He was a wonderfully gifted young man, only 25 years old, a lieutenant in the Marine Corps headed to Afghanistan in the summer of 2012 when he died suddenly of a seizure in Washington, D.C., just days ahead of his departure to our longest war. His funeral Mass was suffocating in its sadness. His loss left a hole in the heart of his family that cannot ever be filled by the passage of time.
A friend mentioned the young Marine’s death to the Vice President of the United States. Joe Biden had met the father several times in the early days of 1988 when Biden was running for president and now in the fading summer of 2012, at the edge of another fierce campaign, a re-election campaign, Biden asked for the father’s phone number.
It was more than a condolence call. The two men spoke for nearly an hour; Biden an expert in loss, in carrying a cargo of sorrow, in dealing with the pain that arrives and never really leaves after a death that scars the soul.
He is, perhaps, the least complicated man in public life. It’s all right there, on display, for anyone and everyone to hear and see, to criticize or applaud. There is no filter, sometimes to his detriment. There is never any pretense. There is never, not ever, any attempt to hide or even disguise an emotion.
He is thoroughly Irish and tribal to his core. He leans on one weapon for defense against the inevitable assaults that come with living a full life, any life: his family.
He is, by nature, a happy guy, an optimistic guy who regards self-pity as an infectious agent to be avoided. He is a true believer in his faith, in his family, in his friends, and in the future.
And today his name is in a swirl of headlines surrounding speculation that maybe, perhaps, who knows, he might run for president after all. According to several people around the vice president, Maureen Dowd’s piece in Sunday’s New York Times was both accurate and descriptive of where he is today as the political world watches Hillary Clinton’s seemingly inevitable yet stumbling march toward the Democrat’s nomination.
However, there is this one thing, this one nagging question that hovers above Hillary Clinton like a crop duster with a full tank of gas. It’s been there for nearly three decades. It’s always there, won’t go away and seems as if it’s never really fully answered and it is this: Who is she? Really, who is she?
Nobody wonders who Joe Biden is.
He is still the guy who was so excited to be picked for the team that he slept in his uniform the night before his first Little League game. He is the guy who sometimes still thinks his mother might shake him awake at dawn, saying “Get up, Joey, or you’ll be late for school,” because part of him cannot believe all the wonders, the magic, that has been contained in his life.
He has never blamed God for a single tragedy. He has hit every morning as if the day ahead was a buffet and, “goddamnit,” he was going to sample every single item on the table. Wasn’t going to waste a second. And you—no matter who you were, no matter what you did for a living or where you came from or when he met you—if you were there with him, well, “goddamnit,” try this and have some of that, too. Why not? We’re all just passing through, aren’t we?
Now they’re talking about Biden and the presidency again. A single story on a summer Sunday and Joe Biden’s name is injected into the vein of a business—national politics—that has most sane people feeling dejected, enraged, and distant from a process that barely moves the needle of their lives.
And where was the vice president? Home. In Wilmington, Delaware, where he goes almost every weekend, away from the capital of no-eye-contact where shapers, frauds, political grifters, and the chronically ambitious always look over the shoulder of who they’re talking with to check and see if a brighter light, a more powerful person, has come into the room.
He was home… with his family. Home, worrying about the financial future of his son’s wife and their children, the survivors. Home, to keep both hands on the shoulders of a family still fractured by loss, still, always, carrying the spirit and the memory of his boy Beau, the future.
He is Irish and tribal with the inevitable streak of black Irish in him, figuring no matter how many great things have happened in his life there’s a dark cloud out there somewhere with his name on it. And it’s been overhead more than once.
He is the vice president of the United States. And only he and that family, that tribe, know, really know, what’s on his mind about one last run for the Oval Office. Does he have the energy? Does he have the desire to put the people he holds closest to him, all of them almost always held in the palm of his hand, through the gauntlet of what would be his final campaign?
But here is what we do know: The guy who wore his Little League uniform to bed that long gone night before his first game in Scranton, that guy who wrote to his injured sons nearly every day as he took the train to Washington each morning after their mother was killed, that man who called the grieving father of a dead Marine… he is the same guy today as he’s always been.
That’s why nobody will ever have to wonder who Joe Biden is.