Thursday, January 21, 2021

Book review: ‘Promise Me, Dad’ by Joe Biden

Philippine Daily Inquirer/OPINION/by Ma. Ceres P. Doyo

I read in one sitting “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship and Purpose” (2017) by then U.S. Vice President Joe Biden who, any moment now, would be sworn in as President of the world’s most powerful nation.

“Promise me, Dad, that you’re going to be all right” were words of Beau, Biden’s eldest son, to his father. Beau died of glioblastoma or cancer of the brain in 2015 at the age of 45. He had served as an army major in Iraq and, at the time of his death, was attorney general of the state of Delaware.

Biden tells the story in first-person about what he and his family went through while Beau battled cancer and until he died. It is one family’s story.

But “Promise Me, Dad” is also about what it was like to serve as Vice President while coping with a crisis in the family. Biden was no sitting spare tire to Pres. Barack Obama who had handpicked him despite the former’s initial hesitation. “I never had a boss,” he told his wife Jill, “What it is like to be number 2.”

Words from his 90-year-old ma: “So let me get his straight, honey. The first African-American in history who has a chance to be president needs your help to win—and you say no?”

The rest is history. The Obama-Biden tandem served from 2009-2017. Before becoming the 47th US VP, Biden represented Delaware as senator for 36 years. Obama would later speak of their relationship as “instant chemistry.”

While the book’s subtitle says “a year,” Biden puts the story in a wider time frame so that the reader may know where he is coming from. Of Irish origin and raised a Catholic, Biden looked to his faith for strength. In 1972 his first wife Neilia and infant daughter Naomi died in a car crash. His two sons Beau and Hunter were injured but survived.

But it wasn’t until Biden married Jill Tracy, PhD, a professor of English literature, in 1977 that joy returned to the bereaved family. Their courtship story is one for the books.  Joe and Jill have a daughter Ashley. The three Biden children are now married with families of their own but Biden shows in the book how they held together especially when Beau was ailing.  

Oh, but there is a lot about family bonding, the vacations in Nantucket or just chilling out at home while the Secret Service kept a comfortable distance.

While it is about family, Biden’s book is also, in a big way, medical and political. One reads about the procedures Beau had to go through with so much courage and hope, the medical specialists weighing their options, family decisions.

Biden: “I put my head down and looked at the floor. I felt like I had been knocked down. I reached for my rosary and asked God to give me the strength to handle this.”

“As I explained to (Pres. Obama) that the next procedure was uncharted territory, but they were our only hope to save Beau, I looked up and found Barack in tears.”

Very political, too, as Biden put out fires locally and internationally—the assassination of two policemen and reaching out to their bereaved families, the conflagration in Iraq instigated by the ISIL (Islamic State of Iraq and the Levant), Russia’s occupation of parts of Ukraine (“Russia would pay a price for bullying a weaker nation”) and eyeball-to-eyeball with the intransigent Pres.Vladimir Putin (“I don’t think you have a soul”), wading into the problem in Latin America. His hands full, Beau on is mind while flying on Air Force 2.

“My son was in one room in extremis and I was sitting in another. The previous night ISIL had flown into the city of Ramadi, west of Baghdad, under the cover of a blinding storm.”

Beau died on May 30, 2015. The grief was profound but Biden found enough words to let the reader in. Condolences poured in, people came to pay their last respects but there was one totally unexpected presence Biden would never forget. (Here I teared up.)

With Obama’s two terms as president ending in 2017, was Joe Biden going to run as a Democrat presidential nominee, or will he give way to Hillary Clinton? By now we know.

Let me end abruptly with US President Biden saying he is “nostalgic for the future.”