The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Biden, funerals and a bygone America

President Biden makes the sign of the cross during the funeral service for former Sen. Bob Dole on Dec. 10, 2021.
President Biden makes the sign of the cross during the funeral service for former Sen. Bob Dole on Dec. 10, 2021. (Jonathan Newton/The Washington Post)
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LAS VEGAS — He spoke at a private memorial for the former first lady of Indiana, eulogized two former Republican senators and sat in the audience to honor the life of a onetime GOP secretary of state.

He flew to Delaware to pay homage to the state’s former governor. And he made a four-hour round trip to Wilmington on a Wednesday night in May to drop in at the viewing of a longtime former Senate aide.

All while running the country.

On Saturday, President Biden will attend what is at least his seventh event as president to commemorate the death of a friend or former colleague when he speaks at a memorial service for Harry M. Reid, the former Senate majority leader who served with Biden for years.

If a president’s most valuable resource is his time, this one has made a particular point of setting aside hours to grieve, console and mark the friendships he’s built over his roughly half-century in public office. It’s an under-the-radar but particularly Bidenesque ritual, say longtime aides and friends, who explain his desire to make room for funerals and eulogies as a consequence of his relationship-driven approach.

Though attending funerals is frequently caricatured as the purview of vice presidents, in this administration Biden has made sure to go himself, and may have attended even more if not for the coronavirus pandemic.

The tendency to show up for those in mourning is a pattern of his years in public office.

Ted Kaufman, a former Delaware senator and longtime aide to Biden, said that staffers throughout his career have figured out quickly not to fight him too hard on attending these events.

“When you’re a staff person for anyone, there are certain things they do that you don’t agree with,” Kaufman said. “But if you’re smart, and you’re staff, and you do it for a while, you figure out, ‘That’s who they are.’ ”

For Biden, eulogizing colleagues, especially Republicans, is also a resonant way to reiterate his core message that the country must return to a less-polarized time when political adversaries did not have to be personal enemies.

Not everyone believes that era can be revived, however. And in a sense, Biden’s attendance at these events highlights the extent to which practitioners of that kind of politics are increasingly passing from the scene.

And as the oldest president, at 79, Biden may simply be experiencing more of his peers passing away than his predecessors did. Reid’s memorial service Saturday is expected to feature remarks not only from Biden but also from House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer (D-N.Y.) and former president Barack Obama.

Reid’s body will lie in state in Washington next week, which would have been a more convenient time for Biden to pay respects had he chosen to do so.

Liberals pay tribute to Reid

Biden’s ability to stretch his schedule to accommodate the events at times surpasses his wife’s. The president, speaking in November at a Milford, Del., funeral for former Delaware governor Ruth Ann Minner explained in his address why he was there solo, saying, “The reason Jill is not with me today is she’s teaching today, full time as a professor at Northern Virginia Community College.”

Allies argue that Biden’s focus on grief and empathy is particularly important for the country at a moment where more than 800,000 lives have been lost to the pandemic. But his tendency to go to funerals and give eulogies has been long a part of his political brand, the way other politicians call supporters on their birthdays.

Joe Biden and the politics of grief

It’s a stark contrast particularly with former president Donald Trump, who has famously skipped significant commemoration services. Trump did not attend the service for John McCain, with whom he often tangled, at the insistence of the late senator’s family. Biden, then out of office, went to Arizona to speak at it.

Biden’s attempts to connect with grieving families don’t always hit the mark. In August, when the president greeted family members of U.S. soldiers who had died during the chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, several family members said they felt that Biden dwelled on his own tragic past and that his remarks seemed scripted and shallow.

Those close to Biden note the tragedy he’s experienced in his own life. He lost his wife and daughter in a 1972 car accident just before Christmas. In May 2015, he lost another son to brain cancer.

“Joe Biden has a deep spirituality that has been shaped by living through grief, by the experience of getting up and living again after having been knocked down so hard that it would take your breath away,” said Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a longtime friend.

Coons said Biden has always been known in their shared small state as a person who would come to funerals and memorial services. He recalled attending a service for a Delaware bar owner who helped launch his career when a motorcade pulled up and in came Biden, who was then serving as vice president. Biden then waited in a long line to comfort the family.

“Only when I became a senator did I realize he doesn’t just do that in Delaware,” Coons said.

Biden’s role does not stop after a funeral is over, according to aides and friends. He regularly checks in with people who have lost loved ones on key dates, including the birthday of the deceased and the first holiday after the death. Sometimes the calls come on multiple milestones — the first month after the loss, the first six months, the first year.

To manage the process Biden’s staff has kept a list of people Biden has promised to stay in touch with along with key dates, according to a person familiar with Biden’s operation who spoke on the condition of anonymity to share Biden’s private process. A White House spokesman said that as president, Biden has detailed notes to help him keep his word.

When Biden delivers eulogies, he spends hours poring over the text, according to former staff members. His speechwriters, who are trained at crafting sweeping policy addresses, are at times flummoxed because they do not always know the intricacies of the relationship that Biden had with the deceased. Former aides and Jill Biden may contribute material, but ultimately Biden rewrites the final product himself.

“He pours himself into preparation for these things,” Kaufman said. “He’s got really good speechwriters and really good people helping him. But when he does a eulogy, it’s handmade. He just really labors over it.”

The services, and his desire to participate in them, represent the era when Biden came of age as a politician: A time when lawmakers had a certain collegiality even if they disagreed bitterly on policy. Biden as president has so attended an equal number of events honoring Democrats and Republicans (though the Reid event will tip the balance to the Democratic side).

The Republicans include Colin Powell, who in addition to being secretary of state was chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and former Sens. Bob Dole and John Warner.

Some say that will not happen in years to come.

“Can you imagine some Democratic senator wanting to go to Josh Hawley’s funeral or Ted Cruz’s?” said Bill Kristol, who was former vice president Dan Quayle’s chief of staff, referring to the combative senators from Missouri and Texas. “Not to be macabre about it, but in 20 years that would be the equivalent.”

Powell praised by politicians of both parties

Speaking at Warner’s funeral in June of last year at Washington National Cathedral, Biden praised the former senator’s dedication to American democracy, making an implicit contrast with Trump and his followers.

“He understood that democracy is more than a form of government — democracy is a way of being,” Biden said of Warner. “He understood it begins and grows in an open heart, and with the willingness to work across the aisle and come together in common cause.”

He made a similar point at Dole’s memorial.

“In his final days, Bob made it clear that he was deeply concerned about the threat to American democracy, not from foreign nations but from the divisions tearing us apart from within,” Biden said.

But that eulogy was also laced with anecdotes only he could know, such as Biden’s recollection of a Senate vote to defund Amtrak.

Dole, he recalled, voted against his own Republican Party to keep funds flowing to the train service, which Biden was known to use frequently to commute home to Delaware. When asked why, Biden recalled that Dole quipped, “It’s the best way to get Joe Biden the hell out of here at night so he’s not here in the morning.”

Biden-Dole bond speaks to a bygone Washington

Not all of Biden’s presidential eulogies have been in public.

The presidential motorcade pulled up to Washington National Cathedral just before noon on a late September 2021 day for a memorial service for Susan Bayh, the former first lady of Indiana, who died in February of brain cancer, just like Biden’s son Beau.

Her husband, former governor and senator Evan Bayh, said in an interview that he had not been sure Biden would make the event until the day before. “I mean, who knows what’s going to happen on the president’s calendar?” Bayh said.

Biden walked into the cathedral and spent about ten minutes privately consoling his former Senate colleague and his sons. “That was extraordinarily meaningful for them,” Bayh said. “And they’ll remember it the rest of their lives.”

Biden spoke at the beginning of the service, Bayh said. Then took his seat and stayed for the full two hours. Afterward, he made a beeline for Susan Bayh’s sister to privately console her.

“He is the busiest man in the world,” Bayh said. “But he’s not forgotten what it’s like to be an ordinary person, and in particular, what it’s like to experience loss and grief.”