Joe Biden: Vice president of the nation, but king of the eulogy
WASHINGTON – Say what you will about Vice President Joe Biden – the man can deliver a eulogy. Just ask him.
“I’ve spoken at more eulogies than I’d like to remember,” he said Wednesday at a service for Frank R. Lautenberg, the late Democratic senator from New Jersey and Biden’s former colleague. “I advise you all … Never make a good eulogy. You’ll be asked again and again and again.”
In the past, the role of a vice president has often been dismissed as one limited to casting tie-breaking votes in the Senate and attending funerals of dignitaries and foreign heads of state. Few in the West Wing doubt that Biden has a more prominent role in the administration. But both as vice president and in his time in the Senate, he’s also had his share of speaking roles at funerals.
So notable have Biden’s eulogies become that the cable channel C-SPAN, which broadcasts federal government proceedings, on Wednesday created a Web page dedicated to 16 of the countless number that he’s delivered as senator and vice president.
Biden was actually the penultimate speaker at Lautenberg’s funeral, preceding his widow and following members of the late senator’s family and another prominent Democrat, former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton.
But Biden’s was by all accounts the longest – and the most colorful. An official transcript noted 42 occasions of laughter in the 28 minutes of remarks – the first three coming right away.
“Well, if there’s a definition of redundant, I’m it,” Biden said of his position in the long speaking program.
“By the way, Josh,” he said to the senator’s son, “I’m representing the pope.... Frank used to call me the only Catholic Jew he knew.” Biden was wearing a yarmulke.
Biden, who represented Delaware in the Senate for 36 years, went on to remember a man of “physical courage and moral courage” whom he called “one of my closest friends in the Senate.”
The men had bonds on policy, as fellow Democrats, and personally. But nothing united them more than their commitment to the nation’s passenger rail service, Amtrak.
“If it wasn’t for Frank, Amtrak wouldn’t be what it is today,” said the man who claims to have made 8,000 round trips between Washington and his hometown of Wilmington, Del.
For all that Biden did on his own to support Amtrak – “You know I saved Amtrak three times before he was elected” – Biden joked that he still had to race each night to catch a train; they would never delay it even a minute for him.
One day, as he raced to catch one, Biden recalled, a conductor told him he could relax. “You’re OK. We’re holding it for Lautenberg.”
“He’s the only guy that made me feel like I was junior to him and I’ve been longer here than all of them,” Biden joked.
Among the other 15 eulogies noted on the C-SPAN page are ones he delivered for giants of the Senate like Strom Thurmond, a Democrat-turned-Republican from South Carolina who held the record for service in the body until a West Virginia Democrat, Robert C. Byrd, passed him. Biden delivered a eulogy at Byrd’s funeral too, as he did for Sens. Edward M. Kennedy, Daniel K. Inouye, Claiborne Pell and George McGovern, among others.
(Biden also has delivered haunting and emotional remembrances during other notable services, such as one in April honoring the MIT police officer killed in the aftermath of the Boston marathon bombings.)
Lautenberg’s casket was set to travel by Amtrak from a New Jersey transit station bearing his name to Washington. He will lie in repose in the well of the Senate on Thursday, before burial at Arlington National Cemetery on Friday.
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