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Joe’s Journey

I’d hardly intended to begin a journey-themed series of posts, but I welcomed this title with “open arms” when I received my door prize yesterday: a coffee table book, “Joe’s Journey,” about the 47th Vice-President of the United States. This lovely parting gift, to use the parlance of game shows gone by, was bestowed on the 500 or so of us who’d attended Joe Biden’s return to Delaware yesterday. As Delaware’s first vice-president — a long time coming, considering that it holds the distinction as “the first state” — the six-plus-term Senator was given the “History Makers Award” by the Delaware Historical Society.1

My attendance at yesterday’s gala luncheon (albeit in a room illuminated to invoke a nightclub’s ambience) was one of the l’il benefits of having been a colleague of the veep’s; to use the term “colleague” very broadly. (Biden and a full-time faculty member co-taught a course in constitutional law at Widener on Saturdays for many years.) Another benefit  is that I can prove I was there:

biden award group

(See? I’m third from the left. Biden’s the one with his hands on the shoulders of the Dean, Linda Ammons. Note the inky black background; I was serious about the nightclub comment.)

The event started out with a cocktail hour — at 10:30 am! This is early, even for me, and it was a real cocktail party– no coffee, just drinks. So I had a bloody Mary, then another, then another, then another.2 By now it was 10:35 and I was wondering what I was going to do until lunch. At about 11:30, a cry went up as the VP entered the enormous room and was quickly surrounded by throngs of adoring admirers. Biden really is loved in Delaware, but he must have been taken aback (he never seems ill-at-ease, though) by the uptick in adoration since changing jobs. He could barely move.

The lunch finally began. Valerie Biden Owens, sister to The Man a Heartbeat from the Presidency, showed that eloquence and public grace were distributed abundantly to the Biden family. Without announcing what she was doing, she began mentioning a series of little moments — quickly it became apparent they were from her brother’s life as a public servant — actions, she said, that “were gathered up and stacked on top of each other over many years” to describe and (in so doing) honor her brother. One that stuck was the image of Biden racing for the train to Washington, but looking back in parting to his family. “Am I here, or there?” cries the perplexed protagonist in a Hawthorne short story. The thirty-six years of Amtrak commuting must at times have made him ask that question. And the importance of that train ride resurfaced, as you’ll see.

Then Biden fairly raced up the stairs, to a standing-ovation homecoming.3 Roughly, his speech divided  into two parts. The second part, while eloquent and inspiring for the political speech genre, wasn’t as moving or heartfelt as the first. That’s where Biden spoke to his homies in a voice from deep within. Whatever role speechwriters may have played, the personal message and feeling broke though. He began with a brother’s loving but playful tribute to his sister, saying that, while he’d heard her speak many times before, he’d “never heard her so loving.”

He then told a story that visibly moved him, and furthered deepened his connection to the audience. When asked to consider the most significant moment in his many years of political life, he had no hesitation. “Without a doubt,” he said, it had been the train ride from his native Wilmington to D.C., on the Saturday before the inauguration. In sight of the Third Street Bridge, he’d thought back to many years ago, when, as a young man, he’d been the only white employee at the pool located on the other side of that bridge. This, in turn, reminded him of the segregated society in which he’d grown up. And now, here he was, just about forty years later, boarding train to Washington with our nation’s first African-American President, with whom he was lucky enough to work. Reciting this story  was almost more than he could emotionally bear.

Biden’s reputation as a “gaffe machine” is probably deserved (and came out of hibernation recently with his impolitic and biologically inaccurate remarks about the flu), but anyone who hears Biden in full flight understands that  “gaffes” are the inevitable flip side to a kind of authenticity and honesty rarely approached by our political figures. It’s “small wonder” Delawarans have loved this guy for so long.

  1. Of course you’re wondering: But has Delaware ever sent a President to Washington? I didn’t know whether the fact that the question didn’t come up yesterday meant anything (if Delaware had sent, say, FDR and three other guys to the White House, it might have made the historical first celebrated yesterday accurate but…odd). But no, there have been no Presidents from this three-county state that touts itself, variously, as “The First State” (good), “The Diamond State” (inexplicable), “Small Wonder” (cloying), and… “The Home of Tax-Free Shopping” (practical, anyway). When it added this last nickname, Delaware surely claimed an additional distinction as the only state with more sobriquets than counties. But you don’t necessarily want a President from your state in any case: Just ask Iowans, who still look at the ground and absently kick pebbles when anyone mentions native son Herbert Hoover.
  2. Not really.
  3. I’m omitting extended discussion of the gauzy biopic that preceded Biden. Perhaps the book and a DVD can be packaged and wrapped together for future events.
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