When Joe Biden shakes hands with Paul Ryan before the vice-presidential debate on Oct. 11, many observers will focus on the contrasts. Notably, their ages: Ryan is only 42 while Biden is now 69. But the vice-president may feel for a moment as if he’s looking in the mirror. After all, he was one of youngest men to ever join the U.S. Senate when he was sworn in at the age of 29 in 1973 (when Ryan was only 2 years old.) Both men are favorite Irish sons from their respective states, Roman Catholic, and famously more handsome and charismatic than most of their Washington peers. Ryan is happy to discuss his workout regimens, but Biden is an ex-football player who maintains that he still pumps some iron now and again. It will be interesting to see whose hand is whitest when they finally release their killer grips.
One of the reasons we’re interested in politicians pop-cultural preferences is because their selections sometimes give us a clue about who they really are, in a way that 1,000 stump speeches cannot. Biden’s not exactly an open book, but his favorites do tell you quite a bit about who he is and where he came from. First off, he embraces his Irishness, and all that it entails. His favorite poets are James Joyce and the still-living Seamus Haynee, who wrote in 1990’s The Cure at Troy:
“History says, Don’t hope on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime the longed for tidal wave of justice can rise up, and hope and history rhyme.
So hope for a great sea-change on the far side of revenge. Believe that a further shore is reachable from here. Believe in miracles and cures and healing wells.”
Biden lists Jon Meacham’s American Gospel: God, the Founding Fathers, and the Making of a Nation, and Maureen Dezell’s Irish America: Coming Into Clover as his two favorite reads, but he’s also a fan of Michael Connelly thrillers, like The Reversal and The Brass Verdict.
When he was a kid growing up in Delaware, he was fond of Hopalong Cassidy movies, but he told Katie Couric in 2008 that his favorite movie ever was Chariots of Fire, the 1982 Oscar-winner about a pair of British sprinters at the 1924 Olympic Games. “There is a place where someone put personal fame and glory behind principles,” he said. “That to me, is the mark of real heroism, when someone would do that.”
And though he never claimed it as a favorite, per se, The King’s Speech made an enormous impression, especially since he suffered from a similar stutter when he was a child. “It captured it so closely it was upsetting,” he told The Washingtonian in 2011. “Parts of the film were difficult to watch. To this day, I still mark my speeches the same way King George marked his, though I was fortunate to overcome my stuttering at a much earlier age. I never had any professional help — it was the support and patience of my teachers and family that gave me the confidence to succeed.”
Biden’s not much of a couch potato, and he’s not a fan of reality television at all — unless it’s sports. He’s fond of Syracuse basketball (he graduated from Syracuse’s law school) and Philadelphia Eagles football. Well, sort of. His loyalty to the Eagles ebbs and flows depending on who is standing in front of him. He’s also told different regional audiences that he’s partial to the Pittsburgh Steelers and the Green Bay Packers.
So, you know, he’s a politician before anything else.