Vice President Joe Biden walked America through his grief over the loss of his son Beau on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert Thursday night, turning the question of whether he will run for president into the afterthought of a powerful and emotional interview that will help define him no matter what he chooses to do.
"I’d be lying if I said I knew I was there," Biden said of meeting his own criteria for seeking the presidency.
I went out to Denver and I went to a military base and I met a whole group of military families, which is not unusual, on a rope line about 100 yards form the aircraft and about two-thirds were in uniform and the other were family members and I was thanking them and I really meant it. One percent is fighting for 99 percent of the rest of us. And I was talking about them being the backbone and the sinew of this country, and all of a sudden, it was going great and a guy in the back yells "Major Beau Biden, Bronze Star sir, I served with him in Iraq" and all of a sudden I lost it. I shouldn’t be saying this, but you can’t do that. You can’t do that.
Biden, who lost his first wife and a daughter in a car crash in 1972, and Colbert, who lost his father and two of his brothers in a plane crash in 1974, spent the majority of the two-segment interview sharing stories of sorrow and resilience. Biden asked Colbert how his mother made it through the sudden deaths in their family.
"She had to take care of me. She did. No, that’s it. We were there for each other, and I had to take care of her. I had to take care of her," Colbert said. "I used to have this little joke, which is I used to say, 'Oh yes, I raised my mother,' because after Dad and the boys died she was a little non compos mentis or at least emotionally completely shattered. I would say I raised my mom from that, from the years on, for a few years."
Though none of the other presidential candidates were mentioned, the interview served as a sharp contrast between Biden's ability to bare his soul and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton's unwillingness to do the same — a distinction Colbert subtly referred to in praising Biden for not being the kind of politician who tries to "triangulate your political position or emotional state to try to make us feel a certain way."
The term "triangulate" was a popular description of the way President Bill Clinton staked out ground between Republicans and Democrats in Congress — or above them — to reinforce the perception that he was moderate and reduce the effect of attacks on him from the GOP.
At the end of the interview, Colbert encouraged Biden to run, saying that his presence "would be sorely missed in the race" if he chose not to enter.
This is why I think people want you to run for president, and I know that’s an emotional decision you have to make. But it’s going to be emotional for a lot of people if you don’t run. And sir, I just want to say that I think that your experience and your example of suffering and service is something that would be sorely missed in the race — not that there aren’t good people on both sides running — but I think we’d all be very happy if you did run. And if you don’t I know that your service to the country is something we should all salute.
Here's the second part of the interview:
And here's a rough transcript:
STEPHEN COLBERT: Thank you for being here. Everybody likes Joe Biden, right? Isn’t that right? I’ll tell you why I think that is. I think it’s because when we see you we think that we’re actually seeing the real Joe Biden. You’re not a politician who’s created some sort of facade to get something out of this or triangulate your political position or emotional state to try to make us feel a certain way. We see the real you. How did you maintain your soul in a city that is so filled with people that are trying to lie to us in subtle ways?
JOE BIDEN: I commuted every day for 36 years.
SC: So it was going back to Delaware to get another piece of your soul every day.
JB: No, look, what always confuses me about some folks that I’ve worked with is why in God’s name would you want the job if you couldn’t say what you believed. There’s nothing noble about this, but ask yourselves the question: Would you want a job that in fact every day you had to get up and you had to modulate what you said in you believed? If you‘re going to run, you’re running for a reason and you want the job for a reason, and if you can’t state why you want the job, then there’s a lot more lucrative opportunities other places.
SC: I can’t imagine what it would be like to spend nine years pretending to be somebody that you’re not. Now…
JB: I’m going to give him trouble. I feel it coming.
SC: Mr. Vice President, there’s another reason people admire you and like you is that you’re a man of substance and people know that you have experienced tragedies in your life, and we are inspired by the way that you have responded to those. And for myself, and I suspect for millions of people out there, I’d like to offer my condolences for the loss of your son Beau.
JB: Thank you.
SC: I know that he was a great man, and I was hoping you could tell us a story about him. The president in his eulogy called your son Joe 2.0. In what way is that a compliment to you?
JB: You know, my dad had an expression. He used to say, "You know you’re a success as a parent when you turn and look at your child and realize they turned out better than you." I was a hell of a success. My son was better than me. And he was better than me in almost every way. The thing about Beau was, from the time he was … another expression my dad had was, "Never complain and never explain." I never one single time, my word as a Biden, ever, ever heard my child complain. When he was in that accident, lost his mom and his sister, he was very badly injured, almost every bone in his body broken, he was in a cast from his ankles, both legs, his chest, his arms, I used to carry him around with a hook in his back. And his brother, his best friend, a year and a day younger, was just about three and had a severe skull fracture and he’d sit in a room in the hospital and he’d say, "Hunt, look at me, look at me. I love you, I love you." Four years old. Nothing changed. A couple months before he died, I was at his house and he said, "Dad, sit down, I want to talk to you." And Hallie, his wife, incredible ... He said, "Dad, I know how much you love me. You’ve got to promise me something. Promise me you’re going to be all right. Because no matter what happens, Dad, I’m going to be all right. Promise me." This is a kid who, I don’t know what it was about him, he had this enormous sense of empathy. I’m not making this up. I know I maybe sound like a father.
SC: It sounds like you loved him, sir.
JB: Oh, jeez.
SC: How has your faith — I know you’re a man of deep faith — how has your faith helped you respond to having lost your first wife, and your daughter and now your son. How important is that in your life, and in what ways has it helped you?
JB: First of all it’s a little embarrassing to speak about me. There’s so many people, maybe some people in the audience, who have losses as severe or worse than mine and didn’t have the incredible support I have. I have such an incredible family. And so I feel self-conscious talking about. … Loss is serious and it’s consequential, but there’s so many other people going through this. But for me, you know my wife when she, she’s a professor, when she wants to leave me messages, she literally tapes them on my mirror when I’m shaving and she put up a quote from Kierkegaard, and Kierkegaard said faith sees best in the dark. And for me my religion is just an enormous sense of solace. And some of it relates to ritual, some if relates to just comfort and what you’ve done your whole life. I go to mass, and I’m able to be just alone even in a crowd. You’re alone. I say the rosary. I find it to be incredibly comforting. What my faith has done is it sort of takes everything about my life, with my parents and my siblings and all the comforting things. And all the good things that have happened have happened around the culture of my religion and the theology of my religion, and I don’t know how to explain it more than that. But it’s just the place that you can go. And by the way a lot of you have been through this; the faith doesn’t always stick with you. Sometimes, it leaves me. So I don’t want to come off like...
SC: I understand. You don’t want to come off as pious or a holy Joe. I understand that.
JB: I’m sure not.
SC: What inspires me, sir, about your response and your life and your service to the country and what you instilled in your children is that you have suffered, and yet through your suffering you seem to have made some beautiful things in your life. You’ve dedicated yourself to other people and helping them.
JB: Think of all the people you know who are going through horrible things, and they get up every the morning and they put one foot in front of the other and they don’t have, like I said, anything like the support I have. I marvel, I marvel at the ability of people to absorb hurt and just get back up, and most of them do it with an incredible sense of empathy to other people. I mean, it’s interesting, the people I find who I’m most drawn to are people who have been hurt and yet, I’m not going to embarrass you, but you’re one of them, buddy. No, no, no, no, no. Your mom, your family, losing your dad when you’re a kid and three brothers. It’s like asking what made your mother do it every day. How did she get up every single day with 11 kids?
SC: Well, she had to take care of me. She did. No, that’s it. We were there for each other, and I had to take care of her. I had to take care of her. Let me ask you something. I used to have this little joke, which is I used to say, "Oh yes, I raised my mother" because after Dad and the boys died she was a little non compos mentis or at least emotionally completely shattered. I would say I raised my mom from that, from the years on, for a few years. In what ways did Beau and Hunter raise you?
JB: My boys, honest to God, did. If my son Hunter was here, first thing he would give me a kiss and say, "Dad, do you need anything?" Always worried about me. And even in my public life, the boys would be, I’d be, like, doing a national debate with 70 million people watching the debate and I’d walk out of the room and the last two guys in the room would be my boys and they’d go, "Look at me, Dad, home base. Remember who you are, Dad. Remember who you are." No I’m serious. It was like my kids.
COMING BACK, AUDIENCE CHANTS "JOE, JOE, JOE"
JB: Be careful what you wish for.
SC: As I said, everybody likes Joe. And I have to say, even talking about you in the third person, I’m uncomfortable calling you Joe. You’re the vice president of the United States. I want to give your office the respect it deserves. How much is that?
(Biden puts his thumb and index finger close together to indicate not much)
SC: People make jokes about the vice … make jokes about the office all the time.
JB: They should. No, they really should. There is no inherent power in the vice presidency. But here’s the deal: It is directly a reflection of your relationship with the president. If you have a relationship with the president then everyone knows if they do, if it’s real, that you have his back and that you also have his confidence, then you can really do something worthwhile.
SC: You’re a close policy adviser to the president, and being with him in the tough moments, there is one job that preps you for...
JB: Chief of staff.
SC: And I just want to talk about the elephant in the room, which in this case is a donkey. Do you have anything you’d like to tell us right now about your plans?
JB: Yes. I think you should run for president again and I’ll be your vice president.
SC: You said, you said this weekend that you don’t know if you are emotionally prepared to run for president.
JB: Look, um, I don’t think any man or woman should run for president, unless number one they know exactly why they would want to be president and two they can look at the folks out there and say, "I promise you you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion to do this." And I’d be lying if I said I knew I was there. I went out to Denver and I went to a military base and I met a whole group of military families, which is not unusual, on a rope line about 100 yards form the aircraft, and about two-thirds were in uniform and the other were family members, and I was thanking them and I really meant it. One percent is fighting for 99 percent of the rest of us. And I was talking about them being the backbone and the sinew of this country, and all of a sudden, it was going great and a guy in the back yells, "Major Beau Biden, Bronze Star sir, I served with him in Iraq," and all of a sudden I lost it. I shouldn’t be saying this, but you can’t do that. You can’t do that.
SC: We did a show in Baghdad a few years ago and this was my first encounter with your son. We really wanted to interview him while we over there. You were vice president. He was serving, active duty over there, and he didn’t want any special attention. He didn’t want to leave his unit. He didn’t want to be singled out. Why do you think he was so modest about his own accomplishments and he wanted to serve with such modesty?
JB: Because he had such great courage and such great empathy. I mean, when he got to Iraq he asked permission of his commanding general could he take the name Biden off of his identification. I forget, I think he had Roberts on it because he didn’t want anybody giving him anything special. That’s who Beau was. And by the way, Beau’s not unique. There’s other women and men who serve like that. But you know he just never, never, never … he abhorred people who had a sense of entitlement, and he went the other way. I mean, he won the Bronze Star and came home and made us all promise that we wouldn’t tell anybody that he won the Bronze Star. My word. And he went to an affair where Iraqi veterans were being honored, and he wouldn’t put on his decorations. And he won the legion of merit. He was decorated. And General Odierno, his commanding officer, said, "You must put it on." He would not wear it. That was Beau. It was like, he didn’t feel he was … my mom used to have an expression and he lived it, and I know, this is an Irish Catholic thing—
SC: No, I love how many times you’ve said "My mom had an expression," because my mom had so many expressions.
JB: I know, I know—
SC: "What’s the use of being Irish if you don’t know that life is going to break your heart." So what did your mom say?
JB: My mom used to say, "Remember, nobody is better than you, but you’re better than nobody. Everybody’s equal." My mother really pounded it into our heads.
SC: You know there’s another person who said that, and that’s Thomas Jefferson, and this is why I think people want you to run for president. And I know that’s an emotional decision you have to make, but it’s going to be emotional for a lot of people if you don’t run. And sir, I just want to say that I think that your experience and your example of suffering and service is something that would be sorely missed in the race — not that there aren’t good people on both sides running — but I think we’d all be very happy if you did run. And if you don’t, I know that your service to the country is something we should all salute. So thank you so much. Ladies and gentlemen, Vice President Joe Biden.