Joe Biden’s political career hasn’t always run smooth. He has run for president twice (1988 and 2008) and in their wisdom American voters both times were quite clear that he was not their choice for the office.
His personal life has been marred by tragedy. His first wife and a young daughter were killed in an automobile accident shortly after his election to the Senate in 1972. His elder son Beau died of cancer in 2015.
But he remains living proof that loss and misfortune are not inevitable sculptors of any person’s life. Garrulous, empathetic, open-minded, and sneaky sharp, Mr. Biden has long been the rare Washington insider with genuine friends of all political persuasions. As vice president, he has been invaluable to President Obama as a sounding board, emissary, and guide to Capitol Hill’s inscrutable ways.
On Thursday, Mr. Obama surprised Biden with a presentation of the Medal of Freedom, the nation’s highest civilian honor. The award came “with distinction,” an added rank recent presidents have used only for Pope John Paul II, former President Ronald Reagan, and Gen. Colin Powell.
Before hanging the heavy decoration around Biden’s neck, Obama called him the “best vice president America’s ever seen” and a “lion of American history.”
But something else Obama said – quoting Republican Sen. Lindsey Graham – hinted at the key to his second-in-command’s success: “If you can’t admire Biden as a person, you’ve got a problem. He’s as good a man as God ever created.”
In today’s politics, partisanship rules. And it’s a new kind of partisanship, one in which both sides see the other, increasingly, as not just wrong, but personally bad. Whether someone is a Democrat or Republican fuels negative or positive judgments about personality. It’s becoming a kind of unthinking prejudice.
Joe Biden has long seemed the opposite of this. He meets opponents and supporters alike as people first, members of families with real lives. In his heartfelt acceptance – characteristically, he was unable to keep from tearing up – Biden talked about the members of his own family, and then he talked about the members of Obama’s family. He compared their respective mothers. He described the time when his sons Beau and Hunter stopped him – as vice president – from leaping off a bridge in a national park into a river.
“They said, ‘The Secret Service doesn’t want you up there, Dad!’ ” Biden remembered.
In an election year when so much focus has been on working class voters, Biden is one of the few politicians who could genuinely call himself one of them – a son of Scranton, Pa., whose son served in the military with distinction. His common touch was sometimes mocked but always appreciated.
The Onion, a satirical newspaper, printed lampoon articles about a bare-chested “Uncle Joe” washing his Trans-Am in the White House driveway. A 2013 petition on the White House website called for Biden to have his own reality TV show on C-SPAN, arguing: “Vice President Joe Biden has a demonstrated ability to bring people together, whether at the negotiating table or at the neighborhood diner.”
In December, the Senate held something of a going-away session for Biden, a longtime member of the chamber and, as vice president, its presiding officer. One senator in particular gave a moving tribute to Biden and his ability to rise above the terrible personal losses of his life.
“The presiding officer will be the first to tell you he’d been blessed in many ways,” said the senator. “He’s also been tested, knocked down, pushed to the edge of what anyone could be expected to bear. But from the grip of unknowable despair came a new man, a better man, stronger and more compassionate, grateful for every moment, appreciative of what really matters.”
The lawmaker who spoke those words was majority leader Mitch McConnell, Republican, of Kentucky.
Washington will miss Joe Biden. Literally. On the positive side, it probably will not be long before the Onion produces a satirical story about Biden pawning the Medal of Freedom to pay for parts for his Trans-Am.