What makes Joe Biden so real?

What makes Joe Biden so real? Especially during the election and now, as this administration comes to an end, I’m struck by his simple way of being and his authenticity. Those aren’t things that often come to mind for politicians.

President Obama awarded Biden the Presidential Medal of Freedom today, the nation’s highest civilian honor. It was a moving ceremony because it revealed the human sides of both Obama and Biden. The President spent most of his time describing the type of man that Biden is rather than his political achievements. He quoted a Republican colleague of Biden’s from the Senate as saying, “If you can’t admire Joe Biden as a person, you’ve got a problem. He’s as good a man as God ever created.”

The word for what Joe Biden has is character. It’s what makes him seem real. From what I can tell (and I say this humbly, having known him only through speeches and YouTube videos), he became this man through three things: faith, service, and tragedy.

Biden is a Catholic. Along with John Boehner, he received the Laetare Medal from Notre Dame in 2016, the highest award given to American Catholics. He said it was the most meaningful award he had ever received.

He has been a public servant for nearly fifty years. His life in politics has been long and successful, but he describes his successes as the result of prioritizing service to family, faith and country over personal ambition.

And he has suffered great personal tragedy. In 1972, weeks after being elected to the Senate for the first time at age 29, his wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. And in 2015, his oldest son Beau died at the age of 46 of brain cancer.

The link between these three pillars of character in Joe Biden’s life is summed up neatly in the citation accompanying his medal ceremony today:

“While summoning the strength, faith and grace to overcome great personal tragedy, [he] has become one of the most consequential vice presidents in American history, an accolade that nonetheless rests firmly behind his legacy as husband, father and grandfather.”

I think his example is instructive in two ways: First, as a model for public service and character. Whatever you might think about his politics, everyone can learn something from this man’s life and the way he carries himself. And second, that in his very public life, we see a real, emotional human being doing his very best to move things forward. That’s important and rare; we’re often given sterile, polished caricatures of people instead. When we see someone conforming themselves as a person to fit their politics, we can’t separate the two. But that separation between person and politics is the essential quality of healthy debate. In a political climate as divided as this, we have to look first for the people behind the argument, for only once we’ve found them can we debate their politics in good faith.

Joe Biden seems real because he’s lived a full life and he lets us see it. I think his faith, a life of service and the pain of personal tragedy have grounded him in way that lets him open up. And he does so, fittingly, with humility. He began his acceptance remarks tonight by acknowledging the help he’s had along the way:

“I get a lot of credit I don’t deserve because I’ve always had somebody to lean on.”

I highly recommend his commencement speech at Notre Dame last spring. Thanks to Q for sharing that with me.

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