Joe Biden: Master of Grief
Former Vice President Joe Biden’s eulogy for Sen. John McCain was widely praised for both its emotional eloquence and its political potency. Tears were shed as Biden told McCain’s 106-year-old mother, “We know how difficult it is to bury a child.” Spirits were lifted when he counseled, “You are going to ride by that field or smell that fragrance [and] feel like you did the day you got the news. But you know you are going to make it.” And hope for our polarized nation was stirred when he summed up McCain’s view of America as a nation “organized around not tribe but ideals.”
This was not the first powerful eulogy Biden has delivered. He has previously been dubbed “King of the Eulogy” after his comforting words for fellow senators ranging from Teddy Kennedy to Strom Thurmond, and for fallen heroes such as MIT Patrol Officer Sean Collier, who was murdered by the Boston Marathon bombers. Biden himself observed during his remembrance of Sen. Frank Lautenberg, “Never make a good eulogy. You’ll be asked again and again and again.”
Yet Biden’s agility with grief may be what carries him to the White House in 2020. Not only has Biden used eulogies to make political points about principled bipartisanship, but he also routinely bares his soul – one all too often wounded by family tragedy – to help others navigate their mourning. That’s part of how he has built a bond with many voters to become America’s “Uncle Joe.”
We need not cheapen Biden’s honoring of the dead, or the tragedies he has suffered, by suggesting he is coldly leveraging them for political gain. But it is not possible to separate a politician’s actions from politics, especially someone who has been a politician nearly his entire adult life.
Biden began his ode to McCain by calling him a “brother” with whom he had “a hell of a lot of family fights,” setting up for later his dismay over the breakdown of political civility. “‘Joe, it doesn't look good, you sitting next to John all the time,’” he recalled being scolded by party leadership in the 1990s, adding that McCain got a similar lecture. “That's when things began to change for the worse in America, in the Senate.”
What happened, according to Biden, is it became more acceptable to not just “challenge another senator's judgment” but also “challenge their motive.” And when that happens, “it's impossible to get to ‘go.’”
While many on the left contend McCain was often as partisan as the rest of his caucus, Biden argued his pal never gave up on bringing true deliberation back to the Senate, noting that in one of his last floor speeches he was “fighting to restore what you call regular order,” not out of finicky procedural rigidity but so senators would “treat one another again like we used to.” (Biden did not need to mention that a few days after that speech, McCain cast the decisive vote against repeal of the Affordable Care Act, on the grounds the bill had not gone through regular order.)
Bipartisanship and compromise are common themes in Biden’s eulogies to his Senate colleagues, even for those known for being more partisan. In an informal eulogy for Sen. Ted Kennedy (delivered at a 2009 stimulus grant award ceremony), Biden recalled how his fellow lawmaker “made everybody he worked with bigger, both his adversaries as well as his allies. Don’t you find it remarkable that one of the most partisan, liberal men in the last century serving in the Senate had so many of his foes embrace him, because they know he made them bigger? He made them more graceful by the way in which he conducted himself [and] he changed the circumstances of tens of millions of Americans, in the literal sense.”
Six years earlier, Biden remembered a very different senator in civil rights opponent Strom Thurmond. Still, he found an opportunity to stress the importance of working across the aisle.
Biden recounted the time he and an octogenarian Thurmond were lobbying President Ronald Reagan to back their compromise crime bill. When it seemed like “the president might be convinced,” his aides tried to cut the meeting short, and Reagan got up to leave. And then, “Strom grabbed his arm and pulled him back down in his seat. I never saw anybody do that to a president … the president looked very sternly at Strom, and Strom said with his hands still on his arm, he said, ‘Mr. President, when ya'll get to be my age, you’ll understand you've got to compromise.’”
But Biden does more than just get nostalgic about Senate camaraderie. Collective grief is one of the few ways Americans break free of the bounds of political polarization. So when Biden shares his tragic experiences—losing a wife and young daughter in a traffic accident and losing his adult son to brain cancer—to help others who are grieving, he is creating a bond that does not rest on partisan labels.
Last December millions of Americans saw Biden, while on “The View” discussing his book about his son Beau, comforting a teary Meghan McCain as she grappled with her father’s diagnosis. In a dizzying five minutes, he reminisced about Sen. McCain, educated the public about advances in cancer treatment, shared Beau’s admonishment after his diagnosis that “we are not going to talk about percentages” and stressed the importance of maintaining “hope” in the face of terminal illness.
Less noticed in that same month was when a teenage brain cancer survivor and his mother had an emotional moment with Biden at a book tour stop in a Delaware mall. The mother told a local reporter, “I’m glad that he’s sharing Beau’s story because it’s important … for others to understand the story of a family who goes through what they went through.” They weren’t drawn to Biden by politics, but by similar experience, because cancer knows no party or ideology. That’s why Biden, through his willingness to publicly share grief, can connect with a huge swath of voters in any part of the country.
Biden, of course, faces many obstacles if he does run for president. Democratic primary voters may deem him part of the past, and ideologically out of step with the party’s future. His ties to the Obama presidency come with just as many challenges as benefits. You never know when the next gaffe is going to come. Advanced age—his 78th birthday comes soon after Election Day 2020—will give many pause.
However, with his age comes life experiences, and the ability to connect those experiences to grand themes that can transcend our divides; no one else in the presidential field will be able emulate him in this capacity.
Of course, Biden may not even run in 2020. But the import of his eulogizing abilities is not strictly an electoral matter. Part of the job of leader is to console in times of sadness, and derive shared meaning from loss. No matter what lies next for Biden, we could use more leaders who learn from his example.