Grief matters in presidential politics, and not because it makes a candidate more effective or a president more astute. After all, Rick Santorum, Edward M. Kennedy and John Edwards, all touched by tragedy, fell short of their highest ambitions. Biden’s grief matters because during the Biden boomlet this summer, he demonstrated that it can serve as the source of public empathy and political authenticity, counteracting and becoming a tonic for much of the cynicism that continues to corrode American politics.
When Biden’s first wife and daughter died in 1972, he was already a major politician, having just won election to the U.S. Senate from Delaware. By the time he lost his eldest son, Beau, to brain cancer this year, he had served more than three decades in the Senate and seven years as vice president. Those experiences would not have made him a better campaigner than he was in his failed presidential salvos of 1988 (when he withdrew after plagiarizing a British politician) or 2008 (when he was unable to garner even 1 percent of the Iowa caucus vote), but his absence on the campaign trail deprived the electorate of a potentially inspiring candidate in the tradition of those who have endured personal tragedies and gone on to pour themselves into public life, of those who became tribunes for millions who identified with their leader’s pain and felt inspiration from that person’s ordeals. Biden’s absence was notable because it comes at a moment when one recent average of polls showed that more than 63 percent of Americans think the country is on the wrong track and remain skeptical that somebody can give them confidence in the future, economically, and in their own lives.
Biden would hardly have been the first candidate for a major office to “use” his personal pain as a springboard. Personal grief has defined the political identity and shaped the approach to public affairs of some of our most iconic politicians, including former New York mayor Fiorello La Guardia, president Franklin D. Roosevelt and first lady Eleanor Roosevelt, senator Robert F. Kennedy (D-N.Y.), and presidents Ronald Reagan and Bill Clinton.
The grief politicians experienced often became source of fuel for their work ethic and public achievements. It is hardly armchair psychoanalysis to assert a link between politicians’ enduring private pain and righting wrongs in the public arena as a way to compensate for such pain.
The pattern has deep roots in our politics. Former three-term mayor La Guardia lost his infant daughter and his first wife to tuberculosis in 1921, and the “adversity lent his politics a fierce focus,” his biographer Thomas Kessner observed. La Guardia waged a winning campaign for the U.S. House a year later and battled despair, keeping silent about his devastating losses. Ultimately, he coped “with death and loss through action, not mourning, converting his private tragedy into a larger public purpose.” In addition, their deaths, caused by a disease typically spread in the city’s tenements, crystallized for him the distinction between the wealthy with access to privilege and sanitation and those forced to live life on the margins, more susceptible to the worst diseases and poverty’s hazards.
His suffering helped make him a more authentic politician. La Guardia became a workaholic and a champion of underprivileged New Yorkers. As mayor, he brought the New Deal to New York City, built much of Gotham’s infrastructure, and raced to assist firefighters and victims at fires. His private grief informed his capacity to empathize with ordinary New Yorkers’ hardships. During one campaign, he made it explicit, promising that “I will devote myself solely to the job of … the people” because “I have no one left in all the world.”
Two of his contemporaries — Eleanor and Franklin Roosevelt—similarly found their public calling partly as a direct result of their personal suffering. As a young girl, Eleanor Roosevelt lost her parents, including one to alcoholism. As a young married couple in 1909, the Roosevelts lost their newborn son with a heart condition to influenza. When the first lady’s brother, an alcoholic, died of liver disease in 1941, she wrote that her approach to public life was that “the things that have to be done must be done,” no matter her private suffering. Her attitude recalls Biden’s remark on Stephen Colbert’s “Late Night” show that the vice president would be letting down Beau if he refused to “get up” after his son’s death at 46. Eleanor Roosevelt described her very public work as the best antidote she knew for her private grief, and her pain deepened her already capacious sympathy for others’ plight. Always driven, she became even more so after her brother died, as she pulled all-nighters, crisscrossed the country, and worked to shore up the New Deal and bolster military preparedness on the eve of the United States’ entry into World War II, also citing her role as a mother and sister who experienced fear.
In 1921, FDR contracted polio and began using a wheelchair, giving this patrician leader an uncanny ability to grasp and articulate the pain felt by millions of citizens amid the broader suffering inflicted by the Great Depression. Eleanor called her husband’s illness “a blessing in disguise, for it gave him strength and courage he had not had before. He had to think out the fundamentals of living and learn the greatest of all lessons — infinite patience and never-ending persistence.” Labor Secretary Frances Perkins observed that FDR’s paralysis “made it possible for the common people to trust him to understand what it is to be handicapped by poverty and ignorance, as well as by physical misfortunes.” As a physical matter, FDR’s illness initially brought him “extreme discomfort,” as he noted in a letter to his doctor, and he took a lifelong interest in leading the fight against polio, a kind of coda to his larger battle against hunger, fear and joblessness during the economic emergency.
Personal tragedies enable much of the public to regard their leaders, who have suffered so, as vulnerable, ordinary people with uncommon reservoirs of resiliency and humanity. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential bid, waged five years after an assassin killed President John F. Kennedy, his older brother, drew adoring crowds, as if his supporters longed to touch RFK, moved not just by his eloquence and proposals but more so by his subtle invocation of his brother’s inspirational legacy. At the same time, his campaign was a way to keep his brother’s spirit at the center of political life; RFK infused his own family’s tragedy with public purpose. His friend, writer Pete Hamill, urged him to run in 1968 in part because in the Watts neighborhood of Los Angeles, where riots had erupted three years earlier, Hamill had seen “pictures of JFK” on the walls, reminding RFK of his “obligation of staying true to whatever it was that put those pictures on the wall.” RFK carried Hamill’s letter with him as inspiration and said it persuaded him to enter the presidential race.
Although it is hardly comparable to Biden’s grief, Ronald Reagan’s alcoholic father, as Reagan suggested in his memoirs, was somebody he felt impelled to help, a parable of a citizen who aids those in their hour of need. When he came across his father who had fallen down drunk in the snow in front of their house, he briefly considered stepping over him and going to bed, but, he wrote, “I couldn’t do it.” Reagan picked him up, dragged him in the house and put him to bed. The story, he implied, taught him about human decency and one’s obligation to one’s family.
Similarly, Clinton reflected that his father’s death in a car accident powered his political ambitions, framing his life’s work. Losing his father, when Clinton was only a year old, made the future president feel “that I had to live for two people” and that his future achievements “somehow … could make up for the life he should have had.” (President Obama also lost his father when he was young, and his mother died at 52 of uterine cancer, losses at the crux of his political narrative in which he describes his search for his identity in response to his losses.)
There is no way to quantify or compare suffering among various politicians. And just because a political leader suffers doesn’t magically transform him or her into an authentic, more empathic tribune for the hopes and setbacks experienced by millions of ordinary citizens. Yet, looking at the 2016 field, it’s hard not to notice that few of our political leaders have suffered as much as Biden has. Most have lived charmed lives.
If Biden had run for office, even if he had lost badly, he would have been stumping in the shadow of some of the nation’s more esteemed public figures. Even in defeat, he would have performed a service, giving people hope that if Biden can “get up,” they can, too. The recent burst of sympathy for Biden’s losses, coupled with the media’s former interest in his candidacy, rest upon a sense that he was unusually well-qualified to grasp ordinary people’s fears, hardships and daily struggles – and, therefore, that he may have been more fit to lead than his would-be rivals in both parties in times of heightened uncertainty and national trial.