Any time the subject of Joe Biden comes up, the first question people always ask is: What do people see in this guy?
Inherent in that question is the caricature of Biden that has come to be how most people who don't follow politics closely "know" the vice president. He's the guy who says the wrong stuff at all the wrong times, goofs around even during the State of the Union address and seems not to totally grasp the line between personal and professional.
And, yes, Biden is all of those things. But the death of his son — former Delaware state attorney general Beau Biden — over the weekend at the age of 46 reminded me of the thing Biden is above all else: startlingly human.
Most politicians in the modern age are sort of like a new product — such as a new car. They've been focus-grouped to within an inch of their life. They are sold, literally, to the public in the most consumer-friendly way possible, with all traces of the awkward, uncomfortable or unpleasant totally washed away.
Of course, as everyone knows, those tough bits are the stuff that builds character and makes us who we are. Obscuring that stuff for fear of "how it will play" is, ultimately doing a giant disservice to the voters who are trying to understand who these people running to represent them really are. Who they were before they became "senator" or "governor" or whatever.
Joe Biden got into politics in a different age. He simply would never have succeeded in the "he said what?!" politics of today — as evidenced by his flop of a 2008 presidential bid, a candidacy defined by his referring to then-Sen. Barack Obama as "clean" and "articulate" on the first day he was formally a candidate.
Biden never had the rough parts of his personality polished away. The rough parts were, in many ways, who he was. And yes, that fact got him into plenty of trouble over the years and almost certainly ensured that he would never reach his ultimate goal of being president. And yet, the fact that Biden's personality never got scrubbed of its distinctiveness is also his greatest asset: He is as close to a real person as you will ever find in an office like the one he holds. (If you have not read Jeanne Marie Laskas's Biden profile in the July 2013 GQ, you should really do it.)
It's that wear-it-on-your-sleeve humanness that, I think, has made the death of Beau Biden affecting for so many. (As the father of two young boys, it's hit me hard.) Because Joe Biden isn't some distant political figure; he's Uncle Joe, the guy who, whether you like it or not, would probably ruffle your hair and ask you how your grandma is doing if you ever met him. You feel like you know him — and that's because he feels like someone you DO know. How many politicians can you say that about?
None of the above excuses some of Biden's behavior or makes him an ideal candidate to be president. But for all the negative coverage his all-too-humanness gets, it's worth remembering the positive side of that unique set of personality traits, too.
Biden's humanity — forged in grief — allows him to connect with people because he allows them to see the dark parts of him — never more so than in his commencement speech at Yale University a few weeks back. Here's Biden from that speech:
The most successful and happiest people I’ve known understand that a good life at its core is about being personal. It’s about being engaged. It’s about being there for a friend or a colleague when they're injured or in an accident, remembering the birthdays, congratulating them on their marriage, celebrating the birth of their child. It’s about being available to them when they're going through personal loss. It’s about loving someone more than yourself, as one of your speakers have already mentioned. It all seems to get down to being personal.
That's Joe Biden. Remarkably personal. And remarkably human.