What Beau Biden represented in American politics

Vice President Biden's son Beau, who died Saturday, showed that politics can be an honorable profession. He was Delaware's attorney general and served in Iraq. 

Paul Sancya/AP/File
Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who died Saturday, introduces his father, Vice President Joe Biden, at the Democratic National Convention in Denver in 2008.

Let’s put partisanship aside for a moment and remember Beau Biden, the man, and what he represented.

Mr. Biden, the former attorney general of Delaware and son of Vice President Joe Biden, died Saturday, eliciting an outpouring of tributes and sympathy for the Biden family.

But Biden was more than just the beloved son of a prominent public figure. In an age of sky-high cynicism over politicians and political institutions, he exemplified public service at its finest. He was a man willing to serve his state and his country, at times eschewing the more comfortable path.  

When Biden’s father was elected vice president in 2008, the younger Biden could have been appointed to his father’s Senate seat but opted to remain attorney general. He also went ahead with his year of service in Iraq as a judge advocate general for the Delaware National Guard.

In 2010, Biden surprised the political world again by not running for the Senate seat once held by his dad; instead he ran for reelection as state attorney general. Biden was in the thick of a high-profile criminal prosecution – of a Delaware pediatrician accused of sexually assaulting several patients – and said he needed to focus on that.

Political analysts at the time suggested Biden was sitting out the Senate race because it was a tough year for Democrats, and he might have lost. Indeed, we’re not saying that Biden never made political calculations in his career choices – and if he did, there’s no shame in that. Like members of other high-profile political families, three of whom are running for president in 2016, having a famous last name can cut both ways. Beau Biden benefited from being a Biden, but he also seemed keenly aware that that wouldn’t, or shouldn’t, guarantee him anything as he made his own way in politics.

Last year, Biden had announced that he would run for governor of Delaware in 2016, and was strongly favored to win. His political future seemed limitless. He had his dad’s smile, and a telegenic young family. But more important, what emerges in all the tributes, from both sides of the aisle, is a picture of a man of character – a quality that trumps policy positions for many voters.

"Beau had a warm and generous spirit,” writes Rep. John Carney (D) of Delaware. “He was a truly giving person, and he appreciated the good in others in the way we all should. He leaves a legacy of service, and also a great personal legacy that calls on each of us to be more gentle in our judgments and more gracious with our thanks. He was one of the best of the good guys."

“I never heard a disparaging word about him as a person,” wrote former Rep. Mike Castle (R) of Delaware, who was widely expected to face off against Biden in the 2010 Senate race before Biden opted not to run.  

“Beau served his country and the citizens of Delaware with honor and dignity,” wrote Charlie Copeland, chairman of the Delaware Republican Party. “He leaves behind a lasting impact on the world around him.”

The death of Beau Biden also shines a fresh light on his father, with whom he was extraordinarily close, and the tragedy they had shared: the car accident that took the life of Joe Biden’s first wife and baby daughter soon after Biden’s first election to the Senate in 1972. Beau and his brother, Hunter, survived the crash, and their father was sworn in at their hospital bedside. In his 36 years in the Senate, Joe Biden took the train home to Wilmington, Del., every night to be with his family.

Vice President Biden puts up with a fair amount of ribbing – including from President Obama – for his exuberant style and occasional gaffes, but regardless of one’s political views, there’s no denying that Biden, too, brings strength of character to his public service. The outpouring of support for the vice president since Beau’s passing is a testament to the public regard not only for the son but also for the father. 

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