Joe Biden, Emissary of Grief

His entire political career has been marked by personal loss. His allies say that makes him uniquely capable of leading a nation grappling with death.

June 11, 2020

An overstuffed binder sat in Joe Biden’s Senate office, holding the raw materials of his grief.

It was a master collection, aides recalled, with remarks, notes and drafts of eulogies Mr. Biden had given through 2008 — for childhood friends, prominent senators, his own father. The table of contents was long enough to use every letter of the alphabet. It included a section of favored passages, often deployed in his remembrances, labeled “Quotable Quotes: Death.”

“Death is part of this life,” one such axiom read, “and not of the next.”

And it has been, in many ways, the defining part of Mr. Biden’s.

The compilation, never before detailed publicly, is the sort of trove that few but Mr. Biden could amass, or even think to — a meticulous testament to the mixture of mourning and resilience that has shaped virtually every aspect of his personal and political history.

Mr. Biden has been linked to matters of death and recovery since the minute he was sworn in as a United States senator, from the hospital where his two toddler sons were recovering after the 1972 car crash that killed his first wife, Neilia, and their daughter, Naomi. One of those sons, Beau, died of cancer at 46, five years ago last month.

But the scope of the personal losses Mr. Biden has endured, and his fluency in discussing death — a subject many elected leaders hope to avoid — go beyond what is commonly understood.

A Times review of nearly 60 eulogies Mr. Biden has delivered, as well as interviews with more than two dozen friends, former staff members and relatives of those he has eulogized, offer an intimate window into how he sought to comfort those joining him in mourning, and how he would seek to lead a nation grappling with death and devastation.

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As the country confronts the wrenching, overlapping crises of this moment — a national uproar over lethal police violence, a coronavirus death toll in the United States that has surpassed 110,000 — Mr. Biden is plainly staking his presidential bid on his capacity to heal. On Monday, he met with the family of George Floyd, a black man whose death at the hands of the police sparked wide-scale protests over racism and police brutality. Mr. Biden also recorded a video for Mr. Floyd’s Tuesday funeral service.

“Jill and I know the deep hole in your hearts when you bury a piece of your soul deep in this earth,” Mr. Biden said in the message. “Unlike most, you must grieve in public. And it’s a burden. A burden that is now your purpose.”

ImageFormer Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. spoke about the pain of the nation in a speech in Philadelphia this month. 

Credit…Mark Makela for The New York Times

Throughout the first months of the coronavirus pandemic, as he campaigned from his home in Wilmington, Del., he was often overshadowed by President Trump and his bully pulpit. But even then, Mr. Biden’s most memorable appearances tended to center on grief.

He marked 100,000 virus deaths with a video that resembled an Oval Office address to the nation, empathizing with grieving families and sharing advice about coping. His first public appearance after two months of virtual campaigning came on Memorial Day, when he wore a black mask to pay respects to the war dead.

And in March, he nearly gave out his phone number on national television, urging anyone struggling with grief to get in touch. “Not that I’m an expert,” he said. “But just, having been there.”

In this age of staggering national loss, his admirers say, it is Mr. Biden’s experience as a kind of emissary of bereavement — a man who has been there and can speak with credibility about what comes next — that illustrates his most powerful contrast with Mr. Trump.

Mr. Biden perhaps never sounds more forceful than when accusing the president of having no “empathy.”

“This country right now is in a lot of pain and really scared for a lot of different reasons,” said Meghan McCain, a daughter of the Republican senator John S. McCain, whom Mr. Biden eulogized in 2018 and whom Mr. Trump delighted in savaging before and after his death. “It’s hard not to juxtapose someone who seems to get pleasure out of other people’s pain and another person whose instinct and visceral reaction is to try and make it stop.”

Taken together, the eulogies also supply a portrait of Mr. Biden in his purest form: espousing a throwback value set premised on his own ideas of “dignity,” “style” and “nobility,” three favored nouns across the decades; revering the clubhouse norms of a bygone Washington; fixating on what it means to be “a good man” (“the highest praise you can give”), an Irishman (“I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish,” he said, borrowing from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, “if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually”) — and what it means to be a Biden.

“We loved him because his instincts were good, because he was a man of honor, because he was a Biden,” Mr. Biden wrote in his 2002 eulogy for his father. “A dreamer burdened with reality, a sensitive spirit layered in stoicism.”

This self-definition, accurate as any friend could conjure, may be missing only one beat: a person who would say all this about himself in public.

The eloquent, sometimes lyrical Mr. Biden who animated these pages over the years was rarely glimpsed on the major stages of the 2020 primary race, where he often meandered and misstepped. His gift for compassion more often served him in the hours Mr. Biden, now 77, spent with voters afterward.

The Biden of the rope line — by turns exuberant and empathetic, a backslapping, gregarious senator at heart — is very much recognizable in his eulogies. He holds eye contact with widowed spouses and children. He sands the rough edges in the biographies of the deceased. He shouts out former colleagues inclusively, the references landing now as heady signals of time’s march, with Mr. Biden’s position at the microphone a rare constant through the years.

“Lindsey, this one’s hard,” he said at Mr. McCain’s memorial, addressing Senator Lindsey Graham, a longtime friend who has more recently become a Trump ally pushing to investigate the Biden family.

“Fritz, he was one complex guy,” Mr. Biden said to Senator Fritz Hollings in 2003, setting off on his most controversial eulogy, for Senator Strom Thurmond of South Carolina, who was for decades an avowed segregationist.

Sixteen years later, Mr. Biden returned to the state for another service. It was time to eulogize Mr. Hollings.

Credit…Pool photo by Tim Dominick

“Another funeral,” Jill Biden wrote last April in the subject line of an email to her supervisor at Northern Virginia Community College. Mr. Hollings had died that weekend and Dr. Biden, an English professor, was hoping for a day off.

“Joe is the eulogist,” she said. “Is it a problem if I go on Tuesday, April 16?”

It was a familiar request, and one quickly granted. Dr. Biden had raised similar questions in recent months as her husband was tapped to offer remarks for Mr. McCain and John D. Dingell Jr., the longtime Michigan congressman.

Through the scores of eulogies he has delivered, Mr. Biden has developed a grim expertise that, combined with his personal history, has produced a kind of mission statement of mourning: “Funerals are for the living,” he wrote in one of his memoirs.

Detailing the tics and triumphs of colleagues or loved ones, Mr. Biden prioritizes acknowledging the children of the dead, warmly referring to “your dad” or “your mom.” “You’ve got good blood,” he tells them. In the compilation of eulogies through 2008 — a document provided by Mr. Biden’s campaign and independently described by several former aides — Mr. Biden often nodded to spouses by recounting their marriages with a love poem from the 16th-century writer Christopher Marlowe.

Carol Balick was one of those spouses to hear a Biden eulogy — he spoke at a memorial service for her husband, Sid Balick, in 2017, decades after Mr. Balick hired Mr. Biden as a young lawyer. The couple knew Mr. Biden before the rest of the country did, back when he lost his first wife and daughter.

“I think about Joe just enveloped in grief in his life, just enveloped in grief, and how the privacy of grief was invaded by his public responsibilities,” said Ms. Balick, 84, who attended Neilia and Naomi’s memorial in December 1972.

Ms. Balick has retained an enduring image of that service: Mr. Biden at the front door of the church afterward, a 30-year-old senator-elect consoling his guests. “Hundreds and hundreds of people, many of them just sobbing, grief-stricken,” Ms. Balick said. “And Joe comforted them as they left the church.”

In the decades since, Mr. Biden — whose campaign declined to make him available for an interview — has been quick to remind his audiences that the healing process can be uneven, speaking of the “black hole” that can linger long after a death.

Addressing grieving military families in 2012, Mr. Biden described becoming furious with his God after the accident.

“You can’t be good,” he recalled thinking, through gritted teeth. “How can you be good?” He came to understand, he said, how someone could contemplate suicide.

He landed on a line for mourners that has become his signature grieving advice, dispensed to tearful voters on the campaign trail and repeated as recently as last month: the idea that a memory of the person who died will one day bring a smile before a tear. He offered a version of that message as he memorialized Senator Henry M. “Scoop” Jackson of Washington in 1983, and has shared it many times over.

“I promise you, I give you my word, I promise you, this I know,” he said at Mr. McCain’s memorial, 35 years later. “That day will come.”

Credit…Pool photo by Susan Walsh

As he began speaking about Strom Thurmond in 2003, Mr. Biden wondered aloud why he was there.

“I’ll never figure him out,” he said, joking that his speech was the “last laugh” for the once-proud segregationist. “What else could explain a Northeast liberal’s presence here as the only outsider speaking today?”

One explanation was straightforward: The two had grown genuinely close over Mr. Biden’s decades in the Senate.

Another was implicit: Mr. Biden had a habit of judging the dead as they had hoped to be judged.

And so, Mr. Biden ruled, Mr. Thurmond was a “product of his time,” a “brave man” who eventually “moved to the good side.”

He approximated a quote from William Hazlitt, an English writer: “Death conceals everything but truth and strips a man of everything but genius and virtue.”

“The truth and genius and virtue of Strom Thurmond,” Mr. Biden said, “is what I choose, and we all choose, to remember today.”

It is that instinct that makes a Biden eulogy “the clearest expression of his worldview,” said Jeff Nussbaum, a former speechwriter, defining this outlook as: “Try to find that which is worth celebrating, or at least recognizing, in others.”

Mr. Nussbaum recalled the “impolitic observation” about “Irish Alzheimer’s,” an imagined condition where all is forgotten but the grudges. “Joe Biden, when it comes to eulogies, is the opposite,” he said. “He forgets the grudges and remembers only the positives.”

Of course, this approach carries risk in other settings. Last year, Mr. Biden attracted criticism for speaking warmly about his working relationships with segregationist senators.

More broadly, some Democrats see Mr. Biden’s paeans to bipartisan civility as dated and naïve amid the tribalism of the Trump age, even as allies hope he will appeal to moderates disillusioned by the president. Whatever the result, the eulogies affirm how central this bearing is to Mr. Biden’s self-identity. Several include touches of performative marvel that he, a Democrat, has come to compliment a Republican.

His preference for compromise over ideological rigidity has also seeped perceptibly into his prose. “Our differences were profound,” Mr. Biden said of Mr. Thurmond, “but I came to understand that as Archibald MacLeish wrote: ‘It is not in the world of ideas that life is lived. Life is lived, for better or worse, in life.’”

For those who have demonstrated “courage” or “loyalty,” in Mr. Biden’s estimation, a special commendation tends to follow, particularly if a subject has helped Mr. Biden at some political cost. In eulogies for both Mr. Thurmond and Senator Ted Kennedy, Mr. Biden saluted them for defending his integrity as plagiarism accusations felled his 1988 presidential run.

Senator Arlen Specter of Pennsylvania, a Republican for most of his career, was recognized for cutting an advertisement for Mr. Biden’s 1990 re-election. “Do you know anyone who would do that in politics?” Mr. Biden asked at Mr. Specter’s memorial in 2012.

“He gave a deeply personal eulogy,” Mr. Specter’s son Shanin said. “Maybe a tad long — maybe a tad long — but that was OK.”

In the summer of 1991, Mr. Biden scrawled out bullet points to memorialize his first father-in-law, Robert N. Hunter.

He moved through the hallmarks of a Biden remembrance — Shakespeare, Emerson, self-deprecation. After jotting down several pages of largely handwritten notes, he looked to a eulogy he had given two years earlier for a close friend, Pete McLaughlin, who died at 45.

“He did not choose his lot, but once it was drawn, he showed us how a man should play it,” Mr. Biden had written, underlining the word “man.” “That is Pete — and that is no ordinary man!”

This time, Mr. Biden crossed out “Pete,” writing in “Mr. H.”

The echoes emphasized the layers of loss that have shaded his life — and offered a glimpse of the vocabulary of grief he was assembling.

Over the years, Mr. Biden repurposed his own words for multiple memorials, demonstrating a fondness for certain linguistic flourishes that became trademarks of his eulogies.

His father, Representative Tom Lantos of California and Mr. McLaughlin were all “larger than life,” in Mr. Biden’s telling. When you were with them, he said every time, “you knew you could win” — a distinction shared with Dr. Biden’s grandmother and at least two other friends.

Though he recycled his most compelling lines without apparent hesitation, there is no evidence that Mr. Biden sought to borrow from others without attribution in his eulogies.

In fact, drawing on his own memory and a weakness for Irish poetry, Mr. Biden has at times brought an almost academic seriousness to his task.

Sometimes, this has meant informal interviews with loved ones in a quest for anecdotes. He once sent an aide to scour a bookstore for “A Man for All Seasons,” remembering a line he found relevant to the life of a friend he was eulogizing.

Credit…Bill Pugliano/Getty Images

And if his language has often repeated over the years when describing the dead, Mr. Biden’s sketches of himself have rarely been generic.

Mr. Biden, as rendered by Mr. Biden, is a particularly vivid character, unguarded and at times politically incautious.

He has offered snapshots of a rowdy adolescence, recalling a demolition derby with Mr. McLaughlin on Route 202 or the story of a college friend, Don Brunner, taking a fall with the campus police for a young Mr. Biden, who was trying to visit a romantic interest.

Eulogizing Mr. Brunner in 2004, Mr. Biden remembered asking him to become a roommate: “I said, ‘My name is Joe Biden, you know I like you,’” he began, according to a transcript. “Thank God he didn’t think I was gay.” (“He regrets this joke,” said Andrew Bates, a Biden campaign spokesman, “and it does not in any way reflect his views about advancing and protecting the rights of the L.G.B.T.Q. community.”)

Mr. Biden’s identity as a man of, by and for the Senate shone through in eulogies for Washington colleagues and childhood friends alike. There were the requests for “a point of personal privilege”; references to powerful contacts (“my cellphone rang and it was Secretary of State Powell”) and the mention of his own prestigious posts.

“I was one of those folks they call a ‘chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee,’” he once said, apparently seeking to add credibility to his praise of several military leaders.

More than occasionally, memorial services have coaxed arresting self-reflection out of Mr. Biden.

Eulogizing his first wife in 1972, he suggested that she had shaped his perspective on race as a young man. Before Neilia showed him the way, Mr. Biden said, he was “probably one of those phony liberals” who would “go out of their way to be nice to a minority.”

“She made me realize I was making a distinction,” he continued at St. Mary Magdalen, a church in Delaware. “But in dealing with minorities, she made no subtle condescending gestures.”

“I’m going to try to follow her example,” he promised.

Wilmington’s The Morning News reported that Mr. Biden maintained his composure until the end of his speech, when his “emotions enveloped him and he hurriedly left the altar.”

It was a pain beyond compare, friends say, until 43 years later, when Mr. Biden returned to another Delaware church for another service.

Beau Biden was an emerging political star and his father’s protégé when he learned he had glioblastoma — the same disease that killed Mr. McCain and Mr. Kennedy.

Credit…Doug Mills/The New York Times

At the funeral, the elder Mr. Biden’s two surviving children spoke. The Army chief of staff, Ray Odierno, spoke. President Barack Obama spoke.

Mr. Biden, for once, remained in the pews.

But from the vice president’s too-familiar perch — behind the lectern, before an anguished audience — his boss supplied one small comfort: a Biden-style eulogy.

Mr. Obama spoke directly to Beau Biden’s children.

The Obamas had “become part of the Biden clan,” he said.

And with that, he instructed, came the “Biden family rule.”

“We’re always here for you, we always will be,” the president said. “My word as a Biden.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.

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