Most politicians, aside from a doctor or two, don’t have impressive expertise outside of politics. Sadly, however, former Vice President Joe Biden has become something of an expert on grief, mourning and recovery. The deaths of his first wife and daughter, and then the untimely death of his son Beau, make him uniquely qualified to speak to those enduring the loss of a loved one.
In a remarkable CNN interview, he showed the depth of his understanding and his capacity not merely for empathy but for constructive support. Biden doesn’t forget the person sitting in front of him has experienced grave loss as well.
“You understand it. You lost your brother. You understand,” he told Anderson Cooper, whose brother committed suicide decades ago. “It’s literally — it really takes a part of your soul.” It was a small but meaningful gesture, a reminder that those literally sitting in front of you have endured pain and need recognition as well.
Speaking to those who’ve endured unimaginable loss, Biden said, “Find a purpose, something that matters, particularly if it’s something connected to the loss you just had. ... I get up in the morning and I think to myself every morning, is [Beau] proud of me? Am I doing what he wants? And I’m sure that it’s the same way with you and a whole lot of other people.”
He added that “at a moment there will come a time when you think of the person you lost, and it takes a long while. But you’ll get a smile before you get a tear, and that’s when you know you’re going to make it. And so many people have gone through what I’ve been through without the help I had.”
Often chided for gaffes, Biden, we see, can be downright profound when discussing loss. Wrapping up, he explained, “Sometimes it’s really dark, but there is hope. And think about what it means for those family members you have left — they need you. They need you. And look, folks, that’s why I think that it matters the stories of these people, for the public to understand that this is not just a statistic. This is — this is who we are, who they are. I mean, it’s a — and it really is about, you know, sort of reweaving that social fabric that holds a society together- honesty, decency, hope, leaving nobody behind, giving hate no safe harbor.”
He added, “We don’t always live up to it — that’s who we are. That’s who we are. And it’s the thing that holds us together.”
It’s a stunning reminder of the gap in character and decency between Biden and the president, who is entirely incapable of performing, or even faking, the role of uniter and national father figure. President Donald Trump is so hateful, so narcissistic and so incapable of providing solace that many people in the cities where tragedy struck don’t want him there. Imagine a president so bad that you don’t even want his comfort.
The presidency is both the head of state and head of government; in the latter capacity, a president performs the day-to-day duties of chief executive. Trump is bad enough at the latter: incapable of fulfilling his oath that the laws be faithfully executed, of filling jobs with qualified people and of steering an agenda through Congress. However, Trump is downright atrocious at the head-of-state job that entails ceremonial functions (e.g., the centennial commemoration of the end of World War I, mass shootings) because those tasks are too big for him. They require qualities he lacks entirely (empathy, kindness, grace, gentleness, respect, gratitude, humility). This puny little man is dwarfed by the office he holds.
Some presidents are better than others in that role. However, we have seen in recent days that any number of the possible Democratic nominees are up to the task of providing comfort and a unifying message. They will begin with an innate sense of decency and humanity — qualities entirely lacking in the current Oval Office occupant — and without which presidents are incapable of living up to the duties of head of state.