Many people who lived in the Delaware Valley (southeastern Pennsylvania, southwestern New Jersey, and the state of Delaware) in the 1980s and 1990s have a Joe Biden story. Here’s mine.
In the early 1980s I was the dean of a small college in Philadelphia. A professor invited me to attend his class on the American political system to meet and hear a guest speaker he thought I would like. For 50 minutes Senator Joe Biden enchanted the students, mixing commentary on the Constitution with anecdotes about current politicians and lessons learned in campaigns. It was an impressive performance that clearly captured student interest. I was so impressed that afterwards I recommended to the college’s president that we invite Biden to receive an honorary degree and give the commencement address that spring. Entirely to my surprise, the president, a staunch republican, agreed. I later learned that he had discussed the matter with a trustee who happened to be a senior officer at Dupont and who therefore knew Biden well. “Joe’s okay,” I found out the trustee told my president.
One of my jobs as dean was to be the master of ceremonies for commencement. The stage party was assembled in a building adjacent to the large tent where the ceremony would take place. As the time approached to lead the party forward, we were without our speaker. Where was Joe Biden? I managed to reach one of his aides by phone in his Delaware office (this was long before the wide use of mobile phones) and learned that the senator had left Wilmington and was on his way. The crowd under the tent was growing restless. In the middle of May, Philadelphia is tropical, sitting under a tent doesn’t make the heat and humidity more bearable, and so the audience was not enjoying the delay. I went on stage to explain that our commencement speaker was slightly detained and would arrive soon. Groans.
We waited. No Biden. I called the aide again and got a description of the car Biden was being driven in, and the head of our security office phoned a contact at the Philadelphia Police Department. In several minutes we got a report that the PPD had picked up Biden’s car on the Schuylkill Expressway and was escorting him. It must have been a slow day for the cops because they made a bit of a game out of it, leading and trailing his car with motorcycles and patrol cars, lights flashing and sirens roaring—though no one could have known it then, a preview of the way Biden travels today.
I went back to the stage to announce that we would begin shortly and that the sounds of emergency vehicles they heard meant that Senator Biden was almost there. Loud cheers. When we met up the senator apologized and thanked me for the escort. “Anytime, I told him.” He laughed, suited up in academic garb, and lined up for the march. More cheers greeted our arrival on the stage. When his turn came, Biden apologized for the delay, gave a short but enthusiastic speech, thanked the college for helping him get there “almost on time,” and received a standing ovation. I have no memory at all of what he said. Who remembers such things? What I do remember is the way in which Biden so quickly turned the crowd his way. They might have booed him for making them broil in the Philadelphia cauldron, but they responded to his humility and the strong image he projected as being down-to-earth and decent. He stayed after the speech to chat with parents and students and pose for pictures. Smart politician, of course, but at his core a nice guy who instinctively empathized with the crowd, sharing and amplifying the joy a commencement triggers for graduates and their families.
This remembrance of Joe Biden came to me vividly in the days leading up to yesterday’s Inauguration. Whatever your political leanings, you had to feel tension and fear as chaos seemed to reign. In such times we writers and readers of stories create or recall narratives that give shape and direction to our emotions. Collectively, we add our individual stories to the national story. Remembering my early experiences with our new President reinforced my patriotism, my hopes, my conviction that our nation will heal. He showed up on time.