What Might Have Been

Political seers have been captivated by the notion that seventy-three-year old Joe Biden might ride to the rescue of the Democratic Party as the candidacy of Hillary Clinton looks increasingly flawed. The factors against Biden are his age and a penchant for gaffes. In his favor are his genuineness and likeability. Biden loves campaigning and it shows. He also doesn’t have to pretend to have a populist streak.

But at a recent speech to promote the Iran deal, his real problem was plain to see. He looked old, worn, subdued and bowed down by sorrow, far from his usual ebullient self. In answer to a question about a run, he suggested all the talk about logistics was beside the point. The only real issue was whether he could summon the energy for a campaign while wracked by grief at the death of his eldest son, Beau, from cancer at 45.

Political analysts, though sympathetic, haven’t seemed to understand the real issue is something a literary critic might better grasp since this case is out of Shakespeare or Greek tragedy. This wasn’t just the death of a son, but the son who was going to take over the family business and outshine his proud father. The next Biden who was supposed to make a run for president was Beau, not Joe.

Joe came from a family that had fallen from prosperity to hard times in a place that was describing the same arc – Scranton. When he claims to feel the pain of underemployed and unemployed workers in the wake of 30 years of economic transition that have hollowed out the middle class, he means it literally. As a kid, his family had the same experience. It was the engine that powered him. By the time he was in college he told his wife-to-be he’d be a senator by 30 and eventually president.

And there has always been an understandable strain of resentment against people of privilege in Biden. The wonderful “What It Takes,” by Richard Ben Cramer, is a study of the 1988 presidential race with revealing portraits of the candidates and a dark look at the seamy process by which our leaders climb the greasy pole. In his chapter on Biden, he is quoted as saying, “there’s a river of power in this country and it runs through the Ivy League.”

Biden lacked the connections and the money to put himself in proximity to the river as a young man. He attended the University of Delaware and Syracuse for law. His too obvious enjoyment of chairing the judiciary committee, when it had the power to vet all those Harvard Law, Yale Law, Columbia Law supplicants for the Supreme Court, was a legacy of that long ago resentment. Yet Biden never dipped into the river of money that accompanies power. After 30 years in the Senate, his net worth remains laughably low by Washington standards.

He did become a senator by 30, but he was sworn in at the chapel of the hospital where his young sons were being cared for, after being injured in the accident that killed his wife and daughter. He tried twice for the presidency in 1988 and 2008 and failed. He has served Obama loyally and well as vice president. His time is coming to an end after honorable service.

On his death bed, Beau is said to have urged his father to run in 2016. But that may have been a kind gesture by a fond son who knew the plan had been otherwise. It was Beau, who did attend an Ivy, who was a federal prosecutor, who served two terms as attorney general of Delaware, interrupted for a year of service as a JAG Major in Iraq, who was planning to run for governor in 2016, it was Beau who was being readied to reach the summit that eluded his father, perhaps in 2020 or 2024.

No wonder Biden is ashen and diminished. He is like a man who built a business for his son to takeover, a king whose crown prince dies before he does. All his hopes and plans and dreams have come to nothing. No wonder Biden might feel like he ought to run, but why he would also feel it would be hopelessly wrong. The prize was supposed to go to another. Joe was supposed to be Cal Ripken Sr. or Archie Manning. But now, the Hall of Fame heir who would surpass the father will never take the field to win the victory. “Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, ‘It might have been.”

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