The former vice president turns in an affecting memoir that recounts personal tragedies and political triumphs.
“The bigger the highs, the deeper the troughs.” So writes Biden (Promises to Keep: On Life and Politics, 2007, etc.) who, over a long career in politics, has seen plenty of both. On the positive side, he enumerates with pride and a certain wonkiness, are his achievements in law enforcement reform, health care, and foreign policy—achievements sometimes thwarted by the political opposition. As to the depths of despair, he had to endure the deaths of his first wife and baby daughter in a car accident and, later, that of a survivor of that crash, his son Beau, who died of a lingering, devastating cancer. A letter from Vicki Kennedy, Ted Kennedy’s widow, quoting her father-in-law on the sorrow of losing a child, provides a touch of inspiration in a narrative grown understandably somber; in it, Kennedy Sr. urged that, in time, “because there is a world to be lived in, you find yourself part of it, trying to accomplish something.” The promise Beau extracted before dying speaks to that effort to accomplish—including, in the past, advances in LGBT civil rights and, now, a new attention to corporate responsibility in the face of growing inequality. Putting on his old campaigner’s hat, he recounts a trope from the past that resounds in the present: “a secure and growing middle class is why America has had the most stable political democracy in the world. If we lose that…no amount of money will hold back the anger and the pitchforks.” Biden is discreet in naming names that others might revile, but he offers tantalizing hints that, following a conversation with President Barack Obama—not always an easy man to work with, he allows, but a supremely principled one—about what to do upon leaving office, his plans might just include a return to public life, a duty, he writes, that “makes me nostalgic for the future.”
Could this signal an opening salvo in the 2020 presidential campaign? Many readers will hope so.