In Biden’s memoir, private grief influences a public life

Former vice president weighs son’s death against political ambitions

During the summer of 2013, Joe Biden’s oldest son, Beau, learned he had a glioblastoma, an especially ferocious and pitiless type of brain tumor. Joe Biden told almost no one. His grief did not spill into open view. But eventually, the world came to know. Beau Biden — Iraq War veteran, former attorney general of the state of Delaware — died on May 30, 2015. He was 46.

Most civilians have the luxury, if you could call it that, of mourning privately. Biden did not. He repeatedly said that work was his salvation during that time, which wasn’t hard to believe. But you had to wonder about the nature of his dual existence. Every time he made a public appearance, there was another man entirely, a frightened or broken one, tucked inside the guy we saw on TV.

What’s most remarkable about Biden’s “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose” is that he’s decided to give us full visibility into the agony and strangeness of that period, showing just what it was like to care for his son — and then mourn him — while simultaneously fulfilling his duties as vice president. The book is a backstage drama, honest, raw and rich in detail. People who have lost someone will genuinely take comfort from what he has to say.

But this memoir is also a political book, one in which Biden touts his accomplishments and makes frequent forays into the wetlands of foreign and domestic policy. His position-paper entr’actes can be awkward and artless, much like the author himself. But after a time, you come to understand why he’s mixing in pages of his curriculum vitae with pages about grief: To Biden, the two are intertwined. It’s almost as if he suffers from a kind of political synesthesia. Deciding whether to run for the Democratic nomination in 2016, he writes, “was all tied up with Beau.”

Over Thanksgiving in 2014, Biden explains, Beau made it unambiguously clear that he wanted his father to run for president. This wish was at once selfless and self-protecting: Beau couldn’t bear the thought of his illness derailing his father’s political aspirations. Biden understood this. He went with it. The whole family did. Dreaming of 2016, he writes, sometimes became a kind of performance, a family diversion: “It was as if we were all keeping up an elaborate and needful charade.”

This charade also happened to suit Biden. Entertaining a presidential bid during those dark days gave him meaning, “a way to defy the fates.” And part of him obviously wanted to run.

Biden’s life was full of surreal juxtapositions during Beau’s illness. One minute, he was sitting at his son’s bedside in the hospital; the next, he was in a specially designated room nearby, talking to the prime minister of Iraq. The work focused him, allowing him to contain his feelings. But those feelings would heave to the surface in private.

Soon after he was first elected to the Senate in 1972, Biden’s wife, Neilia, and 13-month-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car accident. He has a great, unwanted body of expertise in coping with loss. “Promise Me, Dad” shows that he’s willing to make use of it. Imparting what he knows about bereavement is part of his legacy now.

He gives his philosophy of the eulogy. He shares tricks he’s learned about how to bear up and survive the earliest days of mourning. When he speaks at funerals and memorials, he writes, he often gives his private phone number to the grieving. “When you’re down and you feel guilty for burdening your family and friends,” he tells them, “pick up the phone and call.” Some do.

It’s to Biden’s credit that you don’t really question these anecdotes. He may be a bit excitable, a bit of a windbag. But anyone who’s ever covered Congress (I did, for a while) can discern on the page what was discernible in real life: the bartender aspect of Biden’s character, the natural convener who reads customers well enough to put them at ease. He’s always understood that the political is personal.

Which leads to the inevitable question: Is “Promise Me, Dad” secretly a campaign book?

The way he repeatedly recounts his accomplishments and expertise certainly suggests he’s thinking about a 2020 run, as does the way he finds multiple excuses to invoke his middle-class bona fides. His advisers, he pointedly tells us, concluded in 2015 that his reputation as a “gaffe machine” was no longer a liability. “Authenticity matters,” one of them wrote.

For Biden, the heart of 2015 contained a paradox. He faced tremendous pressure inside his own home to run for president, for Beau’s sake. But outside his home, the pressure for him to run didn’t reach its peak until after Beau died, the very moment he was least able to handle the strains of a national campaign. Yet that was when many of his former colleagues from the Senate urged him to jump in. That was when George Clooney got in touch and offered to raise money.

And then Hillary Clinton lost — in many of the states where Biden appeared to poll well.

It must have been a powerful formula for regret. Even if, as Barack Obama suspected, Clinton had the nomination sewn up. Obama had discouraged Biden from making the leap from the start.

So Biden ends his book outlining the agenda for the 2016 presidential campaign he never ran. It’s an unrealized story, vibrantly alive on the page but not in the world. Just like Beau. It’s all tied up with Beau.

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