Under normal circumstances, a politician being grilled by fifth-graders is hackneyed political theater. But when the politician is Joe Biden, there is a certain affinity between the two parties—both are highly rambunctious and, to hear it from their minders, do not excel at self-censorship.
When the vice president paid a visit Sunday to Bellevue Elementary School in Syracuse, one inquisitive young mind wanted to know something Biden himself might have been wondering. "What do I do for a living? What I do for a living," Biden flashed a grin. "That's a good question. I used to be a lawyer, going to courtrooms lots of times. What I do now is I try to help out the country—with the president—and try to make sure we can end the wars that are going on, and make sure all of you kids get the best education... I do a lot of things. I want the press to know," he chuckled, “what do I do for a living."
“[I]t never crossed my mind, being vice president,” Biden told a group of fifth-graders. “It's a new experience for me. I didn't think about the vice presidency, honey, till almost, about 100 days ago!"
During his commencement address at Syracuse University an hour earlier, Biden had extolled the value of new experiences. "There is a much greater risk in accepting a situation we know we cannot sustain,” he said, reading from a teleprompter, “than in steeling our spine and embracing the challenge of change.”
Before his younger audience, Biden acknowledged he was still adjusting to the vice presidency—a position that had not exactly been his dream job. "I thought I wanted to be a really good athlete. I even thought that when I was in law school," he said. "I tried to be president a couple times. But it never crossed my mind, being vice president. It's a new experience for me." You could almost hear his handlers' sweat dripping. "I didn't think about the vice presidency, honey, till almost, about 100 days ago!"
He acknowledged that the president—whose name the kids proudly shouted when asked—was a "really a cool guy... really a smart guy." At times, though, Biden seemed determined to prove to the kids that he was pretty awesome, too. "The president thinks my house is nicer than his," he said of his digs at the U.S. Naval Observatory. "No, for real he does. It's 75 acres in the middle of Washington."
Next, one student asked if he had ever pet a dog. Biden compared his dog, a German shepherd named Champ, to Bo, the Obamas’ Portuguese water dog, a gift from Ted Kennedy.
"My dog is smarter than his dog,” he boasted. "But," he added, in a true political concession, "Bo's a beautiful dog."
Biden pointed out that he and the president “hang out a lot.” They travel together, and sometimes they get burgers together. No, he said in response to another query from the gallery, the vice president had not yet challenged the president to a game of basketball. "I haven't had a chance to play with President Obama yet. I'm not bad, but he's probably better."
When another boy wondered if Biden had ever slept on his airplane, the vice president spotted another opportunity to impress. "Guess what? I got a pretty cool plane," he enthused. Air Force Two "is not quite as big [as Air Force One], but it does have a place at the front of the plane where I go on really long journeys—like when I go to Afghanistan, or I recently went to Chile, in South America, or when I go to Germany—there's a cabin in the front with a couch, and the couch can roll out into a bed."
Biden was there to connect with the kids, which he drove home often as he stooped down amid his cross-legged audience, in a scene that mixed Middle American folksiness with the kid wisdom of Art Linkletter and Fred Rogers.
"Nobody in my neighborhood had any money,” he recalled of his own childhood in Pennsylvania and Delaware. “We didn't have any money. My dad lost his job. Don't think because you don't have money, or don't have a daddy around, or you may not be in a position where anyone around you has nice things, that there's nothing you can't do. That's what I came to tell you."
Biden also recalled his successful struggle against stuttering—and even imitated his old stutter for good measure. "I used to t-t-t-alk like-ke-ke that," he said. "I learned to be a fighter."
Biden mentioned the hardships that he and President Obama had faced growing up, as a way of connecting to the school's pupils, many of whom come from low-income families. But for the most part, the kids had other pressing concerns: If the White House were painted red and black, would it be known as the Red and Black House? ("The answer is yeah. Yeah, it would.")
To the school, Biden's "average Joe" style took on an inspirational meaning. "He's a local boy, even though he wasn't born or raised here, but in their little minds they'll think, If he can be vice president, maybe I can aspire to be something," said Pat Cowen Wojenski, a community assistant and mentor at Bellevue. "They don't have to be vice president, but just to motivate them to want to try harder and look for something better for themselves."
One fifth-grader, Yanira Johnson, who wandered the room interviewing adults with a videocamera for a class project before Biden arrived, had a specific interest in knowing more about the executive. “I wanted to ask him about his job, because I want to be president when I'm older, and I need some tips from him,” she said. “When I first heard the president's coming—I mean, the vice president—I was so excited.”
The location, Bellevue Elementary, wasn't accidental. Biden's first wife, Neilia, taught at a predecessor of the school, Bellevue Heights School, and for two years the newlyweds lived in the neighborhood. While she taught, Biden studied at Syracuse Law School from 1966 to 1968.
Thus, Biden's stop was steeped in nostalgia, and he began by reminiscing about his former wife. "I used to hang out at this school... because I was in love with the most beautiful teacher I ever knew," he told the students.
The family moved back to Biden's home state of Delaware after he graduated in 1968. In 1972, Neilia Biden and Naomi, their infant daughter, died when a truck smashed into their car, shortly after Biden was elected to his first term in the U.S. Senate. His two sons, Beau and Hunter, were seriously injured in the accident, but survived.
Mrs. Wojenski, the mentor, had Neilia Biden as a homeroom teacher, and remembered her as “very soft-spoken, very gentle, very beautiful.” She had met Biden only a couple of times, but said he had often been away studying. (Biden, who received relatively low grades as an undergraduate at the University of Delaware and at Syracuse, was accused of plagiarism in his first year at the law school, an act that he blamed on poor knowledge of citation.)
After the school visit, Biden planned on a drive up his old street, Stinard Avenue, to the duplex apartment where he and Neilia lived. But as a small crowd chanted his name, the vice president walked instead, lingering to chat and take photos with neighbors, and giving the Secret Service pause. “It's nice to be back,” Biden said to someone.
Even if big issues were on the minds of parents and teachers (“we have a lot of poverty within our school,” Wojenski explained) the kids weren't coached to ask about the recession or, say, Biden's upcoming visit to the Balkans. “We wanted them to be natural,” Wojenski said before the vice president arrived. “We're actually kind of nervous about the questions. But you know, he'll pardon their questions and their answers because he's used to it. He knows he says the wrong things sometimes, too!”
Alex Pasternack is a freelance journalist specializing in politics, culture and the environment. He has written for Time, The Guardian, Christian Science Monitor, Far Eastern Economic Review, Paper, The New York Observer, Huffington Post and TreeHugger.com, among others, and can be found at alexpasternack.com.