For 20 years I have riden the Train from Washington DC to points North, and vice versa of course.
Train Travel, unlike the automobile, is inherently social. In the bad old days, in the 80's I once needed 12 hours (and three different trains) to take one MetroLiner trip from NY to DC. There was an ice storm involved.
(Of note, it was Joe Biden and few other stalwart and forward thinking leaders in DC got Amtrak the money to upgrade the track and trains we now know as Acela, and his VP role is wonderful new for Train Lovers)
But this journal is a recollection of one train trip, in early 2002 when Joe Biden was my seat mate.
The evening Acela often sells out. I am the sort who rarely books in advance, I just show up and buy a ticket at the machine. Unfortunately the regular seats were sold out, only first class seats remained. The train was due to leave in about five minutes.
I bought the ticket, difference in price on the Acela is only about $50 bucks, and you get a bigger chair (3 across seating instead of 4 across)and you also get a drink and a light meal. Two or three times a year I end up there, usually because the regular tickets are sold out.
On board, I got the the window seat in the last Pair of seats with no occupants. All the single seats were already taken. The car continued to fill up, I had the laptop plugged in, the Cell phone charging, they called "All Abourd" And somebody said: "Excuse me? Taken?"
And there was Sen. Biden, indicating the next seat. I had never met him in person, but I had admired him and his statements when I had seen him on the media.
As a person he gave off the vibe of someone who is Smart, Happy, in a Hurry and Tired. He was also a bit out of breath, I suspect he had to hussle to make the train.
I remember some details of his dress: He had a pair of cuff-links with a detailed seal on them, though I can't remember which. But it was Senate, or State Dept. I think... Cuff-Links are more common in DC than any other US Cty. Men's fashion being highly restrictive in DC. Fashion adventures really are limited to Cuff-Links, Lapel Pins, Tie Patterns and in a few daring cases, socks.
He was wearing a well cut blue suit and crisp red-orange tie. I remember thinking it was a bold color.
And he carried a bulging bankers brief case in his right hand. He also carried a dog-eared and post-it marked report in his left.
"Of course Senator." I said and returned to my own work on my laptop.
The ride from DC to Delaware is less than an hour, but the Car Steward came to our seat first and said: "Hello Joe! We were worried you wouldn't make it. Can I get you guys something?" Sen. Biden said he was fine. I ordered a drink.
We both worked in our respective bubbles. Sometime just after leaving Baltimore we made eye-contact, nodded and I said: "Senator, I don't mean to intrude, but I would thank you for getting the money for the upgrades of Amtrak. I know you have supported public transit and don't want to miss the chance to say thank you."
He gave the sort of half-smile someone gives when you bring something up they are proud of, but which they are surprised anyone notices.
I continued: "I can see you are busy, and I am not a Delaware Voter, and I know most people think of you as a foriegn policy guy, but I think of you as "One of the Senators who allows me to live without buying a car."
Sen. Biden laughed and said: "You don't look like the average environmentalist." I was dressed in the standard uniform of a business executive, blue suit, tie, shined shoes. Probably cuff-links as well. I rattled off pretty standard response I have used many times.
"No. I don't. But I consider myself a radical environmentalist trapped in a world past the tipping point for environmental solutions. So I try to build technologies which help and I try to only travel by public transport."
That, as many here know, can be a very difficult challenge in much of our country.
Biden put down his two inch thick report he was reading and asked me what I would list as the top things to do.
I pointed at his report. "Go Paperless." I bullet pointed the challenges and advantages our firm was facing in an effort to go paperless, and the impact reducing the paper usage by an average of 30 pounds per person would have. I singled out the need for congress to pass legislation allowing digital signatures to carry the same weight as paper on ink.
I then outlined the need for Gas Prices to go up to European levels, then American's would suddenly wake up and demand train systems. I remember him nodding and agreeing. We talked for a minute about the battle just to keep the NE Corridor Amtrak money funded against the "Freeway Crowd"
We chatted about train trips. I told Sen. Biden about a couple of my adventures in public transit. My list of best Transit Systems in the US partly surprised him. NY, DC, Chicago, Cleveland, San Francisco, LA and San Diego. I told him that although it is hard to figure out, LAs Public Transit System is usable to get anywhere, especially if augmented with a bike. I also listed cities that are "useless holes of car dependence" Phoenix, All of Florida, Texas, and Seattle.
We debated the how policy can change this. I told him to not bother wasting political energy on this until gas prices triple. I remember him asking why that dynamic is different in the NorthEast. I told him "Parking." In the NorthEast you have to pay for parking, and that serves the same purpose as higher gas costs to makes private automobiles more price realistic.
Finally I said: But the big one is Free Birth Control for everyone.
I remember he gave me the "uh-oh, I am getting into political danger conversations now..."
I told him I knew he was catholic and had a large family. And I also told him that I knew the religious extremists running DC at the moment would never let this happen. But I told him I didn't see any alternative than for humanity to get it's population down to a sustainable level. I said there are several nations overseas that have no hope of escaping endemic poverty until they face this, and the entire world will never get get to environmental sustainability until we deal with our population.
Sen. Biden staired at me. Shook his head. Then he nodded and I remember him saying: "No one can win an election running on that, but your point is well taken." I remember he asked something along the lines of how we can we engage that conversation in a way that isn't political suicide.
I told him I didn't thnk it was not possible. I told him I trusted the three horsemen would take care of it eventually, and at this point, at least in my opinion, humanity had crossed the tipping point for social collapse. I then reflected on my experience in NYC on 9/11 for a minute. He was very respectful. He shared some of his thoughts.
I then told him about a trip I made to Europe in Oct 2001, and the ocean of good will there on that trip. I then told him that my greatest fear was that I was already sensing the results of 9/11 on our nation would not be to make us more engaged in addressing the deterioration of the world and the disconnect that makes people do such things. I told him I had the sense we are reacting in ways that will make more people want the tipping point to come faster. I told him I truly feared we were losing our chances to address global problems and feared our nation is becoming "like a heavy-weight fighter, a little past prime, getting knocked about, on the ropes and just having to react to each punch...rather than having a strategy for a complex multi-round fight."
Sen. Biden responded with a simple observation. He told him Mr. Bush's crowd care about the "short term optics of politics and pleasing a base with no ability to have this conversation." I understood. I thanked him for his frank, realistic opinion. He thanked me for the thoughtful conversation and encouraged me to keep engaging people on the topic. '
He said: "If more business leaders start talking about these things, Congress will have to listen."
A very realistic man.
Our conversation was probably 20ish minutes. We pulled into Wilmington. We exchanged business cards. I have not seen him in person since.
I repeatedly heard Sen. Biden's name was on Sen. Obama's short list. I never believed it was a serious consideration. I didn't see the political math where Biden would help with any particular state. But in the back of my mind I liked the idea that a realistic, engaged and complex thinker could end up on the ticket.
This morning. I have to admit, my opinion of Sen. Obama has leaped up.
The "Yes, We Can!" part of the campaign, has felt like marketing best suited to promote Bob the Builder Videos. But I have liked the effort as Mr. Bloomberg put it: "To address the voters as adults."
But Obama's speaking skills are stunning. And now, for the first time, I really admire the audacity of his judgement.
Sen. Biden is a smart, engaging, world-thinking man.
Choosing him makes me Hopeful.