The sad and entierly premature death of Beau Biden was, unsurprisingly, a time to reflect on a life well lived, as well as a time for all of us to offer our sympathy and spiritual support to the Biden family--and, especially, to Beau's father, the Vice President of the United States. (Except, of course, if you're Ted Cruz.) Equally unsurprisingly, for people my age and older, it was a moment when we all flashed back to the moment that Beau's father first stepped on to the national stage, not only as the new Senator from Delaward, but also as the widowed father of two young sons who had lost both their mother and sister in a tragic accident.
I remember that moment well. It happened in 1972, the year in which I had my first involvement with a political campaign--and discovered that, at least at the presidential level, you can't win them all. It was a tough time for me, a teenage Democrat in a high school surrounded by knee-jerk Republicans (in some cases, I wouldn't even include the word "knee"). Biden's story gave me a reason to stay involved in politics. It served as a reminder that, even when hampered by personal tragedy and the national shellacking of your party, a good person can move forward--and, in the process, give hope to others.
I was, however, somewhat surprised that Beau Biden's death, brought about by brain cancer, was not an opportunity in the press to reflect on the savage irony that Beau's father almost succumbed to the same illness almost thirty years ago. It came at a bad time in Joe Biden's life; his flagging Presidential campaign had been brought down by a bizarre act of rhetorical plagerism in which he "borrowed" from the life of British Labour politician Neil Kinnock. But, ironically, it saved his life. The termination of his presidential campaign gave doctors an opportunity to diagnose and treat the cancer, and thus save his life. Or, as Biden himself bluntly put it in Time magazine: "There is no doubt--the doctors have no doubt--that, had I stayed in the race, I'd be dead,"
What a loss that would have been, as it turned out. The fortitude and candor with which Joe Biden faced his own mortality gave his political career a new lease on life—one that eventually led to his becoming Barack Obama’s Vice President. And, in that capacity, I submit that he has been more consequential than he could ever had been as president. As the first African-American President, Obama needed someone who could help him navigate the corridors of Washington power and otherwise overcome the hatred and suspicion he was bound to face. Biden did it effortlessly, and there’s no greater example of that than his debate with Sarah Palin. Without patronizing her (and she almost begged to be patronized, so that we could feel sorry for her), he used his own life story to connect the proverbial dots between national issues and their impact on individual lives. (I mean, let’s face it: how can you resist a guy whose father called him “Champ”?)
It’s not surprising that such a man would turn himself into an “Amtrak” senator so that he could give as much as he could to his motherless sons in Delaware. And it’s even less surprising that they both turned out as well as they did—as individuals and especially as brothers. If you want to read or hear a eulogy as poignant as it is heartbreaking, take time to listen to or read Hunter Biden’s eulogy for his brother. I’ll say “You’re welcome” for now; you’ll understand after you read it.
We as a nation are lucky to have had the fortitude and character of the Biden family in the service of this country. Say a prayer, send positive energy, think good thoughts, put all of this in writing (to them, and otherwise). But mostly, be grateful that, in what sometimes seems like the twilight of our greatness, there are yet a few profiles in courage left.
Thanks, Joe. And safe travels, Beau. And comfort and love to your family.