On the Need for Public Displays of Grief

From a sentimental point of view, the death of Beau Biden makes it more difficult for his father, Joe Biden, to run for president.  From a cynical point of view, it might make it easier.

Joe Scarborough once said that a prominent Republican told him that he wanted to run for president in 2012, but to be successful, he would have to defeat America’s first African American president, and he didn’t want to be that guy.  That person is probably one of the candidates now running for the Republican nomination.  Along similar lines, in order for Joe Biden to become the next president, he would have to defeat Hillary Clinton, who is set to become America’s first female president.  And that would be a most dastardly deed.

This same reasoning probably lies behind the reticence of other prominent Democrats to run for president this year.  Martin O’Malley, Jim Webb, and Lincoln Chafee are not serious contenders. They are probably running for vice president or some other place in a future Clinton administration, or they may just be hoping to get more name recognition.  And sometimes candidates run not so much with the expectation of winning as to promote their favorite cause. It might be that Lincoln Chafee just wants to promote the use of the metric system.  Bernie Sanders might have originally decided to run for that purpose, to advance his populist agenda, although by now he probably figures he really has a chance at winning.  Though his winning would deprive America of its first female president, yet it would give America its first socialist president, and that would be just as significant, if not more so.

If Joe Biden were to enter the race, he would be a serious candidate with a chance of winning both the nomination and the presidency, so he is not like Messrs. O’Malley, Webb, and Chafee. In fact, as the sitting vice president, his gaining the nomination of his party is almost obligatory.  One has to go back to the Truman administration to find a sitting vice president, Alben W. Barkley, who wanted the nomination but did not receive it.  However, Biden is a white male with mainstream political views, so his election would not constitute, in itself, some kind of progressive breakthrough the way electing a woman or a socialist would.

Furthermore, while sitting vice presidents usually get the nomination, they typically fail to win the election.  George H. W. Bush was an exception to this, of course, but you have to go all the way back to Martin Van Buren to find another.  So if Biden were to run, not only might he spoil America’s chance at having a woman for president, but he might also fail to win in the general election besides, thereby ending his career as a loser.

But the death of his son changes Biden’s prospects, and not necessarily for the worse.  Just before he died, Beau told his father that he wanted him to run for president.  I admit to being a cynic of sorts, but I would never go so far as to say that Joe Biden made up this death-bed request.  That would be something you might see in a bad political melodrama.  The story is undoubtedly true. But he didn’t have to make it public.  That was a deliberate choice.

Granted it was a choice, the question remains what the motive in making it public was.  As we all know, people grieve in different ways.  It might have been a natural impulse on Biden’s part to tell others what his son’s last words to him were.  But the political implications of relating that information is undeniable, and it may have entered into his political calculations.  In other words, interfering with Hillary’s hopes seems more justifiable if Biden’s run for the presidency can be cast as the fulfillment of a dying son’s last wish.

To say that there was a political calculation in making that story public is not to say his grief was not genuine, for love and selfishness can coexist in the mind at the same time.  My mother was devastated when my father died, and it took her a long time to get over it.  But she later confessed to me that when the doctor at the hospital informed her that her husband had passed away, the song “Ding Dong!  The Witch Is Dead!” popped into her head.

A couple of days ago, Biden appeared on the Late Show, and he spent much of the time talking of Beau’s death, during which he became emotional.  Again, cynic though I am, I do not doubt that the emotion was genuine.  Much was made of Bill Clinton’s calculated display of grief at Ron Brown’s funeral almost twenty years ago.  He was laughing at something when he saw the camera was on him, and then he tried to recover by looking sad and wiping away a tear. But then, I have done as much myself.  To refer again to my father’s death, from the time he died until his funeral a few days later, I drifted in and out of grief, so that at times I was in a perfectly good mood.  On the day of the funeral, my cousin started talking to me, and she told me about something amusing that happened to her at work, and I was laughing at her salacious account when I suddenly heard my mother call out to me, letting me know that the minister was ready, and it was time for us to be seated near the grave.  Like Bill Clinton, I immediately did a face swipe, displaying a mournful countenance, while kicking myself for being distracted by my cousin’s ribaldry.  Therefore, I have no doubt that Bill Clinton was genuinely saddened by the death of Ron Brown, despite the fact that he was caught laughing and then tried to cover it up. By the same token, I do not doubt for a moment that what we saw of Biden’s heartache on the Late Show was genuine.

But once again, it is the public display that inspires cynicism.  Because we all grieve in our own way, perhaps some people just need to grieve on television. Perhaps it is because I never had the opportunity of using a television appearance as an outlet for my own bereavement that I fail to appreciate just how cathartic it can be to have millions of people watch as you get choked up talking about the death of a loved one.  Still, allowing as best I can for the relativity of it all, the idea of doing something like that simply does not appeal to me.  And so, once again, a cynical interpretation naturally presents itself. Again, I do not doubt that the emotion was genuine.  It is the motive for making it public that makes me think there was a political calculation behind it.

Suppose Biden had not told us about his son’s wish that he run for president, and suppose further that he had grieved in private all this time. Then, about a month from now, Biden suddenly declares he is running for president.Though months would have passed between the death of his son and his announcement, yet in the public’s mind there would be an incongruous lurch from anguish to ambition.  It is not Biden alone who must be prepared emotionally to run for president.  The public must be prepared for it too.  We must see the sorrow and the struggle.  Then, a few weeks from now, when Biden throws his hat in the ring, we can be satisfied that a proper period of mourning has elapsed, buttressed by comparisons to the past. We are told that he considered resigning from his recently won senate seat on account of an automobile accident that killed his wife and his daughter, and that injured his two sons. However, he was persuaded not to resign and threw himself into his work instead.  As a result, the public is ready to believe that Biden will deal with his grief by running for president.

It does not follow from this that Biden will actually run.  Hillary’s numbers in the polls might start to improve, and all the ordinary calculations that might deter him from running may be decisive.  But if circumstances prove to be propitious, Biden has prepared the way for his candidacy through these calculated, public displays of grief, genuine though that grief may be.

2 thoughts on “On the Need for Public Displays of Grief

  1. Good post. I disagree with a few points, but I like how you framed both sides. I think he had to make his grieving public because he is a public figure. Sounds trite, but us regular folks can grieve in private if we want. Or not. Regular people don’t have their son’s funeral broadcast live on TV. I can’t even imagine. I worked a regular job, but I had to put on a public face at my mom’s funeral. Even that was a struggle. I would imagine that Biden has gotten so many questions about running that he had to say something. A part of me wonders if you truly believe that this man isn’t really grieving. My mom’s death is still fresh and it’s been three years. My mom was just a guidance counselor, but 1000s of people were impacted by her death. I can’t imagine grieving in public. I’m sure this man is torn. In some ways grieving and death have defined his career; not fair, but somewhat accurate. There are always references to the accident that claimed his wife and child. This man, whether he runs or not, will always have grief attached to his career and some people will always seeing him in a sympathetic light. But that’s not his fault and I’m pretty sure he didn’t plan it this way. So in some ways, his public display of grief may be his ‘normal’. He really doesn’t have a choice. Did he have to mention the bedside conversation? Nah. But usually after someone dies we recount the last things they said to us. Two nights before my mom died she said to me “Live your life, no matter what, live your life”. That could mean many things to different people, but it’s what I’ll always remember as the last thing she said to me and it’s what I share with others. It means nothing to no one else but me and I knew exactly what she meant. Anyway, good post for discussion.

    Liked by 1 person

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