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Biden and Kennedys: Ties of Catholicism, power and tragedy

Biden’s visit to the JFK Library this week highlighted the links between the nation’s only two Catholic presidents

Then-Senate Judiciary Committee Chairman Joe Biden speaks with Sen. Edward Kennedy during the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork in 1987. (John Duricka/AP)

President Biden stood in the atrium at the John F. Kennedy Library this week, speaking about his “cancer moonshot” initiative, when he quoted from a letter that the patriarch of the Kennedy family once sent to console another father who had lost a son.

“You think of what he might have done with a few more years, and you wonder what you’re going to do with the rest of yours,” the letter from Joseph P. Kennedy said. “Then one day, because there is a world to be lived in, you find yourself a part of it again, trying to accomplish something — something he did not have time enough to do.”

Left unsaid was how personal those sentiments were to Biden himself. In many ways, he was standing there to urge a renewed fight against cancer as a testament to his own late son, Beau. A chief motivator for Biden’s presidential run, he has said, was to honor a promise to Beau to remain active in public life. And one of the primary ways Biden has tried to honor Beau is to find a cure for the kind of cancer that killed him.

“I give you my word as a Biden,” Biden said earlier in this speech. “This cancer moonshot is one of the reasons why I ran for president.”

But the poignancy of the moment was also in the ties between Biden and the Kennedy family. Part of that is a notable echo between the nation’s first Irish Catholic president (Kennedy, the youngest president) and its second (Biden, the oldest).

Beyond that, Sen. Edward M. Kennedy, John’s brother, entered the Senate at age 30, and Biden joined him a decade later, also at age 30, to begin a long friendship and partnership. Ted Kennedy not only showed Biden the ropes — regularly trekking to Biden’s office in Dirksen Senate Office Building — but embodied for Biden the way the Senate should run.

Like many Democrats of a certain era, Biden traces his interest in politics to John F. Kennedy. He was a senior in high school when Kennedy became president, and almost immediately saw similarities, but also differences.

“It’s not like the Kennedys had a lot in common with the Bidens. Kennedy’s father was one of the richest and best-known men in the country,” Biden wrote in his book “Promises to Keep.” “I’d seen the pictures. I knew Hyannisport didn’t look much like Mayfield. Senator Kennedy appealed to me in spite of his money.”

Biden recalled hearing in John F. Kennedy’s speeches and his ideas the same lessons that he had learned from nuns in Catholic school, spurring his interest in a political career.

When Biden first ran for Senate in 1972, his mother hosted “coffees” that were modeled on a Kennedy family technique, even bringing in an old Kennedy hand, Matt Reese, who had helped organize the events for the family.

Biden is hardly alone among Democrats in emphasizing a connection with the party’s most storied family. Bill Clinton’s campaign circulated a photo of him as a young man shaking JFK’s hand. Barack Obama also embraced the Kennedy legacy, and Sen. Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of his young colleague marked a turning point in Obama’s presidential campaign.

But for Biden, the ties are especially stark — not least because Biden, like John F. Kennedy, had to contend with questions about his Catholicism while seeking the presidency. When Kennedy ran in 1960, he had to assure voters he would not answer to the Pope; Biden, for his part, drew attention for deviating from Catholic doctrine, especially on abortion.

JFK's meeting with the Pope foreshadowed Biden's

On Monday, Biden told a story about Ted Kennedy coming to stump for him, one of the biggest campaign events of his first race.

“There were, I don’t know, 6, 7,000 people assembled at St. Anthony’s,” Biden said. “And he stood up and he said, ‘I like Joe Biden a lot. I like him a lot. He’ll be a good — he’ll be very good in the United States Senate. The problem is I think he’s a little too young.’ ”

It was a self-deprecating quip about Ted Kennedy’s own age; he had entered the Senate amid questions about his own youth and whether he had benefited from his family name. But Biden said some newspapers missed the joke, intentionally or not, publishing headlines like “Kennedy says Biden too young to be in the Senate.”

Biden has recalled that after he won, Ted Kennedy took him under his wing, convincing him to come to the Senate dining room to learn the ways of bipartisan dealmaking, or spend time in the Senate gym, leading to awkward moments. (“They were all as naked as the day they were born,” Biden recalled in his book. “I tried hard to keep eye contact, but I didn’t know what the hell I was supposed to say.”)

Biden and Ted Kennedy grew close, at times with overlapping ambitions. Biden is the one who warned President Jimmy Carter that Kennedy was going to mount a Democratic primary challenge in 1980. He was later approached as a possible consensus candidate if Kennedy and Carter so bruised one another that Democrats wanted another nominee.

Biden’s own 1988 presidential campaign was derailed by accusations of plagiarism, including a charge that he had lifted some of Robert F. Kennedy’s lines without attribution. At one point, Ted Kennedy sent Biden a note to remind him there was life after a presidential campaign, as he knew from his own painful experience.

At another moment, when Biden was recovering from an aneurysm, Ted Kennedy took the train to Wilmington, Del., to visit him, bringing an etching of a big Irish stag that he’d had framed.

“Every important event in my adult life ... every single one, he was there,” Biden said in emotional remarks after Ted Kennedy died in 2009. “He was there to encourage, to counsel, to be empathetic, to lift up.”

The letter that Biden cited on Monday was written in 1958 by Joseph P. Kennedy, a businessman and U.S. ambassador to the United Kingdom. Kennedy had sent the letter 14 years after he had lost his oldest son and namesake in World War II and 10 years after his oldest daughter, Kathleen, had died in an airplane crash.

Unbeknown to the Kennedy patriarch, he was also writing five years before he would lose a second son, President Kennedy, and 10 years before a third, Robert Kennedy, would be struck down.

Joe Biden and the politics of grief

The letter was often cited by Ted Kennedy, who quoted from it in Northern Ireland during a 1998 speech calling for peace.

Biden said in Monday’s remarks that Ted Kennedy’s widow, Victoria, had sent him the quote after Beau died. Ted Kennedy himself had died six years earlier of the same type of fast-moving brain tumor as Beau.

“For so many of us, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Biden said on Monday. “Live a life worthy of the loved ones we’ve lost and the loved ones we can save, with their hope and absolute courage, and with an unwillingness to postpone and with a singular purpose for ourselves and as a nation.”

There is no member of the famed Kennedy family currently in Congress, a rare interval in the decades since John F. Kennedy was elected to the House in 1946. (John Kennedy, the Republican senator from Louisiana, is not related).

During his remarks, Biden addressed Jack Schlossberg, the grandson of the late president and son of Caroline Kennedy, currently Biden’s ambassador to Australia.

“Jack, I believe your generation is the best-educated, most talented generation in our history,” Biden said. “And that’s the reason I’m so optimistic about the future, and that’s not hyperbole.”