"True bravery is when there’s very little chance of winning but you keep fighting."
Joe Biden quoted those words, told to him by his late son Beau's anesthesiologist while the Biden family coped with their son's progressing brain cancer in 2014 and 2015.
Two years later, the former vice president of the United States sat down with Man Booker Prize-winning writer George Saunders at the Adrienne Arsht Center as an accomplished foreign policymaker and bereaved father to discuss his new memoir, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose.
Biden's memoir is a sobering look at the grief of losing a child. He remembers his last Thanksgiving with Beau in Nantucket and his son's sense of duty as attorney general of Delaware and a member of the National Guard. Having lost his first wife and daughter in a car accident in 1972, Biden is no stranger to grief; it runs parallel to his narratives of foreign-policy work, his early decision to run for the presidency, and his reversal of that decision at the last minute. "If Beau had never gotten sick, we would already be running. This was something we would have done together," he writes in the book. "[T]he idea of not running started to feel like letting him down, like letting everybody down." He adds that "grief is a process that respects no schedule and no timetable."
"I learned my value set at my grandpop’s breakfast table and my dad's dinner table,” Biden told Saunders. In the current era of tabloidesque news about Donald Trump, hearing Biden speak feels like being transported to a time when politicians rolled up their sleeves and honored their middle-class upbringing instead of bragging about sexual assault and their gilded-gold everything.
Onstage, he told Saunders that his empathy comes from his middle-class upbringing in Scranton, Pennsylvania, and Wilmington, Delaware. "You’re defined by your courage, and you’re redeemed by your loyalty,” he remembers his mother telling him, a quote he has gone on to repeat in countless speeches. He recalls a lesson he took with him from schoolyard squabbles to the Capitol: "You could not criticize someone for something they have no control over."
In the midst of his grief, Biden welcomed his work as vice president as a channel for achieving catharsis through helping others. His father used to tell him: "A lucky person gets up in the morning, puts his two feet on the floor, knows what he has to do, and still thinks it matters,” Biden told Saunders. Less than a month after Beau passed, Biden, who was in South Carolina, traveled to Charleston to comfort families of victims of the church shooting. He gave his personal phone number to the bereaved, "hungry to feel better."
"As much sorrow as there is in the world, you never, never stop trying to make it better," he says. "And you make it better.”
Saunders shifted to the book's unspoken anxiety about the future under the current administration. "What the hell is going on?" Saunders asked. The room erupted in manic agreement.
"I think this is one of the most dangerous times in modern American history," Biden answered. "Silence is complicity."
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Though Biden never names Trump in his book or onstage, he takes an aggressive approach to the "half-baked nationalism" and "phony populism" espoused by the alt-right and Steve Bannon. Contrary to the stereotype of the fool he was often saddled with during his vice presidency, Biden couches his argument with references to Hobbes, Kant, and history, describing the way despots abuse shifts in global industry and technology to engineer their platform.
It's possible Biden's memoir is his first big step toward a 2020 presidential run, as his son urged him. But for the 75-year-old, after so much loss, the book makes clear that his personal sorrow and hope for America are not separate strands but intrinsically linked: "Duty gives me something to hope for and makes me nostalgic for the future.” That hope is bravery too.
“There’s reason for hope," Biden said. "This is going to be tough, and it’s going to continue to be tough for the next three years. But, you know, the American people, when given a chance — it’s not hyperbole — they’ve never, ever, ever, ever, ever let the country down.
“But for 74,500 votes," he pointed out, "we wouldn’t be having this conversation.”