, accountability and I would say politics and optics. When the president has done all this new stuff on January 6th and since, and with Ralph Ginzburg in Georgia, it’s one thing to say we’re closing the door on Mueller and we’re closing the door on Ukraine. It’s quite a separate matter to say, we’re closing the door without even exhaustively investigating the misconduct where people died.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah.

Preet Bharara:

Yeah. We’re just going to turn the page. That’s an impossibility.

Evan Osnos:

Yeah. I agree.

Preet Bharara:

And it’s not a matter of ideology or approach. It’s just the way things work in the world is you can’t shut it down because it won’t allow itself to be shut down.

Evan Osnos:

And I think there’s a real moral hazard question. I mean, we have watched in American public life, people do things that are such a betrayal of how we think of law and justice and public office. And if that really is on addressed, we are setting ourselves up for more trouble. And so that will become the necessary next step.

Preet Bharara:

Evan Osnos, thanks for being on the show. Congratulations on the book. So folks, if you want to understand the President of United States, Joe Biden, you need to get this book, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now. That’s the real question, isn’t it? Thanks again.

Evan Osnos:

Thanks Preet. That was a lot of fun.

Preet Bharara:

My conversation with Evan Osnos continues from members of the CAFE Insider community. To try out the membership free for two weeks head to cafe.com/insider. Again, that’s cafe.com/insider. So as I tape the end of the show this week, it’s Wednesday morning, January 20th, and I’m looking at the clock and it’s literally 53 minutes until noon when Joe Biden takes over the presidency. And like a lot of you, I’m tired. And like a lot of you, I’m very hopeful. It seems to be the case for much of the last four years, tired, but always trying to be hopeful.

And I don’t feel very eloquent this morning. I’m hoping to bask in the eloquence of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris very shortly, but I just did want to note that it’s an amazing great new day in America. It’s hard to believe that we finally got here. And if I could just say a word of thanks to all the people, and there’s so many of you who kept the faith, who spoke up for what’s right, who remembered what really makes America great and especially for those of you who did it with good humor and with calm and with a deep and abiding faith in this country.

It’s been a hard four years. Sometimes it feels like it’s been 40 years. And I think I speak for many people when I say the election of Joe Biden, Kamala Harris decisively, not withstanding some people’s opposition to it, not withstanding some people’s lies about it, not withstanding an insurrection to try to overturn it, it cannot be overstated how important this result is and will be for America. And I think back to something that I discussed with Evan Osnos in our interview, and then there’s a little bit of a loss of innocence that we can all feel about our country. I keep thinking about what Joe Biden said, that he used to think, things change, things change, things can change, but then remembering that hate sometimes doesn’t go away it just goes into hiding.

And if you have a leader like President Donald Trump, who gives oxygen to hate, who gives oxygen to division, it can rip the country apart. And so we can be hopeful and happy and joyful, all of those things and maybe a little inebriated over the next day welcoming the Biden Harris administration, we can’t work any less hard than we have over the last four years because it’s only a four year term and forces of division and hate and disunity can come back. They could easily come back. So thank you for your support. Thank you for all you did to keep America strong and true to her values and let’s keep fighting. God bless America.

Well, that’s it for this episode of Stay Tuned. Thanks again to my guest, Evan Osnos. If you like what we do, rate and review the show on Apple Podcasts or wherever you listen, every positive review helps new listeners find the show. Send me your questions about news, politics and justice. Tweet them to me @PreetBharara with the #askpreet, or you can call or leave me a message at (669) 247-7338. That’s 669-24 Preet or you can send an email to [email protected] Stay Tuned is presented by CAFE Studios. Your host is Preet Bharara. The executive producer is Tamara Sepper. The senior producer is Adam Waller. The technical director is David Tatasciore and the CAFE team is Matthew Billy, David Kurlander, Sam Ozer-Staton, Noa Azulai, Nat Wiener, Jake Kaplan, Jeff Eisenman, Chris Boylan, Sean Walsh, and Margot Maley. Our music is by Andrew Dost. I’m Preet Bharara, Stay Tuned.