Rarely do I watch Joe Biden give a speech or an interview without looking for some evidence, in his eyes or the lines of his face, of the fact that he lost half of his young family when he was 30 years old. It is inconceivable to me, always has been, but especially in the years since I became a father. For all his goofballism, Biden has gone through a crucible that I cannot imagine. And he did so when he was 30, an adult, already deeply invested in the life he was building.
That’s not to diminish the tragedies that children endure. But at 30 years old to lose your wife and baby daughter, to almost lose your two toddler sons, and to somehow carry on? It truly baffles me. I know everyone says you do what you have to do. But that’s not really true. You don’t. You could curl up in the fetal position, if not literally then emotionally, and shrivel up. I’m more certain that that’s what I would do than I am confident I would find a way to persevere. But Biden has been through it. He’s seen hell and been back.
That he served his entire 36-year Senate career after that searing experience in December 1972, shortly after winning election, and then went on to become vice president, adds some drama to the story, I suppose. But for me the emotional highlight is just him getting out of bed the next day, and the day after that, and the one after that.
Which brings me to Joe Biden’s speech today in Shanksville, Penn., commemorating the victims of Sept. 11, 2001. The speech is marvelously and sensitively written. But rendered by Biden, drawing on his own life experience, in rhetorical ways that are not ostentatious and which don’t try to elevate his own story above those of the victims’ families, it packs a wallop that still makes me cut him a lot of slack for his sometime inexplicable goofiness.
From the transcript provided by the White House:
10:30 A.M. EDT
THE VICE PRESIDENT: Thank you, Mr. Secretary. Superintendent — Jeff, you’ve done a remarkable job here. And the thing I notice when I speak to you about is you’re invested in this place. It sort of has a — sort of stolen a piece of your heart. And that’s why I’m confident that all that you plan will happen.
Patrick, you’re keeping the flame alive, and keeping the families together is — from my experience, I imagine you all find solace in seeing one another. There’s nothing like being able to talk with someone who you know understands.
And it’s an honor — it’s a genuine honor to be back here today. But like all of the families, we wish we weren’t here. We wish we didn’t have to be here. We wish we didn’t have to commemorate any of this. And it’s a bittersweet moment for the entire nation, for all of the country, but particularly for those family members gathered here today.
Last year, the nation and all of your family members that are here commemorated the 10th anniversary of the heroic acts that gave definition to what has made America such a truly exceptional place — the individual acts of heroism of ordinary people in moments that could not have been contemplated, but yet were initiated.
I also know from my own experience that today is just as momentous a day for all of you, just as momentous a day in your life, for each of your families, as every September 11th has been, regardless of the anniversary. For no matter how many anniversaries you experience, for at least an instant, the terror of that moment returns; the lingering echo of that phone call; that sense of total disbelief that envelops you, where you feel like you’re being sucked into a black hole in the middle of your chest.
My hope for you all is that as every year passes, the depth of your pain recedes and you find comfort, as I have, genuine comfort in recalling his smile, her laugh, their touch. And I hope you’re as certain as I am that she can see what a wonderful man her son has turned out to be, grown up to be; that he knows everything that your daughter has achieved, and that he can hear, and she can hear how her mom still talks about her, the day he scored the winning touchdown, how bright and beautiful she was on that graduation day, and know that he knows what a beautiful child the daughter he never got to see has turned out to be, and how much she reminds you of him. For I know you see your wife every time you see her smile on your child’s face. You remember your daughter every time you hear laughter coming from her brother’s lips. And you remember your husband every time your son just touches your hand.
I also hope — I also hope it continues to give you some solace knowing that this nation, all these people gathered here today, who are not family members, all your neighbors, that they’ve not forgotten. They’ve not forgotten the heroism of your husbands, wives, sons, daughters, mothers, fathers. And that what they did for this country is still etched in the minds of not only you, but millions of Americans, forever. That’s why it’s so important that this memorial be preserved and go on for our children and our grandchildren, and our great-grandchildren, and our great-great-grandchildren — because it is what makes it so exceptional. And I think they all appreciate, as I do, more than they can tell you, the incredible bravery your family members showed on that day.
I said last year my mom used to have an expression. She’d say, Joey, bravery resides in every heart, and someday it will be summoned. It’s remarkable — remarkable — how it was not only summoned, but acted on.
Today we stand on this hallowed ground, a place made sacred by the heroism and sacrifice of the passengers and the crew of Flight 93. And it’s as if the flowers, as I walked here, as if the flowers were giving testament to how sacred this ground is.
My guess — and obviously it’s only a guess; no two losses are the same. But my guess is you’re living this moment that Yeats only wrote about, when he wrote, pray I will and sing I must, but yet I weep. Pray I will, sing I must, but yet I weep.
My personal prayer for all of you is that in every succeeding year, you’re able to sing more than you weep. And may God truly bless you and bless the souls of those 40 incredible people who rest in this ground.
David Kurtz is Managing Editor and Washington Bureau Chief of Talking Points Memo where he oversees the news operations of TPM and its sister sites.