Joe Biden spent nearly 45 minutes sitting on the Belk Theater stage Wednesday night engaged in a bittersweet fireside chat with former Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx, who gently tossed out questions about the memoir the 47th Vice President published last fall.
Biden talked tenderly of admiring his eldest child Beau and his younger son Hunter when they were young boys — calling the former “his soul” and the latter “his heart,” praising them for being rocks for him after the two survived an automobile accident in 1972 that killed his first wife, Neilia, and his baby daughter Naomi.
He explained that he wrote “Promise Me, Dad” as a tribute to Beau (aka Joseph Biden III), who died at age 46 of brain cancer three years ago, and that he hoped sharing his family’s story would buoy other people suffering in the wake of personal tragedy.
He recalled President Barack Obama weeping at the news that Beau was running out of treatment options, and referred to their famously close prez-veep relationship as being “like a marriage.” He spoke passionately about his years-long, Obama-approved quest to find immunotherapies against cancer.
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It’s all covered in that book.
And in every city on Biden’s “American Promise Tour,” though a different public figure has served as guest moderator — Tom Brokaw, Jenna Bush Hager, Stephen Colbert, Melinda Gates, Al Roker, to name just a few — each one’s aim has generally been the same: to help sell that book.
Foxx (who of course also was mayor of Charlotte from 2009 to 2013) played his part perfectly.
“You know, you’ve talked a couple of times about your relationship with President Obama. I’m gonna read a passage here from your book. It’s probably the only one I’ll read,” he said, turning toward the audience and smiling, “so you have to buy it if you haven’t bought it already.”
After Biden spent several minutes heaping praise on Obama (and joking that, “by the way, he did the first friendship bracelet, not me”), Foxx went back to the tome:
“Your book opens with a quote from Immanuel Kant,” he said. “ ‘Something to do, something to love, something to hope for,’ as a recipe for happiness.”
Foxx didn’t pose it as a question, and Biden responded with a brief but meandering meditation on happiness and finding your passion before using the “hope” part of the quote as a springboard for what sounded a lot — a lot — like a campaign speech.
Or, perhaps, a dress rehearsal for one.
As many folks are aware, Biden ultimately did not seek the Democratic nomination for president in 2016 because of the toll Beau’s cancer diagnosis took on him, the timing of his death in 2015, and the grief he grappled with afterward. Though this could be argued till the end of time, and we’ll never know the answer, some believe he would have done better against Donald Trump than Hillary Clinton.
Today — especially as he makes these rounds in these cities on this tour that ostensibly is about promoting “Promise Me, Dad” — a new question persists: Will Biden run in 2020?
The former Vice President has not said a word one way or the other.
However, while addressing the idea of hope as his short visit to Charlotte drew to a close on Wednesday night, he turned to the audience and said 12 words that shifted the tone: “I’ve tried not to make this book tour be about politics, but...”
He never mentioned Trump by name; the lowest he’d go was to say “I know things are pretty rough,” and “politics have become so coarse and so crass.” Instead, he made the case that America doesn’t need to be made great again, because it’s already great.
“I’ve met every major world leader in the last 40 years — that’s not hyperbole. Every one,” Biden said. “I know almost all the world leaders by their first names, I know their families, because I learned them. ... And I don’t know one who wouldn’t trade places, in a heartbeat, with the President of the United States.”
He was standing up at this point, and had taken a couple of steps closer to the front of the stage. There was no podium and no teleprompter, but his voice was growing louder and his upper lip was getting stiffer. Foxx had faded almost completely into the background.
“We have the most powerful military in the history of the world,” Biden continued. “... The most productive workers in the world; they’re three times as productive as the workers in Asia. That’s real, that’s a fact. We have more great research universities in the United States of America ... than all the rest of the world combined. And think about it: Every major life-changing invention that’s occurred in the last 30 years has come out of one of our research universities. ... Name me one life-altering initiative that has ‘Made in China,’ ‘England,’ ‘France,’ ‘Germany,’ ‘Russia,’ stamped on it.”
He downplayed the threat of China as a world power, saying it doesn’t have enough energy or enough water. He called Russia a third-world country — “I’m not being critical. It’s a fact: The economy of Russia is smaller than the state of California” — and suggested that things are only getting worse there.
“I mean, this is the United States of America, for God’s sake. And they’re not hard answers. We’ve done this before. We’ve done this before. But we gotta give people opportunity. We gotta make continuing education that’s affordable. We’ve gotta have health care for ...”
Whatever he said after that was drowned out by vigorous applause, but he continued trying to shout through it just like a political candidate at a rally would.
He closed by telling a brief, quiet story about his grandfather (one he’s told often before) that ends like this: “Every time I’d walk out of his house, he’d go, ‘Joe, keep the faith.’ And my grandma would go, ‘No, Joey — spread it.’
“Go spread the faith. This is America. We can do anything. Thank you.”
Then he smiled, waved and exited stage right, leaving one giant question hanging in the auditorium — and several stacks of books available for purchase out in the lobby.