These days, heart and politics seem to be anathema to one another. That is the American political reality. While we like to think that our elected officials seek office for the greater good and sacrifice their personal lives in order to serve, more of us know that the truth is that in these cynical times, far too many of our politicians are self-serving. Or, as I like to say, too many of them pledge their allegiance to their parties rather than to their constituents’ needs.
To a generation of Americans the naïve and sentimental Jefferson Smith, the dedicated politician so brilliantly portrayed by that regular guy actor Jimmy Stewart in the film Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, might appear to be a bit of a buffoon. In today’s times, does any politician really give a hoot about anything? Is there even one honest politician out there in the sea of many deceitful ones? I suppose it would be fair to say that they each have their moments, but the moments seem few and far between. If you can’t tell, I’ve been feeling down in the dumps about our country’s politics of late and have been close to losing all hope in our tarnished system.
But just when my cynicism reached full-bore, along came a moment in political history that deserves a shout-out and restores my hope that there is still some heart left in our politicians. In the case of Vice President Joe Biden there is a heart so big the Great and Powerful Wizard of Oz would be proud. We Americans should be, too.
Vice President Biden has served his role as Vice President of the United States admirably. There are some who say that it is a vice president’s job to play the role of America’s buffoon. There’s a long history of vice presidential fall guys, with the poster child for the silliest veep, being, of course, Dan Quayle. Biden has given us some rare performances himself, and taken a few on the chin for his President, Barack Obama. As is our nation’s history, the opposition has played Biden with finesse. Any gaff, however small used to torture the president and vice president with glee.
But here’s the deal: Joe Biden ain’t like other vice presidents. Dumb like Quayle, he is not. Surreptitious like Aaron Burr, he is not. A crook like Spiro Agnew, he is not.
What Vice President Joe Biden is a mensch. For those of you who don’t understand Yiddish, a mensch is a person of integrity and honor. Biden honored us, last Friday, when addressing a group associated with the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors, a national nonprofit that supports friends and family of service members killed in action. Biden delivered what some might call the speech of our lifetime, an emotional retelling of his own family tragedy, the death of his wife and daughter in a car crash 40 years ago, saying the experience helped him understand why people commit suicide.
Biden described the shock and sting of the deaths in 1972, shortly after he was first elected to the Senate, as a “black hole you feel in your chest, like you’re being sucked back into it.”
“It was the first time in my career, my life, I realized someone could go out – and I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here, but – no, but it’s more important. You’re more important. For the first time in my life I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide,” Biden said. “Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts; because they’d been to the top of the mountain and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again, that it was never going to be that way ever again. That’s how an awful lot of you feel.”
The vice president has previously spoken about his personal tragedy, although he rarely describes the emotional aftermath in such gut-wrenching detail. Biden recounted how he heard the news while in Washington.
“I was down in Washington hiring my staff, and I got a phone call saying that my family had been in an accident. And just like you guys know by the tone of a phone call – you just knew, didn’t you? You knew when they walked up the path. You knew when the call came. You knew. You just felt it in your bones something bad happened,” Biden said.
“And I knew. I don’t know how I knew. But the call said my wife was dead, my daughter was dead, and I wasn’t sure how my sons were going to make it. They were Christmas shopping, and a tractor trailer broadsided them and in one instant killed two of them and – well.”
Biden, an ardent Catholic, said he was so angry he cried out in the Capitol. “I remember being in the Rotunda, walking through to get to the plane to get home, to get to identify the – anyway. But I remember looking up and saying, ’God!’ It was if I was talking to God myself: ’You can’t be good! How can you be good?’”
Biden said he credits his return from his grief to the help of his mother, his sister and, eventually, his second wife, Jill Biden, whom he married five years later. “This woman literally saved my life,” he said.
“There will come a day, I promise you, and your parents as well, 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,” he said. “My prayer for you is that day will come sooner or later. But the only thing I have more experience than you in is this: I’m telling you it will come.”
And so, out of tragedy comes something good: a vice president with heart, just when America needed a lot of heart.