Joe Biden trotted jauntily onstage Thursday night, flashing a dazzling smile as he raced to shake hands with the brand-new host of CBS’s Late Show With Stephen Colbert.
By all initial outward appearances, he was just another nighttime talk show guest hawking a product—in this case, himself.
Yet the vice president’s close encounter with Colbert turned out to be far more intimate and poignant than viewers normally see in such fastidiously processed situations.
Under Colbert’s insistent prodding concerning the recent death from brain cancer of Biden’s son Beau and whether the veep will decide to run for president, the 72-year-old career politician—never one to hold back under any circumstance—not only seemed to bare his soul, he practically ripped open his chest cavity and pulled out his beating heart to share with his emotionally invested studio audience.
“Joe! Joe! Joe!” they chanted and clapped at various points during the interview. “Be careful what you wish for,” a clearly flattered Biden responded.
Talking about his departed son, a decorated Iraq war veteran as well as Delaware’s state attorney general who was planning a campaign for governor, Biden choked up every so often.
“I was a hell of a success. My son was better than me. He was better than me in every way,” the vice president confided to Colbert, adding that Beau, even as he was ravaged by deadly disease, followed the Biden family maxim: “Never complain and never explain.”
“I never once, my word as a Biden, never ever heard my child complain,” he said.
The vice president recounted how, a few months before Beau died, he sat his father down and said, “Dad, I know how much you love me. Promise me you’re going to be all right.”
Biden added that all this personal disclosure was “a little embarrassing. So many people who have losses as severe or maybe worse than mine and don’t have the support I have.”
In a bit of back and forth that didn’t get on the air, Colbert had to start the interview over again after he realized that Biden’s microphone wasn’t functioning properly.
“I want to thank you for being here for my last show,” Colbert quipped as a technician rushed in to fix the problem. “Almost made it to Friday.”
To which the vice president added: “By the way, they do this to me at the White House all the time. Shut my mic off.”
Albeit a television performance by two very experienced performers, the 20-minute session was also just two Irish Catholic guys with a great deal in common, chatting cozily as though they were sitting together in a neighborhood bar, and not under TV lights at the Ed Sullivan Theater.
Their conversation was not especially journalistic, however, and would never be confused with the crisp interrogations of a typical Washington Sunday show.
It was less a news-making interview with a prominent public official than a display of the sort of easy authenticity that at least one of Biden’s potential rivals—indeed the putative frontrunner in the Democratic race—finds it exceedingly difficult to master.
In a comedy bit before Biden walked on—premised on how different presidential candidates could one-up Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” baseball cap—Colbert showed a photoshopped image of Hillary Clinton wearing a blank white cap. She has a hat that “completely explains her email scandal,” Colbert joked, “but unfortunately she erased it.”
As the interview with Biden got rolling, Colbert, a devout Roman Catholic who has taught Sunday school, prompted the vice president to discuss the role of faith in his life.
Biden said he gets an “enormous sense of solace” from the rituals and beliefs of his religion, although sometimes keeping his faith is a challenge in the face of adversity.
“I go to Mass and I’m able to be just alone, even in a crowd,” Biden told Colbert. “It’s just a place you can go.”
Colbert noted the obvious—that life can be hard.
“My mom had an expression: What’s the use of being Irish if you don’t know your life is going to break your heart,” he told Biden, while Biden—whose first wife and young daughter were killed 43 years ago in an automobile accident that grievously injured his sons Beau and Hunter—pointed out that his interviewer was himself no stranger to devastating tragedy.
When the 51-year-old Colbert was 10—exactly 41 years ago on September 11, two years after the then-30-year-old Biden lost half his family—Colbert’s physician-father and two of his school-age brothers died in a plane crash during an attempted landing in Charlotte, North Carolina.
“I marvel at the ability of people who absorb hurt and just get back up,” Biden said. “You’re one of them, old buddy. Losing your dad when you’re a kid... It’s like asking what made your mother do it every day?”
Colbert chimed in: “She had to take care of me.”
At which the vice president offered a rare moment of levity: “I imagine that would be a hell of a job.”
Colbert, his eyes nearly unblinking as he gazed into the vice president’s with a somber expression, leaned forward behind his fake cherry wood desk, occasionally touching one of Biden’s hands resting on the desk top, and urged his guest to enter the Democratic nomination race.
“I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president, and two, they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion,’” Biden replied.
“And, and, I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there. I’m being completely honest. Nobody has a right in my view to seek that office unless they are willing to give it 110 percent of who they are.”
Colbert ended the interview by urging his guest to run.
“It’s going to be emotional for a lot of people if you don’t run,” he told Biden. “Your example of suffering and service is something that would be sorely missed in the race.”