The last time I chatted with Democratic Vice President Joe Biden it was in the back seat of an SUV between campaign events during the 2012 presidential election.
It may surprise you to know that Biden mainly wanted to share stories and warm remembrances of his old friend, the late Republican Sen. Jesse Helms. And he asked after the health of the senator’s widow, Dot Helms.
There was nothing unusual about the Biden-Helms friendship. He was also close to the late South Carolina Republican Sen. Strom Thurmond, as well as other conservative Republicans.
There were no political points to be made by Biden.
In a day of hyperpartisanship, Biden is a throwback to an earlier era when our nation’s political leaders tried to forge personal relationships and find common ground with people of different backgrounds, political parties and philosophies.
I was reminded of Biden by the recent passing of his son, Beau Biden, the former Delaware attorney general, who died of brain cancer at age 46. And I also got to thinking about Biden because of a piece written by Gary Pearce, a veteran Raleigh political consultant, in which he noted Biden’s remarkable humanity.
As Pearce notes in a blog at talkingaboutpolitics.com, Biden is often the subject of jokes and jeers because of his propensity for gaffes.
But in a world where politicians can seem plastic and superficial, Biden, who I have known since his aborted 1987 presidential campaign, has always struck me as someone in political life with authenticity.
Maybe that is because life has humbled him. He had just been elected as a 29-year-old to the U.S. Senate from Delaware when his wife, Neilia, and infant daughter, Naomi, were killed in an automobile accident, leaving his two little boys, Beau, 3, and Hunter 2, seriously injured.
It shook Biden, a Catholic, to his roots. He considered resigning his Senate seat. Instead, he commuted by Amtrak every day to his home in Delaware to be with his young boys.
Biden and Helms entered the Senate the same year, and whatever you think of Helms as a politician, it would have been very much like Helms as a man to reach out to the young senator who suffered such a terrible tragedy.
Biden himself was offered the last rites in 1987 when he underwent surgery for a life-threatening aneurysm.
Beau Biden followed his father into politics, winning election to two terms as attorney general and was widely seen as a likely 2016 candidate for governor of Delaware. Beau Biden was the keynote speaker at the North Carolina Democrats’ Jefferson-Jackson Dinner in Raleigh in 2012.
Joe Biden spent a considerable amount of time in North Carolina during the 2012 election, having been assigned the state by the Obama-Biden campaign. Among other things, he asked his staff to schedule stops at fire stations –joshing with firefighters is the way Biden likes to campaign.
Whether Biden will be back to North Carolina for another political run is an open question.
Biden, now 72, apparently has not ruled out running for president next year, and is likely to make a decision by August. But he would have a difficult time making up ground against former Sen. Hillary Clinton, who has a commanding lead in the early polls.
But when an old fire horse hears the bell, there is just no telling.