Joe Biden’s father led the high life as a young man: yachts, fast cars, polo. But his fortunes ran out, thanks to a few bad business deals.
Eventually, he got a job managing a used car dealership. But at the office Christmas party, the owner decided to issue bonuses by taking a bucket of silver dollars and strewing them across the dance floor, forcing the employees to scramble about on their knees picking up the loot.
Joe Biden Sr. and his wife got up instantly and walked out of that job. Desperate as he was, he could not work for someone who didn’t respect people’s dignity. This is the first fact about Joe Biden Jr.: He came from a principled family, and he and his wife have nurtured a principled family. Covering his past presidential campaigns was like covering a rolling Biden family reunion.
There were sometimes more Bidens at the rallies than voters.
One of the hallmarks of the Biden family is emotional transparency — you know what they’re feeling. But another is this: We treat everyone the same. Joe Biden has spent nearly his entire adult life in the Senate or as vice president, but no one could fairly accuse him of being haughty or elitist. People still have the instinct to call him Joe. Average Joe.
Other people may claim to be populist in their policies — and because they are “right” on those, they are allowed to be contemptuous toward those who are less enlightened. Biden is a populist in his person and makeup — where he comes from and how he relates.
He wasn’t raised in the Adlai Stevenson stream of Democratic history, which identifies itself by education. He was raised in the Harry Truman stream, which identifies itself by middle-class decency, personal loyalty and practical sense.
How has he kept this average Joe, Everyman status? Well, he has a strong need to connect with people — everybody, regardless of social rank.
Sometimes his hunger for connection over-spills its bounds. In 1974 he gave an interview to Kitty Kelley of Washingtonian magazine that was jaw-dropping in its candor — all sorts of inappropriate talk about his late wife’s figure, his salary, his own ambition, a woman he might start dating. Life and the vice presidency have disciplined him, but he still has this bonding instinct.
He is also an Everyman because of suffering — that great equalizer. He lost his first wife and daughter to a traffic accident just before he was sworn in to the Senate.
“I could remember vividly,” he later wrote, “after my wife Neilia died, not being able to open the closet door of the bedroom we shared. I could recall the anguish of smelling her scent on the pillows and looking at the empty spot on the bathroom sink where her toothbrush had been.”
Decades later he lost his son Beau to cancer. To read Biden’s book on that period of time, “Promise Me, Dad,” is to be sucked into a tragedy. We suffer our way to wisdom, and Biden has suffered his way to a sensitivity to other people’s pain, an awareness of how it feels and what to say into it.
One day in 2014, when he was VP, he represented the administration at the funeral for Rafael Ramos, a New York cop who had been executed along with his partner just for being a cop. It was a tense situation. Police brutality was at the forefront of national politics, and Biden had to celebrate those who serve and sometimes give their lives protecting us.
He broke through the ideological “positions” by adopting a personalistic lens. Emphasizing the plight of the particular individuals involved.
In Brooklyn he visited the family of Ramos’ partner, Wenjian Liu. He sat with Liu’s widow, Sanny, and passed along advice he’d been given: Before you go to bed, grade each day emotionally on a 1-to-10 scale. After six months graph the scores. You’ll see the 1 days will get a little less frequent and the better days more common. Someday there will be a day when you remember your beloved with a smile and not a tear.
He gave Sanny his private number. During the visit, Liu’s father, who spoke little English, just hovered at Biden’s side, clinging to him and saying, “Thank you, thank you.”
The character issue will play out in all sorts of subterranean and powerful ways this election. We have lost our love for ourselves as a people, a faith in our basic goodness, and this loss of faith has been a shock. A lot of voters want to raise their children in an atmosphere marked by decency and compassion, not narcissistic savagery. Values are central to this race.
Here is what is subtly different about Biden. He’s not an individualist. He is a member. He belongs to his family; his hometown, Scranton, Pennsylvania; his Democratic Party; his Senate; his nation, and is inexplicable without those roots. He used the word “we” 16 times in his short video announcing his candidacy.
Some candidates will run promising transformational change. Biden offers a restoration of the values that bind us as a collective.