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Joe Biden on grief, ambition and what might have been

Wednesday - 15/11/2017 12:57
So a third question: Would he be able to turn back Trump’s re-election bid?

NEW YORK — His son Beau’s death after a brutal battle with cancer convinced Joe Biden not to run for the White House in 2016, a race he now believes he likely would have won.

Before all that, though, there was a happier reason the then-vice president considered staying out of the race: to clear the way for what seemed to be Beau’s limitless possibilities in politics, perhaps even the presidency itself.

For what might have been.

The threads of fighting cancer, weighing ambition and managing foreign policy crises are woven together in Biden’s new book, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, published this week by Flatiron Books. The account of a tumultuous time is crisp and spare, but the entries quoted from Biden’s episodic diary betray his mounting anguish.

“It happened,” Biden wrote at the end, 7:51 PM on May 30, 2015. “My God, my boy. My beautiful boy.”

A son who had escaped death decades earlier, surviving a car crash that killed his mother and sister, had been lost at age 46.

Now, feelings of “abject grief” sweep over him less often, Biden told USA TODAY as he launched his book’s publicity tour, replaced by a sense that “I can make (it through) this, and we can make Beau proud.” At 74, he stands tall and straight, natty in a navy jacket, with the easy smile and affable manner that prompted fans on social media to nickname him “Uncle Joe.”

But his eyes swell with tears as he recounts his son’s final days, and he pauses a beat to regain his composure. “We kept thinking the science would outrun the cancer,” he says, “and we didn’t make it.”

In this Aug. 27, 2008, file photo, Joe Biden embraces his son Beau on stage at the Democratic National Convention in Denver. (Photo: Charles Dharapak, AP)

In the book, Biden reveals that he thought “hard” after he and President Obama were re-elected in 2012 about whether that election should be his last, whether it was time to shift the family’s focus to Beau’s political future. The younger Biden had been elected to a second term as Delaware attorney general two years earlier. He would declare his intention to run for governor in 2016, a race political analysts predicted would be his to lose.  

“I looked down the road and there would be a time in which, if I would continue to run after the vice presidency, it would crowd Beau out,” Biden said in the interview, leaning forward in his chair, recalling his private debate. “I really started to think that I’ve had all this time; I love what I do. But is it just too small a pond for two potentially national figures with the same name?”

It was Barack Obama who dubbed Beau “Joe Biden 2.0.”

“He had all the best of me, but with the bugs and flaws engineered out,” Biden wrote. In some ways, Beau resembled Obama more than he did his dad. He was savvier about new technologies and more disciplined as a speaker. “Beau didn’t make many mistakes,” Biden says, laughing at the contrast to his own reputation as, in his words, a “gaffe machine.”

Beau refused to talk about his long-term aspirations, Biden says, but those around him did. As the commander of allied forces in Iraq, Gen. Roy Odierno had gotten to know Beau during his tour of duty there with the Delaware National Guard. In a eulogy at his funeral, Odierno, by then the Army Chief of Staff, said he had fully expected to one day be saluting Beau as commander in chief.

His father had had the same thought. “I did,” he says. “I did.”

A trio of questions

After he had been diagnosed in 2013 with glioblastoma — the most aggressive form of brain cancer, and a near-certain death sentence — Beau urged his father not to be deterred from running for president in 2016. So did the rest of the family. But Biden says when the time for a decision was pressing, his grief was too fresh, his family still reeling. “I didn’t have the emotional energy to do it,” he says.

If he could have brought himself to run, he believes he could have gone the distance in what would have been his third bid for the presidency.

First, would he have defeated Hillary Clinton for the Democratic nomination? “I think I would have,” he says. “I thought I was best qualified to finish the job that Barack and I had started.”

Second, would he have beaten Donald Trump in the general election? He responds with a slow grin. “The polling data indicated that, and I did not take issue with the polling data.”

Hillary Clinton and Joe Biden acknowledge the crowd at a Clinton campaign event on Aug. 15, 2016, in Scranton, Pa. (Photo: Mark Makela, Getty Images)

Biden argues that his connection with middle-class voters and the authenticity he projects would have been the right fit in the unpredictable presidential election just past — and perhaps the one still ahead. When it comes to the 2020 contest, he says it’s not yet time to make a decision about running, but he leaves little doubt that he wants to think about it when it is time.

One factor will be his age and health, and the desire by some Democrats to turn to a new generation of leaders. Biden, who celebrates his 75th birthday next week, would be the nation’s oldest president ever if elected in 2020.

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