WASHINGTON (MEDIA GENERAL) — Joe Biden is such an icon in his small state of Delaware that for one of his six campaigns he printed bumper stickers that simply said “Joe.” Nothing more. They didn’t even refer to the Senate. They didn’t need to. He won in a landslide.
Yet, don’t think Biden has waltzed though life or was born on third base. Hard from it. The outgoing vice president has lived a life filled with unimaginable pain. His first wife and 1-year-old daughter Naomi died in 1972 after Christmas shopping in Hockessin, Delaware. A tractor trailer plowed into the family car. His sons, Beau and Hunter, survived the crash.
Weeks before, Biden won an upset victory in what was thought a sacrificial lamb Senate campaign against a Republican stalwart
In the pain of the accident, Biden considered not taking his seat. Family members urged him to reconsider and Biden took the oath of office at the bedside of his recovering sons.
It was family again that shaped Biden’s outlook when he declined to run for president in 2016 because the potential run came far too soon for him and his family after the cancer death of son Beau. Beau himself was expected to run in 2016 for Delaware governor.
There is no doubt Biden wears his heart on his sleeve. That could be seen Thursday when tears streamed down his face as President Obama presented him with the Presidential Medal of Freedom with Distinction. The whole thing was a surprise in DC where there are almost no surprises because the town leaks like a sieve.
When Biden realized what was happening, he turned his back to the room, afraid to show the intense emotion he felt. When he turned back around, you could see the pride beaming on his face as the president placed the medal around his neck.
In a week, Biden will be a private citizen without a political office for the first time in more than 40 years.
As a young reporter, I covered the senior Biden as a radio reporter for Wilmington, Delaware’s top news station. I remember Biden as gregarious and likeable. Particularly with men he turned a first name into something more informal. Tom became Tommy. Jim became Jimmy. This wasn’t a politician faking likeability to get favorable headlines. He actually liked people. Even reporters.
I remember he gave it to me sometimes. I gave it right back in healthy exchanges at press conferences he held in Wilmington when the Senate wasn’t in session. Yet, it was never nasty or personal. It was spirited and hearty recalling one time when he phoned into our station and I put him on the air and it was fireworks over his beloved anti-crime legislation. And then Biden disarmed the whole thing by referring to me as “Jimmy.” A name I didn’t like but it elicited a laugh.
I was 22 years old. I thought I knew everything. I didn’t and Biden had patience when it was apparent I didn’t know as much as I thought I did. I didn’t deserve the kindness but he offered it anyhow.
Don’t take this as a valentine to Biden. There’s no doubt he has his faults. He can speak too long and say too much. He failed twice running for president in campaigns that flamed out quickly including a 1988 campaign where he was accused of lifting parts of a speech from a British labour leader to use as his own. Biden never took off as a presidential candidate. All the warmness and deep connection I witnessed in Delaware didn’t play in the corn fields of Iowa or the town halls of New Hampshire.
Republicans love to make jokes of Biden that he is the goofy “Uncle Joe.” A man who stood behind President Obama at a major address and whispered in the president’s ear that what was happening was a big deal. Biden added a word that rhymes with duck. It was the symbol of Biden to the GOP. The type of man they caricatured as someone you’d have to explain away at family parties. No matter that Biden had ruled the Senate Foreign relations committee which is no small feat. In today’s hyper-charged environment every politician is viewed as if they’ve been put in front of a fun house mirror.
Democrats, in particular African Americans, love Biden. They view him as a man who stood by the first African American president and had his back. And to them President Obama needed a strong political partner when the GOP road blocked the president. And that political partnership turned into a genuine friendship that we saw on display Thursday when the president presented Biden with the Medal of Freedom.
Biden’s loquaciousness may come from the fact as a high school student in Latin class he got tagged with the nickname Joe Impedimenta. He once stuttered. The nuns tried to break him of it by encouraging a cadence in Biden’s speech, having him read Yeats and Emerson into a mirror.
“Time and time again, my parents taught me that being different is no barrier to success,” Biden said. “And the measure of a man isn’t how often he is knocked down but how quickly he gets up.”
The Japanese proverb says “fall down seven get up eight.”
The death of a wife and two children is enough to ruin a man.
For Biden, it’s part of what shaped him and what drove him to always get back up.