Joe Biden wears a rosary on his left wrist, a gift his younger son, Hunter, gave to the former vice president’s older son, the late Beau Biden, after a visit to the shrine of Our Lady of Guadalupe. Stephen Colbert called attention to the rosary about midway through his conversation with Biden at Lincoln Center’s David Geffen Hall on Nov. 13, the opening night of Biden’s “American Promise”tour. The personal item was a fitting symbol for Biden’s new book, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose—an alternately grand, sweeping discussion of current events in the United States and a quiet, intimate look at a father who will probably never stop grieving his son.
The tour has been hyped by the political media as a test run for a 2020 presidential bid, and with its 19-city sweep across the country, particularly in the crucial swing states of Michigan, North Carolina and Pennsylvania, this may well be a stealth political campaign. The tone of the conversation between Biden and Colbert was, however, subdued. It was less a chest-thumping rally and more a reflective town meeting, with Biden serving less as a politician than as a counselor or church pastor, offering wisdom from his life’s experiences. And there is perhaps no better person to counsel our country at a time of division and discouragement than the nation’s 47th vice president, who lost his first wife and daughter to a car accident and his eldest son to brain cancer.
The promise that Biden’s book title alludes to is one Beau asked for after his cancer diagnosis: “Promise me, Dad. Give me your word that no matter what happens, you’re going to be all right.” The elder Biden took that to be a request that he not give up, not turn inward. He admitted that he had actually decided not to run for the presidency in 2016—well before his official announcement in October of 2015 and before Beau Biden’s death in the spring of 2015. But he worried an early withdrawal would demoralize his son, whose trademark optimism and deep Catholic faith were crucial in his fight against cancer.
Discussion of current politics was reserved for the end of the interview with Colbert, though Biden clearly encouraged the audience to take the lessons he learned from coping with the grief of his son’s loss—to find a new purpose—and apply them to their own dejection in the face of American life in 2017.
Colbert’s most probing questions were about the former vice president’s successor; Biden was generous to Vice President Mike Pence, noting Pence reached out to Biden for advice. And while they have strong differences on domestic policy, Biden said, he has faith that Pence is more of a traditionalist internationally. He also revealed he believes that unlike President Trump, Pence is much more distrusting of Russian President Vladimir Putin.
'I’d much rather we have President Clinton right now,' said Biden.
Biden was less forthcoming on matters of the Democratic Party’s future. He praised the recent election wins in Virginia, singling out Danica Roem’s victory as the first openly transgendered member of the Virginia House of Delegates. He also paid tribute to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton with the unequivocal “I’d much rather we have President Clinton right now” and Senator Bernie Sanders, whose candidacy he called “consequential.” He dodged questions on his own potential future as a presidential candidate but did name Senators Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren as potential 2020 presidential candidates.
Biden raised eyebrows and stirred discussion when Colbert questioned him about the Trump administration, which the Late Show host referred to as a “flaming toboggan ride.”
“It may be a toboggan ride,” Biden replied, “but it’s almost at an end,” an answer that left Colbert and many in the audience questioning if that was a reference to Democratic electoral wins or to something else on the horizon. But Biden would not say more.
Joe Biden may be a presidential candidate in waiting, but as he launches his book tour, he seems to have found a truly valuable role as a father. In telling the story of his family, Biden embodies a quote from Kierkegaard that meant so much to his son: “Faith sees best in the dark.”