Joe Biden, America’s dad

Published 11:39 pm Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Everyone’s asking whether Joe Biden will run for president, but he’s already done something more important. He made me a better dad.
After building a business and fiddling around with writing columns, my wife and I moved from Texas to the D.C. area a year ago because I got what seemed like a dream job. There was just one problem: My sons, then 13 and 11, would stay behind with their mother.
“We get it,” the older one said. “You’re going to be up there helping millions of people. We’ll be OK.”
I’d come back every month, I told them. I’d text every day. I told them we’d talk on the phone. I told them we’d make it work, but really my heart was breaking. We weren’t hiding the pain from each other. On my visits we talked about our feelings, a minor miracle on its own. But they were thriving in school and seemed happy. We were going to make it work.
The dream job ended but my lease didn’t, and my job hunt led me one day into the final round of interviews for a job writing speeches for the Vice President. The job seemed important enough to justify being away from my boys, who seemed excited enough by opportunity. But the pain of being away from them had burrowed deeper. I felt desperate to find something to do that would make our separation worth it. We were going to make it work.
The interview with the speechwriting team went well. They assured me that the Vice President allowed his staff to duck out of the office to tend to their families, a rarity in the adrenalized hothouse of the Washington workday. Why just that day, one speechwriter told me, he was able to take his daughter to the doctor.
“He insists we put our families first,” he said, “and he actually means it.”
This was before the Vice President’s son died, but right after he gave a commencement speech at Yale University that moved me to tears. Biden told the story about the long-ago car accident that claimed the lives of his wife and child and severely injured his sons Beau and Hunter. Just elected to the U.S. Senate, Biden decided to commute to D.C. every day from Delaware.
“Looking back on it, the truth be told, the real reason I went home every night was that I needed my children more than they needed me,” he said.
In the interview, they told me one of the benefits was flying on Air Force Two. “On the way back, he comes back and will get to know you,” the chief speechwriter told me. “He’ll want to hear all about your family.”
That was it. The thought of talking to Biden about my sons frightened me. I could not look into that man’s eyes and tell him we were making it work. As much as I admired him, I could not tell him that writing his speeches was worth missing my sons’ award banquets, football games, and band concerts. I wanted to kiss their faces and smell their heads. They were doing fine, but I was a mess, shoving the broken parts of my heart together to make it through the day.
I needed my sons more than they needed me.
Fortunately, I never had to make that choice. When Beau Biden died they filled the position internally to make it easier on the big guy. And now our Vice President, who was oft mocked as ol’ Uncle Joey B, has become America’s dad. He is sharing his grief with all of us, leading with a heart that is still broken for his oldest son. Telling these stories, connecting his loss to the broken parts that we all carry around, and sharing his love for his son will be his enduring legacy.
I’m writing this in a house full of cardboard moving boxes that in a week will be on a truck heading for Texas. Biden might run for president, but I’m heading for Texas where before long my heart will be in one piece again.
Until they go to college, that is.
Jason Stanford is a regular contributor to the Austin American-Statesman, a Democratic consultant and a Truman National Security Project partner.

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