Rooney's gift in '72 brings Biden to tears
Sen. Joe Biden becomes emotional and stops his speech as he was reminded of past family tragedies.
Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic vice presidential nominee, enters the gym amid cheers from the crowd at Greensburg Salem High School in Greensburg.
Sen. Joe Biden, the Democratic Party's 2008 vice presidential nominee, talks with Norma Margonari after she introduced him in Greensburg.
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An emotional Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. was uncharacteristically at a loss for words yesterday as an introduction from Steelers owner Dan Rooney stirred memories of a bright interlude in a painful time.
On a campaign stop at Greensburg Salem High School, the presence of the Steelers owner reminded the vice presidential candidate of the tragic Dec. 17, 1972, car accident that killed his first wife and daughter and seriously injured two young sons. Mr. Biden had just been elected to the Senate.
Mr. Biden paused, wiped his eyes and, at one point turned away from the crowd for a long moment. Talking of his long vigil at his sons' bedsides, he said he left the boys at some point to go out and buy a Christmas tree for their hospital room. When he returned they each had an autographed football.
"My one little boy was in traction, the other little boy had a serious fractured skull, and they were happy. ..." After pausing, and wiping his eye, he continued.
"I said, 'Guys, where'd you get the balls?' "
They said, 'Daddy, Rocky Bleier brought it for me.'
"Mr. Rooney's Dad, without any fanfare, without an announcement, without anything but this incredible decency. ..." He paused again, and as the crowd applauded, said, "I really apologize. I shouldn't have tried to do this. ... It's a hell of a family."
Ed Kiely, the late Arthur J. Rooney's longtime aide, said he was not surprised that Mr. Rooney had sent the balls to the Biden boys. "He did that an awful lot, even with somebody he didn't even know," Mr. Kiely said yesterday.
The poignant anecdote about the footballs -- a story Mr. Biden has recounted at least once before in the campaign -- stirred applause from the crowd of more than 500 sitting on folding chairs in the high school gym.
Inevitably, it made an anticlimax of the more prosaic campaign pitch that followed.
Mr. Biden portrayed himself and his new partner, Sen. Barack Obama, as guardians of taxpayer interests in the bailout talks under way in the Capitol. And he described their opponent, Sen. John McCain, as the heir to policies that set the stage for the excesses of Wall Street.
"At 9 a.m. last Monday, John McCain was saying that the fundamentals of the economy were strong," Mr. Biden said. "At 11 a.m. last Monday morning John McCain was saying we have a great economic crisis on our hands.
"Now that's what we Irish Catholics call an epiphany.
"In a matter of two hours John McCain changed his rhetoric when what he should have been changing was his policies."
Of the talks that were going on as he spoke, he said, "We cannot and we will not simply bail out Wall Street without helping the millions of homeowners who are struggling just to stay in their homes. If Wall Street is going to get this help, Main Street should get it as well."
Mr. Biden criticized Mr. McCain as an advocate of the privatization of Social Security while contending that his tax proposals failed to include relief for seniors. In contrast, he pointed to an Obama plan that would eliminate federal income taxes for senior citizens making $50,000 or less.
The Delaware senator also claimed that the Republican's health care proposal would amount to a huge unheralded tax increase on the middle class. He referred to the fact that Mr. McCain's health care proposal would eliminate the long-standing tax break for employer-paid health insurance, deeming it taxable income.
"Ladies and gentlemen, it is the largest tax increase in history on the middle class," he said.
Mr. Biden described only part of the McCain proposal, however, failing to note that that the change in the tax status of health benefits proposal was coupled with a tax credit designed to allow people to purchase insurance coverage on their own.
The McCain campaign argues that this shift would help bring down the cost of health coverage by allowing individuals to shop for it on an open market. Critics contend that it would instead exacerbate the problem of lack of coverage by prompting employers to stop providing health benefits.
The McCain forces may have suspended campaigning personally, but the Republican National Committee was happy to fill the void as RNC spokesperson Blair Latoff issued a statement denouncing Mr. Biden.
"In times of crisis, Americans have always been able to bridge our divides and solve our problems, but apparently Barack Obama's running mate sees it as an opportunity for unfiltered partisanship and political opportunism," the statement said. "John McCain suspended his campaign and is working with the nation's leaders to address this serious economic crisis and believes that it is more important to put his country before his political campaign."
Mr. Biden was speaking in a region that exemplifies the Democratic challenge in Pennsylvania. While Westmoreland County retains a substantial Democratic registration edge, it has become increasingly friendly to Republican candidates in national and statewide elections. President Bush carried the county in each of his presidential elections, and substantially expanded his margin there in 2004.
In the April primary, Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton trounced Mr. Obama in the county, winning by more than three-to-one.
First Published September 26, 2008 12:00 am