By Mark Horan
In the spring of 1987, while Joe Biden was first running for President, I saw first-hand what would make him the right guy for the job — in 2021.
After giving a speech to a roomful of New Hampshire voters, Biden moved through the crowd effortlessly, shaking every hand, looking every voter in the eye, and connecting — genuinely connecting.
At one point, he came upon a pregnant mother, and his face lit up as he peppered her with questions. Was it her first child? How many months along? Boy or girl?
He moved along to greet other voters and then felt an aide’s tug, pushing him to the door.
He was gone. Until he wasn’t. He spun around, rushed back to the pregnant woman, placed his hand firmly on her arm, told her he was pulling for her and told her again that having a child would be the most incredible experience of her life.
He didn’t have to do it. He had her at hello.
Telling gauzy stories about a politician working a room 34 years ago may seem incongruent or tone deaf right now, given the deadly serious business at hand.
But perhaps it’s just right: Joe Biden genuinely likes people; Donald Trump holds them in contempt. Biden listens and converses; Trump rants and raves. Biden calls for unity; Trump incites the mob. Biden has soul; Trump is endlessly dark.
The Biden traits of empathy and compassion, it turns out, would have come in handy when the outgoing president decided whether to confront the coronavirus or just let it kill 400,000 people. Empathy, too, might help one understand what Black American men experience when pulled over by police, and vow to do something about it. It can help a person grasp the desperation of working class people, without exploiting their fears for political gain. It might give one the ability to deal with congressional egos of all sizes and shapes, from Mitch McConnell to AOC.
Much of what makes Biden, Biden was present in 1987. Other qualities have been borne of struggles now well known.
A wife and a one-year-old daughter killed when he was 29 years old. A life-threatening brain aneurism after that aborted first campaign, at 46 years old. The death of his son, Beau, just five years ago.
His two previous presidential campaigns ending badly. This one, too, endured its share of heartache as he finished fourth in Iowa and fifth in New Hampshire and was all but written off.
His struggles would make Sisyphus blanche. But he endured. Once accused of being brash, cocky, and a little full of malarkey, as he would say, he now seems generous and self-effacing with opponents and friends alike. Last spring, he was the guy on the debate stage shaking hands and patting his opponents on the back, not heading for an immediate exit.
A presidential candidate is no saint, as I’m sure Biden would admit. One has to be extraordinarily ambitious and at times, ruthless. But it doesn’t mean you can’t be human. You can still be the guy who helped a 13-year-old friend conquer his stutter. Or the vice president who gave a speech to the families of fallen veterans in 2012 in which he admitted he contemplated suicide after his wife and daughter were killed, then told them, “There will come a day, I promise you, when the thought of your son or daughter or your husband or wife brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen. My prayer for you is that day will come sooner rather than later.”
It might seem naïve to think that a guy who exudes some basic humanity would make a difference given violence at the Capitol or the partisan rancor that persists. But as Trump has shown us, a narcissistic leader is not only noxious and tedious, but destructive as well. Decency is worth a try.
At the Democratic National Convention last summer, Vivek Murthy, President Obama’s former Surgeon general who is now returning to that job, recounted his own Biden story. At an event at the Capitol several years ago, Dr. Murthy, whose family emigrated to the U.S. in the 1980’s, introduced Biden to his grandmother. Biden kneeled next to her, took her hands, smiled and said, “thank you for choosing us, the United States of America, as the place to trust with your family.”
Imagine that; A president of the United States thanking an immigrant family for choosing America.
Joe Biden has already done more than we could have asked. He rid us of Donald Trump. On January 6th, as the rioters ransacked the Capitol, we learned just how great a debt we owe. Whether his soulfulness will help us save, as he would say, the soul of America, remains to be seen. But it’s pretty clear Joe Biden was born to do this job at this particular moment. You could see it back in 1987.