October 23, 2018

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Family matters

Biden reflects on life, democracy and duty

<p>In this 2015 photo, former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden (centre) and his family watch an honour guard carry the casket of his son Beau.</p>

PATRICK SEMANSKY / THE ASSOCIATED PRESS FILES

In this 2015 photo, former U.S. vice-president Joe Biden (centre) and his family watch an honour guard carry the casket of his son Beau.

Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/1/2018 (276 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For modern-day U.S. presidents, writing one’s memoirs has been an essential duty in the modern era. But at some point it also became a pastime of those aspiring to the office.

These include Hillary Clinton (What Happened), the Democratic nominee who lost the 2016 general election, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (Our Revolution), who lost the 2016 nomination to Clinton. But in the lead-up to the primary race for Barack Obama’s successor, pundits were left guessing for the better part of a year as to whether president’s right-hand man, Joe Biden, would throw his own hat into the ring.

The announcement came only after the then-vice president’s oldest son, Joseph (Beau) Biden, passed away from brain cancer, an illness the family had been dealing with behind closed doors for much of Obama’s second term as president. And that is ultimately what this book by his father is about — the last year of Beau’s life set against the end of the Obama administration.

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Hey there, time traveller!
This article was published 20/1/2018 (276 days ago), so information in it may no longer be current.

For modern-day U.S. presidents, writing one’s memoirs has been an essential duty in the modern era. But at some point it also became a pastime of those aspiring to the office.

These include Hillary Clinton (What Happened), the Democratic nominee who lost the 2016 general election, as well as Sen. Bernie Sanders (Our Revolution), who lost the 2016 nomination to Clinton. But in the lead-up to the primary race for Barack Obama’s successor, pundits were left guessing for the better part of a year as to whether president’s right-hand man, Joe Biden, would throw his own hat into the ring.

Click to Expand

Promise Me, Dad:

A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose

By Joe Biden

Flatiron Books, 272 pages, $33

The announcement came only after the then-vice president’s oldest son, Joseph (Beau) Biden, passed away from brain cancer, an illness the family had been dealing with behind closed doors for much of Obama’s second term as president. And that is ultimately what this book by his father is about — the last year of Beau’s life set against the end of the Obama administration.

Death is not convenient, and grief does not wait. Biden describes 18-hour days at NATO or the UN, negotiating to keep Russian President Vladimir Putin from eating Ukraine whole, dealing with the crisis of unattended children from the Central American triangle arriving desperate and hungry at the Mexico-U.S. border, and working with the fragile new Iraq government to take territory from the Islamic State.

Simultaneously, secret flights to the cancer ward and furtive family meetings are held, with an effort to continue traditions like their Thanksgiving weekend (Secret Service and all) and deciding between grandchildren as to who gets which continent when joining "Pop" on a diplomatic trip.

It should seem astounding to juggle a dying son and heartbroken family with staring down a "soulless" Putin and fighting the Islamic State, but Biden’s tale seems grounded and familiar. Like anyone wading through grief, a part of him knows his other duties must be addressed, while acknowledging the vastness of the darkness that could so easily swallow him.

It’s clear when the grieving father is consoling other suffering families — after the terror attack on a South Carolina church, after the murder of two New York City police officers, sharing his private number in case they ever need to talk — that he does not recognize a difference between their pain and his own. He does not diminish the duties they too must balance with their pain.

There is a true-heartedness, empathy and a quiet competence to Biden that might have been forgotten in the post-Obama era were the 2016 presidential race and its results remotely conventional. As a window into the intertwined personal and professional life of a politician’s politician, this book would have been insightful and thoughtful, but ultimately unnecessary, as all but a few political memoirs are.

But in Trump’s America, Biden’s meditation on family, democracy, and duty can’t help but raise in readers a series of what-ifs. In her book, Hillary Clinton blamed Bernie Sanders for weakening her against Donald Trump. She appears only at the periphery in Biden’s story, yet the reader’s knowledge of the future makes this subplot loom large, her doomed efforts a distant menacing force.

Amid the concerns of nuclear superpowers, fragile new democracies and the heart-rending experience of a father losing his son, the decision of whether Joe Biden will try to lead his country therefore becomes the true climax. For even the casual observer of the dumpster fire of U.S. politics, the impossible hope for a different ending to the 2016 story means this quiet, contemplative tome will, strangely, keep readers on the edge of their seats.

Joel Boyce is a Winnipeg writer and educator.

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