Joe Biden and I go back a long way — more than four decades. In that time, he has taught me two crucial life lessons. Now, I’m hoping he will provide a third one.
As a 15-year-old in 1972, I read about the tragic deaths of his first wife, Neilia, and their 1-year-old daughter. Only a few years before they were killed in a car wreck, my mother had bought us matching stationery sets. Hers read “Mrs. Margot Petrow” and mine “Steve Petrow.” Already a veteran letter writer, I took pen to paper and wrote Joe Biden a note of condolence.
I kept no copy of my missive, but I’ve held onto Biden’s response for 47 years now. His letter came in a heavy, cream-colored envelope with the return address, “United States Senate, Washington, D.C.,” Engraved in dark blue in the left corner. He addressed it to “Mr. Petrow,” probably the first time anyone had called me that:.
“I offer a belated thank-you for your kind words of condolence. I deeply appreciate your sentiments. I owed so very much to Neilia. She had a talent for making not only her own life worthwhile but also the lives of those around her. She was both a loving mother and a loving wife. In addition, she was my political confidant, in whose judgment I had implicit and utmost trust. Neilia looked forward to our coming to Washington. Now our life has been completely torn apart by an event I shall never completely comprehend. Neilia deserved better.
“Best wishes, Joe Biden”
Joe Biden, the role model
Back then, I knew nothing about illness, much less death — but Joe Biden’s family tragedy taught me about the random hands of the fates that can appear in no time from nowhere. In time, too soon in fact, I’d learn these lessons more fully, especially when I was diagnosed with cancer.
I had only a glimmer that in life, to borrow from mystery writer Dashiell Hammett, men die “at haphazard like that” and live “only while blind chance” spares them. The vice president himself put it even more simply in his 2015 graduation speech at Yale: “Reality has a way of intruding” into one’s life. That was Biden Lesson No. 1.
She would have done the same:Dear Kamala Harris, here’s why Joe Biden worked with segregationists in the Senate.
Since then, which adds up to much of my adult life, I’ve looked to Joe Biden as a role model — as a father, a spouse, a politician and simply as a man. Along the way, “Uncle Joe” (just one of his many nicknames) has made any number of gaffes (calling fellow presidential candidate Barack Obama “the first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean”) and misstatements (asking a state senator who is paralyzed to stand up) and “sleepy creepy” moments (President Donald Trump’s nod to Biden’s longtime disposition to be too touchy-feely with women). Call them whatever you want, I believed his heart was always in the right place even when his mouth — or hands — indicated otherwise.
In the sad spring of 2015, I, like many Americans, followed Joe and Jill Biden’s public embrace of their son Beau, who died of brain cancer. Again, I wrote Biden. Like Beau, I, too, had had cancer at an early age. Unlike Beau, I survived. Joe Biden’s open expression of his heart, his pain and his public anguish reminded me of the depth of this man’s feelings and his ability to connect to others, especially those who had endured personal loss.
“Dear Mr. Vice President,
“I am very sorry to hear about the loss of your son, Beau. Forty-three years ago you wrote to thank me for a condolence note I had sent you as a teenager on the passing of your wife and daughter. If anything your letter taught me that life’s complexities can’t always be understood and that they must be accepted, with the prayer that something good will follow.”
I did not hear back from the vice president, but that was OK. I believed that Biden might be able to translate this new loss into major advances for cancer treatment, especially when he spearheaded President Obama’s cancer moonshot program, which the vice president promised would “double the rate of progress in preventing, diagnosing and treating cancer.”.
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In a speech days before leaving office in 2017, the vice president, as he often had throughout his life, brought the personal to the political, in this case the medical. “Like many of you,” Biden said, “I decided to become acquainted with this after someone close to me in my family was diagnosed. You tend to try to learn everything you possibly can once that occurs. And I knew little about the discipline. And like I said, what impressed me was that so much of this is really very brand new in terms of the collaboration.”.
And there it was, Biden Lesson No. 2: Resilience in the face of adversity.
I hadn’t realized at the time how much such a lesson would mean. My mother had died 10 days earlier, and my father would pass 90 days later. A half-year later my little sister, a wife and mother of two girls, would be diagnosed with stage 4 ovarian cancer. With Julie’s diagnosis, if anyone now needed a moonshot — or just a plain shot in the arm — it was our family. Joe Biden gave me hope.
Not the man for this moment
In recent months, I’ve watched Biden with anticipation, only to find my enthusiasm curbed. He has rightfully been criticized for his role as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the 1991 Anita Hill hearings, and he recently told the hosts of ABC’s “The View”: “Look at what I said and didn’t say; I don’t think I treated her badly.”.
His record speaks for itself:I was with Joe Biden when no one was looking, and he was always a champion for women.
When it comes to his history of inappropriately touching women, the former veep — despite a video statement declaring “I get it” — continues to make jokes about this topic.
Then, in the first presidential debates late last month, I watched Biden — my teenage hero and midlife role model — lose his footing in front of more than 18 million viewers.
The details of his exchange with Sen. Kamala Harris of California are well known: She accused him of cozying up to two segregationist senators under the guise of civility, and he then gave a states rights defense of his opposition to busing as a means to achieve integration. Suffice it to say, Joe Biden showed us that when it comes to gender and race, he’s out of step with these times. Instead, I wish he had given me a third life lesson: Don’t confuse a mea culpa or a real, genuine apology with weakness. It’s about being human.
Over the weekend, Biden asked a South Carolina crowd rhetorically whether he was “wrong a few weeks ago to somehow give the impression to folks that I was praising those people who I opposed time and again?” “Yes, I was,” he answered. His quasi apology for the “pain and misconception it may have caused” was both a day late and a dollar short — actually more like nine days late.
Biden has taught me so much in my lifetime — about loss, about love, about virtue. I now wish the former vice president would extend a final lesson as a public servant and show us how to make a graceful exit before his accomplishments of the past are erased by this new day. We, too, owe him that.
Joe Biden means too much to me and to so many other Americans for his next — and final political chapter — to be one of missteps and gaffes, but most of all a tone-deafness that reveals a man whose time has come and is now over.
Steven Petrow, a Washington Post columnist and a regular contributor to the The New York Times, is the host of “The Civilist,” a new podcast produced by PRI and WUNC that discusses today’s toughest political and social issues. Follow him on Twitter: @stevenpetrow.