In grief, Bi­den shines as pa­tri­arch

Mourn­ing for Beau Bi­den un­der­scores the vice pres­i­dent’s em­pha­sis on fam­ily.

Los Angeles Times - - THE NATION - By Michael A. Me­moli michael.me­moli@la­times.com

DOVER, Del. — Vice Pres­i­dent Joe Bi­den stood silently be­side his fam­ily, hud­dled in grief as Delaware’s elected of­fi­cials of­fered words of trib­ute to the mem­ory of his son Beau, who will be buried Satur­day af­ter dy­ing of can­cer at the age of 46.

At times, the vice pres­i­dent rested his head in his hand or looked to­ward the ceil­ing to com­pose him­self.

Af­ter Thurs­day’s ser­vice, as hun­dreds of peo­ple familiar and less so filed by to pay their re­spects, the fa­mously ge­nial politi­cian re­turned to form, hug­ging those who of­fered con­do­lences, re­mem­ber­ing faces, at times seem­ing to be the one con­sol­ing those who lined up out­side the Delaware State­house to pass by the cas­ket.

Over nearly four hours, Bi­den never took a break. He might have stayed longer but for an­other com­mit­ment: The vice pres­i­dent flew back to Wash­ing­ton with his younger son, Hunter, ar­riv­ing in time to at­tend the mid­dle school grad­u­a­tion of Hunter’s youngest daugh­ter, Maisy.

Many politi­cians wrap them­selves in the im­age of a lov­ing fam­ily. Few ac­tu­ally live the role to the ex­tent that Bi­den has done through­out his po­lit­i­cal ca­reer, ac­cord­ing to po­lit­i­cal ad­ver­saries as well as al­lies. For years, he has been the pa­tri­arch of a sprawl­ing fam­ily, one touched of­ten by tragedy.

On elec­tion day in 2008, as he f lew to Chicago to join then-Sen. Barack Obama to watch the re­turns, Bi­den told a re­porter that his grand­daugh­ter Fin­negan, Hunter’s old­est daugh­ter, had been the per­son who “pushed the hard­est” for him to ac­cept when Obama of­fered him the No. 2 spot on the Demo­cratic ticket.

Bi­den re­counted the pitch she had made — first that “Obama needs you,” but then a more per­sonal one: The vice pres­i­dent’s of­fi­cial res­i­dence was a mile and a half from her house.

For years, he said, fam­ily life had been cen­tered on his home in Wilm­ing­ton, Del., which was de­signed to be large enough for the ex­tended fam­ily to all stay overnight around birthdays and hol­i­days.

A move to Wash­ing­ton and the vice pres­i­dent’s man­sion would not dis­rupt those rou­tines, he said then. “In a sense, it’s maybe a lit­tle eas­ier if we were to win,” he said, with­out those al­most daily Am­trak rides.

It has proved to be so. Bi­den hosts regular sleep­overs for his grand­chil­dren at the res­i­dence and at­tends fam­ily sport­ing events and school pro­grams. When plan­ning for­eign trips, he has of­ten ar­ranged to take grand­chil­dren along, mak­ing sure they have an itin­er­ary sep­a­rate from his own so he can pep­per them with ques­tions on the way home.

“He would pick up things about the coun­try from their ex­pe­ri­ences,” said Tony Blinken, a long­time Bi­den for­eign pol­icy ad­vi­sor who now is deputy sec­re­tary of State. “It was, in a funny way, mul­ti­ply­ing his own pres­ence and abil­ity to ab­sorb things be­cause they would have a dif­fer­ent kind of ex­pe­ri­ence and they would re­late it to him.”

“You would see both the gov­ern­ment of­fi­cials we were vis­it­ing, but also the lo­cal me­dia and ev­ery­one we met com­ment on it,” Blinken said.

On Bi­den’s first trip to China as vice pres­i­dent in 2011, Hunter’s mid­dle daugh­ter, Naomi, joined him for many of the stops.

“It would be more ap­pro­pri­ate to say Naomi brought me along with her, since she’s a bud­ding Chi­nese speaker,” he said in the trip’s key­note speech in Chengdu. “I’ve been lis­ten­ing to her on the whole trip.”

Those trips were a con­tin­u­a­tion of what Bi­den had done in the Se­nate as a mem­ber and chair­man of the For­eign Re­la­tions Com­mit­tee, when he took his boys with him on sep­a­rate trips to Europe as teenagers.

Demo­cratic Sen. Thomas R. Carper, a for­mer Delaware con­gress­man and gover­nor, re­called see­ing Bi­den kiss his younger chil­dren good­bye many days at the Am­trak sta­tion in Wilm­ing­ton.

“I can’t tell you how many times I saw him bring­ing a grand­daugh­ter or grand­son with him on the train to Wash­ing­ton to spend a day with them, so they could be with him, give them some spe­cial time,” he said.

Bi­den nearly quit the Se­nate be­fore he joined it. Shortly af­ter his elec­tion in 1972, an ac­ci­dent claimed the lives of his wife and in­fant daugh­ter and se­ri­ously in­jured his two sons. The cri­sis would for­ever change the per­spec­tive of the am­bi­tious young politi­cian.

Delaware could get a new se­na­tor, but his boys couldn’t get a new fa­ther, he told friends and col­leagues as he de­bated whether he should take the oath of of­fice. Democrats in­clud­ing Sen. Ed­ward M. Kennedy of Mas­sachusetts and Ma­jor­ity Leader Mike Mans­field of Mon­tana con­vinced him to take of­fice, and he be­gan the daily Am­trak trips be­tween Delaware and Wash­ing­ton that came to shape his po­lit­i­cal per­sona.

By the time he was tapped for the vice pres­i­dency, his fam­ily had ex­panded — a new wife and daugh­ter, and later a new son-in-law, daugh­ters-in-law and five grand­chil­dren.

“Be­cause I had the in­cred­i­bly good for­tune of an ex­tended fam­ily grounded in love and loy­alty, im­bued with a sense of obli­ga­tion im­parted to each of us, I not only got help, but by fo­cus­ing on my sons, I found my re­demp­tion,” Bi­den re­cently told Yale stu­dents and fam­i­lies in a speech be­fore the uni­ver­sity’s grad­u­a­tion. “The in­cred­i­ble bond I have with my chil­dren is a gift I’m not sure I would have had had I not been through what I went through.”

The heart­break many close to Bi­den feel over the lat­est tragedy is am­pli­fied by the fact that Beau was poised to in­herit his fa­ther’s sta­tus in the fam­ily. It was Beau who in­tro­duced his fa­ther be­fore his 2008 Demo­cratic con­ven­tion speech and put for­ward his name for nom­i­na­tion at the 2012 con­ven­tion for a sec­ond term.

“In mo­ments both public and pri­vate, he’s the fa­ther I’ve al­ways known, the grand­fa­ther my chil­dren love and adore, and the vice pres­i­dent our na­tion needs,” Beau Bi­den said of his fa­ther in that speech.

The first call Bi­den would make at the end of each day, one aide said, was to Beau. And he still re­turned reg­u­larly to his Wilm­ing­ton home, where Beau’s fam­ily had tem­po­rar­ily moved while their own home was be­ing ren­o­vated.

That elec­tion day f light to Chicago in 2008 had dozens of Bi­dens on board, ev­ery­one but Beau, who was sta­tioned in Iraq while serv­ing in the Na­tional Guard.

Joe and Beau had spo­ken by phone that morn­ing, with Beau telling his fa­ther he re­ceived per­mis­sion to re­turn home to be with the fam­ily that night, but de­cided against it: He didn’t think it was right to leave his unit.

“This kid is a dif­fer­ent brand of kid,” Bi­den said.

Wil­liam Bretzger Wilm­ing ton (Del.) News-Jour­nal

VICE PRES­I­DENT Joe Bi­den greets mourn­ers at the view­ing for Beau Bi­den, who was poised to in­herit his fa­ther’s sta­tus in the fam­ily.

Paul Sancya As­so­ci­ated Press

BEAU BI­DEN in­tro­duces his fa­ther at the 2008 Demo­cratic Na­tional Con­ven­tion.

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