Former president Barack Obama sprinkles his new memoir with some kind words for his one-time wingman Joe Biden. "Joe had heart," he writes in A Promised Land. "He had endured unimaginable tragedy… Joe was decent, honest and loyal. I believed he cared about ordinary people." But haven't we heard all this before?
Over eight years, Obama and Biden forged a historic White House friendship: no president and vice-president had ever demonstrated such affection for each other. If anyone could provide special insight into America's president-elect, Obama surely would be that person. But don't look here for deep introspection on our 46th president or even a recognition of the so-called bromance that enthralled a large swathe of the American public. This first volume of the president's memoirs ends in 2011, before the relationship hit its emotional peak amid the illness and death of Biden's son Beau. Perhaps Obama's promised second volume will explore the breadth of the friendship.
In these pages, the praise of Biden is largely descriptive - neither analytical nor revelatory. "Joe was all warmth," Obama writes. "You could see it as he worked a room, his handsome face always cast in a dazzling smile (just inches from whomever he was talking to), asking a person where they were from, telling them a story about how much he loved their hometown."
During the 2008 Democratic primary contest, Biden stumbled into a racially charged blunder when he told a reporter that his then-rival Obama was "articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy". Obama dispenses with the incident in a single sentence, noting that the phrase was "surely meant as a compliment, but interpreted by some as suggesting that such characteristics in a black man were noteworthy". His reason for mentioning it at all is to observe that Biden's "lack of a filter periodically got him in trouble". At the time, he scolded Biden for suggesting that other black leaders were inarticulate, but then quickly forgave him. What had he seen in Biden that encouraged him to absolve his opponent? Was it mere political expediency? Or was he swayed by Biden's power of persuasion - a profitable trait now for an incoming president who may face an intractable Senate?
When I was researching my book on the pair, I had many questions about both men, but they denied my interview requests. So I turned to their aides. The closest I got to understanding Obama's reaction to Biden's gaffe was an analysis given to me by Obama adviser David Axelrod. "Obama didn't go to a darker place in his interpretation of what was said," Axelrod told me. Instead, he accepted Biden as Biden. Obama told Axelrod: "I understand what Joe meant. I know what's in his heart."
A few months into the Obama presidency, African American Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr was arrested for alleged disorderly conduct in Cambridge, Massachusetts, when someone reported him for supposedly breaking into his own house. Amid the controversy - stoked by Obama, who said the police had acted "stupidly" - the president invited Gates and the arresting officer, Sgt James Crowley, to the White House for a beer. "Six days later," Obama writes, "Joe Biden and I sat down with Sergeant Crowley and Skip Gates at the White House for what came to be known as the 'Beer Summit'." It confounded me while researching my book, and again while reading Obama's, why Biden suddenly was added to the guest list. Kate Bedingfield, White House communications specialist, told me that the meeting "was a fraught and tough situation", the kind that played to the vice-president's social skills. "The vice-president has an uncanny ability to cut through to the real human emotion and understand where others are coming from," she explained.
Georgetown University professor Michael Eric Dyson, an eloquent voice on racial relations, had a provocative interpretation: Biden was indispensable, given the black president's famous taciturnity on race. Around the Beer Summit table, Biden could not only be a unifying white emissary but also give voice to issues of injustice and discrimination that Obama preferred to sidestep. "Biden had black resonances in a way, ironically enough, that he brought to bear to the benefit of Barack Obama, the black man," Dyson said. Noting that Obama's upbringing in Hawaii and Indonesia left him in some ways deficient in certain parts of black life and culture, Dyson argued that Biden "was more intimately familiar with some rituals of American blackness than Obama was". Biden's racial bona fides were so deeply established that "the perception was that the blackest man in the White House was the white guy".
More than a decade later, Obama is more comfortable articulating America's racial complexities than he was during his time in the White House. In his discussion of the Beer Summit, he gives a thoughtful analysis of the "humiliations and inequities" that black people experience every day, lacing in the "multiple occasions" when police stopped him for no reason or security guards followed him in department stores. If Obama mentions Biden only in passing, it's understandable given that Biden has never experienced these day-to-day indignities. But the vice-president's inclusion in the Beer Summit showed Obama's faith that Biden is capable of navigating the delicate intersection of black and white sensitivities, an important quality at a time when the US is in desperate need of racial reckoning.
Biden is portrayed in the memoir largely as a man who served his boss well, but mostly he crosses these pages as just one member of a team of advisers. In truth, he was much more than that. Perhaps it shouldn't be a surprise that the tale of the twosome remains mostly off-screen. The star of this show is Obama. Yet the blunted portrait of Biden is a loss for all of us wishing to know this perceptive observer's unique insights into America's next president.
Steven Levingston is the author of 'Barack and Joe: The Making of an Extraordinary Partnership'
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