Politics, Loss, and Emphathy with Joe Biden

“You don’t know the pain other people have had.” – Joe Biden

Following yesterday’s shooting at congressional Republicans’ baseball practice, and thinking about the oral history training we’re about to attend, we offer this excerpt from an interview by Terry Gross with former Vice President Biden. Biden’s point is not new, but today feels like a good day to remember that we share humanity with our political adversaries, and that where possible, we should foster empathy as well as passionate and principled disagreement. The interview took place earlier this week. Full text and audio here.

Terry Gross: I want to ask a few questions about you and your life. You’ve been touched by death several times. Beginning when you—just before you took the oath of office as senator, your wife died. Your baby daughter died. Your two sons were hospitalized ’cause of a car accident. Your son Beau died not long ago. You were read last rites when you had your aneurysm. Thank God you survived.

The Senate is a place where it’s real hardball. I mean, collegial or not, it’s about politics. It’s about hardball. It’s about power to get your agenda passed and so on. A lot of people are there because they like power, because they really value power and want to have it. So coming from this place where you’ve been exposed to mortality and to, like, the ultimate meaning of life, what was it like to be in the Senate, where it’s not a place where I’d imagine it’s easy to express vulnerability, where you have long, reflective

conversations about the meaning of life and that kind of thing? Was it ever hard to hold on to the principles of what you had to do as senator or what happens in the Senate and those, like, deep feelings that you surely were carrying with you at all times?

Joe Biden: No, it was never hard. And the Senate wasn’t like that. A lot of my colleagues—Republican colleagues, Democrats—saved my sanity. They were incredibly empathetic. I never once was in a situation where—well, that’s not true—once, a senator from Texas. But never once was I in a situation where there wasn’t some degree of sympathy or empathy. But it’s because we used to know one another. We used to eat with one another, and we’d have lunch with one another.

You know, it’s awful hard when I learn that, God forbid, your mother has breast cancer or you have a child who’s a drug addict or you have a serious deficiency in that you stuttered badly, like I do, or whatever—it’s hard to dislike you when I know the human frailty and the pain that you’re suffering. You can disagree and extensively disagree, but you don’t then question motive. You actually embrace one another in times of difficulty.

I’ll give you one example. When I first got to the Senate—and one of the meanest guys I ever met was the senator from the state of Arkansas, McClellan. And he used to eat privately in the Senate Dining Room. And so my AA [administrative assistant?] said you got to go down, and you got to meet some of these guys. I walked in. He was eating by himself, Senator McClellan. I was 30 years old. And I walked over and said, ‘Hello, Senator,’ and he put his hand to me and said—’Hey, you’re the kid just had your—tractor trailer just killed your wife and daughter, right? And your kids are in tough shape?’

And I felt like reaching out and ripping in his Adam’s apple out. And I said, ‘Yeah.’ He said, ‘You’re mad at me, aren’t you?’ And I said, ‘I don’t have any more to say, Mr. Chairman.’ He said,’Well, let me tell you.’ He said, ‘When I was your age, I was riding home. They didn’t used to pay to get our family home, and my wife and kids were in the Ozarks heading home. And she dropped dead. She had an aneurysm. And then, he said, ‘My son worked for Aramco. 1966—I was on a NATO trip. I got a call saying he got crushed in an oil rig and he died. And I was going to meet his body—I was going to meet the casket at the airport in Little Rock.’ And he said, ‘I was there. And while I was waiting for the plane to unload, I heard a crash at the gate. My other son on a motorcycle was killed on the way in.’ So he looked at me said, ‘So son, work. Just work. Work.’

You don’t know the pain other people have had. I’ll bet—I won’t do it—if I surveyed all of you, every one of you had tremendous loss.

Image: By Daniel Burke. Fresh Air host Terry Gross interviewed former Vice President Joe Biden in front of a live audience at WHYY studios in Philadelphia on Tues., June 14, 2017.

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