Joseph R. Biden Jr. has enjoyed a storied career. Elected by Delaware to the U.S. Senate in 1972. Re-elected six times. Ran for the presidential nomination of the Democratic Party in 1988. Ran again in 2008 but lost to Barack Obama, who selected him as his running mate, making Biden the 47th vice president of the United States.
Politics is the backdrop to Biden’s engaging new memoir, “Promise Me, Dad.” He remembers the call Obama made in June 2008 to ask him to be vetted as his potential running mate. Biden said no. “Do me a favor, Joe,” Obama said. “Go home and talk it over with the family first.” When Biden did, his mother put it this way: “The first African-American in history who has a chance to be president says he needs your help to win — and you said no.” That changed Biden’s mind.
In the White House, Obama relied on Biden for his foreign policy expertise, and Biden recalls his often-strained encounters with Vladimir Putin. He describes one notorious exchange in which he told Putin: “Mr. Prime Minster, I am looking into your eyes. I don’t think you have a soul.” To which Putin, now Russia’s president, smiled and said: “We understand each other.”
Obama also relied on Biden for domestic issues. On one occasion, Biden was dispatched to New York following the assassination of two police officers. After speaking at the funeral for Rafael Ramos, Biden visited the Brooklyn home of the parents of the other slain officer, Wenjian Liu. Liu’s grieving father would not leave Biden’s side. Biden remembers the moment: “‘Thank you,’ he kept saying, ‘Thank you. Thank you.’ I did not pull away, but leaned in so that he could feel me there.” Biden stayed with the father until his advance team told Biden he had to go.
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Biden’s empathy is not surprising. In 1972, after he was elected to the Senate, Biden’s wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident. Biden’s young boys, Beau and Hunter, survived, but the deaths haunted Biden. “The hurt is a physical presence, and it never leaves you.”
Biden married his second wife, Jill; they had a daughter, Ashley. And life was good. During the Obama years, not only was Biden vice president, but Beau had followed him into politics, becoming Delaware’s attorney general. He planned to run for governor in 2016 until tragedy struck and he was diagnosed with brain cancer. “Promise Me, Dad” documents the year Beau, an Army National Guard veteran who served in Iraq, battled the disease.
Family has always been important to Joe Biden. A devoted son, brother, nephew, uncle, he is a proud member of the “Biden clan.” But the love he has for his children, and their children, is omnipresent. So when the tough-as-nails politician was forced to face a parent’s worst nightmare again — the death of a child — a different side of the man is revealed.
Beau endured operations, chemotherapy and experimental drug treatments, all in a desperate attempt to save him. The toll Beau’s illness took on the Biden family was enormous. At a private luncheon with Obama, Biden found himself unable to stop describing the excruciating procedures Beau was enduring and the pain he felt as a father powerless to rescue his son. “I looked up and found Barack in tears,” Biden writes. “‘Life is so difficult to discern,’ he said.”
On May 30, 2015, Beau lost his battle. That night, Biden wrote in his journal: “7:51 p.m. It happened. My God, my boy. My beautiful boy.” At a wake in Wilmington, as Biden stood beside his son’s casket, among the thousands of mourners who filed past was Wenjian Liu’s father who had driven from Brooklyn. “He just walked up and gave me a hug,” Biden writes. “‘Thank you’ was all I could say. ‘Thank you. Thank you. Thank you.’”
When Beau first became ill, he implored his father to continue, regardless of what happened. “Promise me, Dad,” Beau demanded. This memoir is proof Biden has, as painful as that might have been. Absorbing and often deeply moving, “Promise Me, Dad” is Biden’s love letter for his son — a son for whom his admiration was surpassed only by his adoration.
‘Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose’ by Joe Biden, Flatiron, 260 pages, $27.