What Reading Joe Biden’s Memoir Taught Me

Promise Me, Dad recently joined the ranks of the few books written by modern American politicians that I have read from cover to cover. Joe Biden’s memoir covers the period from Thanksgiving 2014 to the months which followed his son Beau’s death in May 2015, and it is worthy of the praise that it has been given by critics. It is moving and mostly unpretentious. It is a window into a year of Biden’s life with the glossy veneer scraped off, exposing that which is raw and relatable. Joe Biden has a reputation of a man who shoots from the hip, leaving gaffes and political misstatements in his wake. This memoir, though, both humanizes and dignifies him. When so many politicians use books as glorified PR machines, Biden’s sincerity towards his personal life is remarkable.

Yet, as I finished Promise Me, Dad, I felt bothered. The memoir was at its weakest when the narrative transitioned to Joe Biden’s political life. The quality of writing certainly drags as Biden spends a little too much time describing Russian troop movements and aid packages to Colombia. But more importantly, as the book covers to his duties as Vice President, the language and tone shift into something that isn’t completely relatable, genuine, and human anymore. I felt similarly to how I felt when I was reading The Giant of the Senate by Al Franken—a memoir that was outrageously funny and interesting, but littered with campaign-worthy rhetoric whenever the opportunity arose. It seems to be ubiquitous in books by modern American politicians that political decisions and interactions which are recounted have to be not only glorified, but justified extensively.

Reading Promise Me, Dad felt like reading two different books. One was a heartfelt reflection on personal loss, written by Joe Biden the father, the husband, the friend. The other, however, was a depiction of responsible political decision-making, written by Joe Biden, former Vice President.

This should be expected. Politics is complicated and messy. Politicians are hyper-aware that there is a clamoring constituency looking for reasons to vote them out of office; any personal admissions of weakness carry enormous risks. They are often forced by necessity to present the dry facts and then put the best spin on them. It is unsurprising that Biden’s personal voice gets lost when sanitized rhetoric is employed to glide over the grim reality of geopolitical turmoil. To his credit, even within this decontaminated zone of carefully-chosen prose, Joe Biden is more candid in how he describes his political life than most other politicians in their memoirs.

Still, I felt disappointed as the book progressed, as those instances of family and the struggles of a man dealing with personal tragedy were swept to the side by Secret Service agents hustling the Vice President to foreign policy meetings. I don’t think Biden should be faulted for how his language changes as the book shifts to his political life. It simply demonstrates how the pressures of a political life process the humanity of an individual, only allowing an alien, well-groomed, electorally-viable creature to emerge.

As the former Vice President recounts how he took the lead on gathering congressional support infrastructure spending bills or negotiations in the offensive to retake Tikrit from ISIL, his language shows that he – like all successful politicians – is very aware of the audience reading. His political decisions become the punchline after a series of justifying details, small victories are tinged with the pride of someone who feels that they are a great decision-maker. What was once a refreshing window into the unpolished aspects and intimacies of his life abruptly transforms into a stage, complete with microphone and podium. Even though Biden wrote this memoir after he left the Vice Presidency, aspirations of maintaining a legacy and, perhaps, positioning himself to run for president in 2020 are rude motivations. Those sections of Promise Me, Dad which depict Biden’s political life not only intrude into Biden’s personal life, but are also written in such a blasé manner that any politician could have authored it.

Promise Me, Dad is remarkable for how much it humanizes Joe Biden. There were heartrending passages that recount exchanges between him and his son. But it was precisely the level of sincerity much of the book demonstrated which makes the presentation of rest of the story so jarring. Once the topics turned from the decisions Biden made in with his family to the decisions he took as a public servant, it was if a spotlight turned on and made him aware that a reader was paying attention. In a process that is indicative of the experience of most elected officials in this country, Joe Biden the father, the husband, the friend, is swallowed whole by the lingering necessities of public relations and political posturing.

Syrus Jin ‘19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at jin.s@wustl.edu.

Syrus Jin

Syrus Jin '19 studies in the College of Arts & Sciences. He can be reached at jin.s@wustl.edu.

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