Review: Vivien Horler
Promise Me, Dad, by Joe Biden (Macmillan)
The name Joe Biden on the cover of this book seemed familiar – wasn’t he an American politician? But with its title of Promise Me, Dad, it didn’t seem that kind of book. Maybe a different Biden.
But no. Joe Biden was Barack Obama’s vice president, at the charismatic US president’s side for the two terms they served, and privy to the highest power in the land – like Obama he too had control of the codes that could launch a nuclear strike. He had a Security Service detail, flew in Air Force Two, and lived in an official residence not far from the White House. He was also considering running for president after Obama.
But Joe Biden was – and is – a devoted family man and devout Catholic, who has had more than his share of personal tragedy. Promise Me, Dad, is the story of a year “of hope, hardship and purpose” towards the end of the second Obama term, and describes how Biden navigated his high-pressure job at the same time coping with the fact that his beloved elder son Beau, attorney-general of the state of Delaware and intending to run for the state governorship, was dying of a brain tumour.
Joe was very close to his sons Beau and Hunt. When the boys were young, say three or four, Biden’s wife Neilia and baby daughter were killed in a car accident in which the boys were injured, and perhaps this tragedy had something to do with the strong bonds between the Biden men. Some years later Joe met and married Jill, and they had a daughter.
Every year the extended family – by November 2014 when this memoir opens the children were all married and the boys had children of their own – would gather on the island of Nantucket for Thanksgiving. It is the sort of place where the vice president could stroll in the streets and go to local restaurants with his family.
The family were happy that year, even though Beau had already been diagnosed. But they all believed the tumour could be beaten. Beau, writes Biden, “had all the best of me, but with the bugs and flaws engineered out”.
Every year in Nantucket the family would have their photograph taken outside a seaside house under its name-plate “Forever Wild”. But in 2014, when they arrived at the house it was gone, a victim of rising tides that had been washing away at its foundations.
A year later, Beau was gone too.
Few people knew how ill Beau was that last year, as Beau himself wanted the news kept from the public. So Joe, who had been given major responsibilities by Obama – including in Ukraine and Iraq – had to do his job to the best of his ability, travelling more than 160 000km that year while also being available for hospital visits and family responsibilities.
Obama knew about Beau, and was hugely supportive. Biden writes how over the years of the presidency he came to both like and admire the president enormously. They would see each other every day in the course of their work, but also had a private lunch together once a week when the conversation would range from international affairs to family matters.
And the affection and admiration were mutual. Biden quotes a speech Obama gave to the White House Correspondents’ Dinner at a time of controversy about businesses that had refused to cater to gay weddings.
Obama said: “He’s not just a great vice president, he’s a great friend. We’ve gotten so close, there’s places in Indiana that won’t serve us pizza anymore.”
Biden, who represented Delaware for 36 years in the US Senate before becoming vice president, is a man of decency and duty, qualities that shine out from this memoir. His motive in considering running for president after Obama was to complete the work he and Obama had begun.
The title refers to a promise Beau extracted from his father when he became ill: “Promise me Dad, that no matter what happens, you’re going to be all right.” Biden explains Beau was concerned his grief-strocken father would retreat from his obligations to the wider world.
It is astonishing to a non-American reader to realise that after eight years of a government led by two men of such integrity, the electorate opted for Donald Trump.
Trump is not named in the book, but Biden does refer to divisive partisan politics ripping the US apart. “It’s mean-spirited. It’s petty. And it has gone on for much too long.”
Biden must be disappointed with the government his country now has, but he has not given up: he ends saying he still has a duty to change the country and the world for the better.
There is a quote at the beginning of the memoir from Immanuel Kant listing the rules for happiness: “Something to do, someone to love, something to hope for.” Despite it all, Biden is still hoping.
- This review also appeared in Weekend Argus on Sunday on February 11, 2018.