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Vice President Joe Biden watches an honor guard carry a casket containing the remains of his son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, into St. Anthony of Padua Roman Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware, for funeral services. (Photo: Patrick Semansky/AP)
Joe Biden’s son Beau died on May 30, and a little more than three months later, the vice president acknowledged that he was struggling with the decision on whether to enter the presidential race. To most people — whether or not they have a child, let alone lost one — the idea must seem on par with entering the Tour de France three months after open-heart surgery. If Biden runs, he will spend much of the next year on the phone with potential donors, needing to get past the awkward condolences before moving on to hitting them up for money. If he is nominated, he may face Donald Trump, who has shown a keen instinct for going for the jugular and no reluctance to stick a knife in it.
Having trampled most of the boundaries of comity in political discourse – by, for instance, making fun of his rivals’ looks – could Trump be trusted not to taunt an opponent about the death of a family member? (“I just don’t think he’s up to the job. Maybe it’s because his son died. I don’t know.”) And if Biden wins, he will take on the most demanding job in the world a year and a half after burying his son — at a time when, experience teaches, most ordinary people will barely be climbing out of the paralysis of grief.
But successful politicians aren’t ordinary people; they are driven by ambition and a sense of their own destiny that overrides almost every other sentiment. Not many willingly pass up a run for higher office if they have even a chance to win, and most can convince themselves they do. But Biden was clearly ambivalent in his now-famous interview with Stephen Colbert: “I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president and, number two, they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you, you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion to do this. And I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.” I don’t know Biden and have no insight into his thinking, but I know, both as a journalist and a father, something about what he is going through and some of the things he should be weighing, and that the rest of us should think about if he does run.
Politics is played for keeps, as Biden knows as well as anyone. As a grieving father, Biden is permitted to show his emotions in public, but as a candidate, he can only show strength. Biden’s first run for the Senate coincided with the 1972 presidential campaign, when Sen. Ed Muskie, D-Maine, denouncing a newspaper attack on his wife, was photographed with droplets on his face that might have been tears. Or they might have been, as he claimed, melting snowflakes, but it was too late: The implication of weakness was fatal to his campaign.
From now until the election, if he runs, Biden must perform a delicate balancing act: He has to keep intact his vaunted “authenticity,” the human qualities that voters find so appealing, without becoming known as the candidate of grief. He must not give even the slightest appearance that he is seeking attention or support on the basis of sympathy — and not just because voters would turn away from him. The more insidious danger is to his own conscience; he has to face himself in the mirror and be certain he isn’t using this tragedy as a vehicle for his own ambition.
The poet Mary Jo Bang spent the year after the death of her son limning her grief in poems that were later collected into a slender, haunting volume titled “Elegy.” When the book won a National Book Critics Circle award, her reaction was confusion and discomfort: Was she creating, out of the immense tragedy of her son’s death, a personal triumph? Perhaps that’s a thought more likely to trouble a poet than a professional politician. But Biden, more than most politicians, has a touch of the poet about him.
The loss of a child is a tragedy no one outlives — surely not Biden, who will be 73 in November, but the same would be true if he were four decades younger. The death of his wife and daughter, right after his election to the Senate in 1972, was very much on his mind when he spoke to military family members three years ago, and described how at any moment you can be plunged back into the grief you felt the day you got the phone call, or opened the door to a Marine in dress uniform standing at attention. “For the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide,” he said. “Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts, because they had been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they would never get there again.”
Biden’s career survived that tragedy, and he went on to great success, if not quite the ultimate political prize. But not all do; in “After the Death of a Child,” the writer Ann K. Finkbeiner talks about a successful lawyer who admits that when he returned to work several months after the death of his teenaged son, did “a terrible job” arguing his first case. When she interviewed him, 16 years later, he had not recovered the same level of energy, ambition and concentration.
I resumed work not very long after my son Max died in 2008, at the age of 21, and I don’t believe I was any less productive. What changed was my motivation. The ambition that drove me in my career, as it does most journalists, had fallen away utterly; I wrote because only work could distract me from my grief, because I wanted the comfort of a routine and the companionship of colleagues, and because occasionally I felt I had something to say. But I was, in retrospect, fortunate to avoid a serious crackup. I fought; I broke down sobbing; and I remember saying once to my wife that I wished I could blow up the whole world and be done with it. Luckily, I didn’t have nuclear weapons at my disposal.
Slideshow: Beau Biden: 1969-2015 >>
So should we be worried about Biden’s mental health, as it relates to his role as commander in chief? The campaign, if there is one, will tell us what we need to know on that score, but on balance, I think it can’t hurt to give the power to send other parents’ children into combat to someone who has lost a child himself. Biden, at least, would understand that there are very few things in the world worth having at the cost of so much pain.
Abe Lincoln ran for reelection two years after the death of his son Willie, and you can hear the echoes of his grief in his second inaugural address, arguably the most moving speech in American history. Biden himself, in his commencement speech at Yale this spring, harkened back to the days after the death of his daughter and his first wife: “I can remember my mother — a sweet lady — looking at me, after we left the hospital, and saying, ‘Joey, out of everything terrible that happens to you, something good will come if you look hard enough for it.’” My own experience is that you have to look very hard indeed. But Biden, who knew that his son was gravely ill with cancer at the time — he died 12 days later — passed his own judgment on his mother’s aphorism: “She was right.”
I wonder if he still feels that way. The days to come will tell us.
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, left, and vice presidential candidate Sen. Joe Biden, D-Del., gesture onstage at the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, Colorado. (Photo: Chris Wattie/Reuters)