The Real Joe Biden

When so many politicians want to appear “authentic,” the vice president offers something rare: the power of personal example.

The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Stephen Colbert talks with Vice President Joe Biden on The Late Show With Stephen Colbert on Sept 10, 2015.

Courtesy of Jeffrey R. Staab/CBS

As the father of a son, I found it hard to watch Vice President Joe Biden talk about his son with Stephen Colbert. Biden talked about whether he’s emotionally ready to commit to a campaign after losing his son Beau in May. He told the story of the unexpected grief that ambushed him recently while in Denver: “I landed at a military base and I met a whole group of military families. … And I was talking about them being the backbone and sinew of this country. And all of a sudden—it’s going great—and a guy in the back yells, ‘Maj. Beau Biden, bronze star, sir, served with him in Iraq.’ And all of a sudden I lost it.” I understand why. 

This summer we’ve been talking about authenticity in American politics. According to polls, Donald Trump has it. Sen. Bernie Sanders has it. Hillary Clinton’s advisers tell the New York Times she is going to try to show it. Political authenticity isn’t real authenticity; it’s the synthetic public version that approximates the real thing. We know this because when candidates like Mitt Romney and Al Gore are authentically bad at engaging in the showmanship of politics, they are penalized for it.

Politicians sometimes show us actual authenticity—anger, fear, uncertainty, weakness—and it is usually a political liability. But this other authenticity offers the power of personal example—people can actually use what they see in another person to sustain them in their own lives. 

Biden is operating in both fields right now, offering an ongoing emotional reaction to the loss of his son while publicly thinking about whether he’ll launch a presidential race. Whether the example of grace and endurance and faith that Biden shows contributes to his viability as a candidate is up to voters to decide. But as an example of how to live a life—both before and after the moments of acute grief—it’s powerful.

As George W. Bush’s former speechwriter Michael Gerson wrote, Biden may be the last human being in politics. His avocation as a politician has often been to tell military families who have lost loved ones in battle that it’s possible to emerge from the other side of grief. Biden was a witness to this after he lost his wife and daughter in a car accident. Now Biden is back with those grieving families again. This time he isn’t a prophet from the other side, but walking with them in fresh mourning. 

After the rallying point of a funeral, there’s a period when the neighbors stop bringing the dishes of lasagna and you’re left alone with the loss. You pick up the phone to make a call to a person who isn’t there anymore. It’s bleak. You don’t even have the busywork of the to-do list of mourning to distract you. That’s the stage we’re all watching with Biden and his family, and he’s inviting us in to watch because that’s the messy way of Joe Biden. Politicians sometimes say, “Let me show you what’s in my heart.” The fact that they must preface the remark means they’re not really going to. Biden is putting his heart in our laps. 

Biden could turn it all off and say he’s not running, but when your life and your son’s life have been so dedicated to public service and that service has sustained you through brutal loss, what holds you back is also what compels you. When I talk to people who know the vice president well, they describe how Beau’s request that his father run for president also eggs him on. “You know your success when you turn and look at your child and realize they turned out better than you,” Joe Biden said, quoting his father. “I was a hell of a success: My son was better than me in almost every way.” The feedback loop of parenting is powerful. You want to be worthy of a person you think is so great. After he’s gone I can imagine you wouldn’t want to let him down. 

Our children remind us parents of our best selves. We sustain them and lift them up and they do the same for us. Biden has an acute form of this. As he discussed with Colbert, Beau helped raise Biden after he lost his wife and daughter, and he was doing that until the end. “ ‘Dad, I know how much you love me,’ ” Biden recounted Beau telling him near the end of his life. “ ‘You’ve got to promise me something. Promise me you’re going to be alright.’ He said, ‘No matter what happens dad, I’m going to be all right. Promise me.’ ” 

At times the interview felt like it was just Colbert and Biden, and this was one of those moments. Colbert talked about playing that role for his mother after his father and two of his brothers died in a plane crash. And yet, of course, Beau was also sustained by his father. Beau Biden’s friends talk about him and his brother Hunter as products of what happens when you put a child in proximity of the values that people admire in Joe Biden. 

Colbert didn’t start his interview by asking the vice president if he was going to run. He didn’t get there for a while. He asked about faith, example, parenting, loss, and making something beautiful out of suffering. (This tells us something about the deep currents of Stephen Colbert, too.) All of that will exist whether Biden runs for president or not, and it exists for all the parents who still have a chance to create something as powerful as Biden had with his son Beau and that he still has with his family. That doesn’t have anything to do with politics. Perhaps that’s why it feels so real.