Reporting from Ulan Bator, Mongolia—He squared up against a 250-pound, barely-clothed Mongol wrestler, accepted as a gift a handsome brown horse that he named Celtic, and marveled at the logic-defying contortions of a physical performer balancing herself by her teeth.
Mongolia, the middle stop of Vice President Joe Biden’s just-concluded three-nation tour of Asia, was also the lightest. It was the first visit to the country by a sitting U.S. vice president since 1944, when Franklin Roosevelt dispatched Henry Wallace as far as he could from Washington -- just before Wallace was unceremoniously dumped from the Democratic ticket in favor of Harry Truman.
"I've been unable to figure out how to get off [the ticket]," Biden said in an interview last week aboard Air Force Two after leaving Mongolia.
Photos: Biden inChina
Biden had been asked to finally settle the subject of many cocktail-party conversations inside the beltway, particularly the question of whether he and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton might trade jobs after 2012.
Three years to the day that he accepted Barack Obama's offer to be his running mate in the 2008 campaign, Biden said his role as vice president has been precisely what he and his then-Senate colleague discussed.
"There really is a close working relationship and a great deal of trust. And that’s what I signed up for," Biden said.
His journey over nine days this month is an example of that trust. The primary purpose was to build on Washington's relationship with China, a top priority for President Obama since taking office.
Over four days and multiple one-on-one meetings, Biden began sizing up the man widely expected to become China’s next president, but about whom little is known – Vice President Xi Jingping.
Biden said he went to China without specific marching orders from Obama.
“There’s a confidence level about my ability to do the job,” Biden said. “As I head off to China, it’s a very serious relationship. There’s no, ‘Let me tell you what I need you to do or say.’”
Originally planned as a get-to-know-you trip, it had to be postponed once because of the debt-ceiling crisis in Washington -- something Biden also found himself playing a key part in.
Publicly, Biden’s mission to Asia became one of reassurance, telling one Chinese leader after another that the country's investment in U.S. treasuries was secure.
Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao, in a meeting at the ornate Purple Light Pavilion, thanked Biden for bringing that message to the Chinese people. Biden responded by again stating that the Chinese “have nothing to worry about” with regard to America’s financial well-being.
In Japan, where Biden toured the damage wrought by the March earthquake and tsunami, he linked Japan’s struggles to the American budget challenge, saying both nations would confound those who say they cannot rebound.
Biden would later dispute that it was ever a major concern.
“I didn’t come to explain a damn thing,” he bluntly declared in a speech to U.S. troops at Yokota Air Base in Japan on Wednesday.
In an interview, Biden said he sensed little anxiety from the Chinese leaders behind closed doors. Like Americans, he said, they were only hoping that the U.S. economy would begin growing again “because it’s in their interest.”