Joe Biden's three-decade wait for power—he first declared for the presidency in 1987—is remarkable but not without analogue. Menachem Begin spent 29 years trying to become Israel's prime minister before his surprise 1977 election.
Mr. Biden spent his years in waiting ensconced in the establishment, well-liked by Senate colleagues. As vice president he cemented a reputation for being able to talk and work with the other side. Begin, by contrast, was despised by the socialist elites who dominated Israeli politics. Prime Minister David Ben-Gurion, Israel's founding father, excluded two parties from consideration for coalition agreements: Begin's Herut (Freedom) Party and the Communists. For years Ben-Gurion wouldn't even utter Begin's name in Parliament, referring to him as "the gentleman sitting to the right of Mr. [Yohanan] Bader."
Mr. Biden and Begin once clashed, in a private June 1982 session with the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Mr. Biden, 39, lectured the 68-year-old Begin over Israeli settlements, jabbing his finger at the prime minister and banging his fist on the desk. Mr. Biden warned that eroding support for Israel threatened U.S. aid. Israel was at war in Lebanon and far more dependent on American assistance than it is today.
Begin wouldn't be cowed. "Don't threaten us with cutting off aid to give up our principles," he shouted back, according to Time magazine. Former Sen. Bob Packwood of Oregon later recalled that Begin went further: "I'm not a Jew with trembling knees," he reminded Mr. Biden.
In the lore that has since developed, Begin's response supposedly continued: "I am a proud Jew with 3,700 years of civilized history. Nobody came to our aid when we were dying in the gas chambers and ovens. Nobody came to our aid when we were striving to create our country. We paid for it. We fought for it. We died for it. We will stand by our principles. We will defend them. And, when necessary, we will die for them again, with or without your aid."
We don't know exactly what Begin said in the closed session. But the meeting was fiery. "I've never seen such an angry session with a foreign head of state." said Massachusetts Sen. Paul Tsongas. "It was a lively discussion," Mr. Begin told the press afterward. "If you want to use other adjectives . . ." He paused, then reconsidered: "Lively is enough."
The encounter came early in Mr. Biden's career and late in Begin's. Decades in the wilderness had matured the Israeli leader but also aged him. In 1979, during his first term in office, Begin made difficult sacrifices for a peace with Egypt that continues today. The Begin who responded to Mr. Biden in 1982, however, was no longer at his best. The next year, in poor health and crushed by the death of his wife, Aliza, he resigned. He died in 1992 at 78.
Mr. Biden, who turns 78 on Friday, has waited longer than Begin did. We don't know if the maturity and wisdom he has gained over the years will outweigh the loss of ability that comes with advanced age. America and the world are rooting for maturity and wisdom.