No place is harder to be a fake than the quarters of FDNY Rescue 1 and that is never more so than on the anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, when this elite and big hearted company lost 11 members.
So, whether he knew it or not, Vice President Joe Biden was facing a test when he visited Rescue 1 on West 43rd Street early Friday afternoon.
Among those present on this day of remembrance was retired Captain Robert Morris, the company’s legendary former commander. Biden learned that the leadership had been assumed by Morris’s son, who is also named Robert.
That clearly resonated with Biden, who is grieving the loss of his son, Beau. Biden spoke to Morris not as vice-president to firefighters, but as one father to another.
“It’s pretty cool when your son winds up better than you,” Biden said.
Biden had used much the same line during Thursday’s taping of the new Stephen Colbert show, saying it was something his own father would say.
Biden seemed to be repeating it not for effect but because his son is so much on his mind. Morris appeared to become choked up, which is not something that could have possibly happened if he had felt Biden was anything but sincere.
Families of those who had died in the 9/11 attacks were there, sitting at tables set up for the observance on the apparatus floor, their loved ones memorialized by plaques affixed to the wall. Biden has lost a wife and a daughter as well as a son and he met with the families as privately as circumstances allowed.
“People don’t know, these anniversaries don’t get any easier,” he was heard to say. “It all comes back.”
He spoke to Lorraine Foley, sister of fallen firefighter Gerard Nevins, in the shared language of loss.
“Took me a long, long, long time,” Biden said.
Biden also spoke to the firefighters. One later noted that he looked them in the eye and seemed actually to listen to what they had to say. They posed for a photo with him.
“Your reputation’s going to take a hit taking a picture with me,” Biden half joked.
One of the firefighters signaled by his reply that Biden had passed the test.
“Yeah, you’re alright,” the firefighter said.
The firefighter was not talking about Biden’s politics, but about Biden himself, not his views, but his worth as a person as it might have been weighed by the brothers memorialized on those plaques. The firefighter afterwards offered a high compliment.
“Genuine,” the firefighter said.
Biden had come with Billy Joel and Gov. Andrew Cuomo. He departed with them, having made a favorable enough impression on the firefighters that he would surely be welcomed back.
Afterwards, one of the firefighters theorized that the very fact Biden had visited the firehouse meant he was seriously contemplating a run for president.
“He’s interested,” the firefighter said.
If Biden does run, his ability to pass an authenticity test even in a place such as the quarters of Rescue 1 could be decisive.
To be genuine would be a great strength at a time when Hillary Clinton seems all the more contrived for trying to be spontaneous and people are responding to Donald Trump no matter what he says simply because he seems to be saying what he really thinks at that moment.
In the past, the knock on Biden has been that he utters whatever pops into his brain. Trump has made this into a big positive and that could make it the same for Biden.
The next time Biden walks into Rescue 1, he could be doing so as our president.
But even if that is so, the firefighters will likely judge him less by his politics than by whether he still looks them in the eye and listens to what they have to say, whether he still lives up to the word that will continue to make him Joe Biden, no matter how an election goes.
Maybe call him Genuine Joe.