Joe Biden: Pain, loss and the art of authenticity

Vice President Joe Biden waves during a visit to Lackawanna College on Friday in Scranton, Pa.
(Matt Rourke / Associated Press)

Onto the Scranton, Pa., stage the vice president came on Friday, in vintage form. He pumped his fist. He pointed at friends arrayed there, in his hometown. He bellowed a favorite insult: “Malarkey!” He smiled the broad Irish smile, undimmed.

The only reference to the terror of the week—camping out with his adult son at a cancer center in Texas—came when he told the crowd that “things are good at home in Delaware.”

“My son Beau’s fine; sends his love.…He’s doing well,” Biden said, leaving unstated whether he was offering a medical diagnosis or an attitudinal one.


It was another example of what Biden would no doubt gladly do without, but which has formed him: the merging of personal strife and his political life, and the tenacity required to get through it all.

His first wife and their daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after his first election in 1972, as they were out Christmas shopping. Biden took his oath of office near the two sons injured in the wreck, one of them now the attorney general of Delaware and the patient this week at the Houston hospital. Biden later suffered a near-fatal aneurysm.

Calamity has its twists: Due largely to it, the man with hair plugs and cosmetically doctored teeth, the man who got bounced out of his first presidential race after being accused of plagiarizing another politician’s speech, has become Mr. Authentic in a political era yearning for authenticity.

President Obama can come across as couching his emotions or hiding behind the intellectual facade of the law professor he once was. The Clintons suffer from parsing their words and seeking political advantage to the point of poll-testing their past vacation spots.

No one accuses Joe Biden of hiding anything, even if that can often make Obama and his aides reach for antacids. His blunt comments veer into gaffes, true, but over the long haul that can reinforce the sense he is saying what he thinks—he’s sure not speaking off a script!

Gaffes aside, Biden’s real-world credibility has been acutely grounded in his acquaintance with loss, and his willingness to talk about it so openly and in a way that is less “Look at what happened to meand moreI know your pain.”

Chris Lehane, a Clinton administration aide and veteran political consultant, cast Biden as the opposite of a generation of “antiseptic, blow-dried politicians” whose inherent fakery left them with “some significant trust issues with the public.”

“At the end of the day, Biden is one of those who, whether you’re seeing him in person, or in a small room, or on television—he comes off as who he is,” Lehane said. “At some level, because he doesn’t hide who he is ... I don’t think he’s ever been reticent about letting people in, to share his emotion, but not in a self-centered way.”


That is not to say he is a slam dunk to move into the Oval Office, even if his speech Friday, with its repetitive defenses of the middle class and the yearnings of small-town dreamers, felt tailored to his potential next campaign.

Hillary Rodham Clinton, were she to make a run for president official, would start off with massive advantages in organization and fundraising ability, as well as the historic propellant of being a potential first woman president. The last half of her 2008 campaign demonstrated a capacity for her own, if different, authenticity, particularly after a Bidenesque moment when she teared up before the New Hampshire primary.

Biden, at this point, trails Clinton in the prospective Democratic lineup—but is ahead of the rest of the party’s pack, mostly governors and the occasional senator looking to leap into the big leagues where the vice president already resides.

If Biden does possess the ability to blow his own campaign to smithereens, he also connects as -- rare for politics -- a regular guy plodding along no matter what the fates rain on him. It is not an insignificant trait for a presidential candidate.

His ability to connect comes across most when he speaks to people who themselves have suffered. The day before Memorial Day in 2012, to a group that helps relatives of service members killed in action, he walked on ground never approached by the typical politician. He talked about the short road between personal loss and suicide, even for someone otherwise rational.

“For the first time in my life,” he said, recounting his family’s story, “I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide. Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts; because they’d been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again, that it was never going to be that way ever again. That’s how an awful lot of you feel.”

This past April, he spoke at the memorial service for MIT policeman Sean Collier, allegedly killed at the hands of the Boston Marathon bombers. And, yes, his speech called the Tsarnaev brothers “two twisted, perverted, cowardly knock-off jihadis,” verging close to a gaffe for the vice-commander-in-chief. But he also spoke of the pain felt by Collier’s family.

“No child should pre-decease their parents,” he said. “I know from experience, that sense of dread reliving the moment.”

Biden’s recipe for getting through it all may have been most sharply described in Shanksville, Pa., at the memorial last Sept. 11 for the crew and passengers who died there after terrorists took over United Flight 93.

“My hope for you all is that as every year passes, the depth of your pain recedes and you find comfort, as I have, genuine comfort in recalling his smile, her laugh, their touch.

“My guess — and obviously it’s only a guess; no two losses are the same,” he said, “but my guess is you’re living this moment that Yeats only wrote about, when he wrote, ‘Pray I will and sing I must, but yet I weep.’ Pray I will, sing I must, but yet I weep.”

On Friday, Biden did the politician’s version of praying and singing. He lauded the persistence of the college students in front of him and the unavailing belief of his hometown that “if we were willing to work hard, we could do anything we want to do.” He spoke of the enduring dream of parents for a world in which their children could walk unafraid down a street.

And if he was weeping for one of his children, he did not let it show.

Twitter: @cathleendecker