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Op-Ed: After Trump’s unholy alliances, we’ve got a friend in Joe

Joe Biden takes a selfie with a supporter in 2008.
Then vice presidential candidate Joe Biden takes a selfie with a supporter in 2008.
(Steve Helber / Associated Press)

Just days before the Democratic National Convention started this week, Michael Cohen, President Trump’s former bagman and fixer, posted the foreword to his tell-all memoir.

Though Cohen refers to Trump as his onetime soul mate, he ends up describing a repulsive alliance based on seduction, betrayal and mutual exploitation. It’s hard to imagine what “soul mate” even means when applied to the man for whom Cohen claims he did unspeakably dirty work, some of which landed him in prison and now house arrest.

For the record:

4:35 PM, Aug. 20, 2020An earlier version said Biden’s first year in Congress was 1972; he was elected in 1972 and began serving in 1973.

“From golden showers in a sex club in Vegas, to tax fraud, to deals with corrupt officials from the former Soviet Union, to catch and kill conspiracies to silence Trump’s clandestine lovers, I wasn’t just a witness to the president’s rise — I was an active and eager participant,” Cohen wrote.

Cohen has a surprising gift for prison lit, with a voice-crying-in-the-wilderness cadence. He also knows readers are likely to loathe him, and he makes no effort to persuade them otherwise, except by offering keen, self-lacerating observations: “I was so vulnerable to [Trump]’s magnetic force because he offered an intoxicating cocktail of power, strength, celebrity and a complete disregard for the rules and realities that govern our lives.”

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Trump denies it all. But Cohen is persuasive. Besides, Americans have been witness to cruel and exploitative relationships such as this one since the start of the Trump administration.

In fact, looking at Trump’s unholy partnerships with Atty. Gen. William Barr, Sen. Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and, for heaven’s sake, Russian President Vladimir Putin (whom Trump once aimed to make his “new best friend”), it’s sometimes hard to remember that real friendships still exist in politics, relationships in which neither person is regarding the other as an instrument of personal power.

Fortunately, friendship of that kind has been on display at the socially distanced, Zoomed DNC, in a series of sentimental and even heart-opening videos that show Joe Biden connecting with people again and again.

An illustrated guide to Democratic National Convention highlights. On Night 4, Joe Biden touts hope, facts and fairness as an antidote to GOP chaos.

I’ll speak for myself. I didn’t expect to cry — actually ugly cry — at the sight of Biden’s onetime commuter train. But I did.

As a widower and first-year senator in 1973, the story goes, Biden began commuting daily on Amtrak between Washington and Delaware, so he could spend bedtime and breakfast with his newly motherless sons. During the 30-plus years he took the train, Biden got to know his fellow passengers and especially the Amtrak crew, buying rounds of coffee and treating them as “important people.”

“He was very interested in my life, my children, as time went on, my grandchildren,” Gregg Weaver, a retired conductor, said on the video.

The weeping really started when the voiceover explained that, after Biden stopped taking the train, Weaver had a heart attack.

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“I was in a barber shop in New York City,” Weaver said, “and the phone rings. And sure enough it was Vice President Biden, asking me how I’m doing. He wanted to know the whole story.”

He wanted to know the whole story. Suddenly I saw Biden — and any good officeholder in a working democracy — as, above all, a keeper of other peoples’ stories. Pretty square-one stuff, but, after so many years under the leadership of an undemocratic president, we’re at a square-one moment.

The Biden friendships kept coming. On Tuesday, another video chronicled Biden’s across-the-aisle friendship with the late Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.). It too dated to the 1970s, and continued until McCain’s death two years ago. “With Joe Biden, his colleagues knew that your points were equally valid to him,” said Ronald Klain, Biden’s onetime chief of staff.

Maybe it shouldn’t be exciting to progressives in 2020 to see two old centrist white dudes joking and calling each other son of a gun. But it’s been a long time since we’ve seen politicians in a relationship that doesn’t consist of grinding each other to a pulp so that money can be printed on whatever’s left behind.

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The winning friendship entry featured Jacquelyn Brittany, a 31-year-old elevator operator in a blue shirt and light orange necktie. Brittany is the woman who made social media waves in December when she blurted out “I love you” to Biden while they rode up in her elevator together.

On Tuesday, Brittany did the actual nominating of Biden. But first she recalled their elevator interaction.

“In the short time I spent with Joe Biden, I could tell he really saw me, that he actually cared, that my life meant something to him,” she said. “I knew, even when he went into his important meeting, he’d take my story in there with him.”

He wanted to know the whole story. Your points were equally valid to him. He’d take my story in there with him.

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Nobody could keep track of all the stories that need telling of people beaten down in Trump times. And it’s too much to expect any leader to address, much less alleviate, the complex suffering they would reveal. But Biden has shown he can at least listen, that he sees and hears others’ needs, not just his own.

On Wednesday night at the convention, President Obama heaved a sigh while discussing his own warm friendship with Biden. It seemed to foretell a collective exhale we might get if Trump is voted out in November, and Biden gets his chance to bring back leadership that’s simply more humane.

Son of a gun, during this four-year drought of compassion, that’s no small thing.

@page88


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