Humorist Will Rogers said, “The man with the best job in the country is the vice president. All he has to do is get up every morning and say, ‘How is the president’?” John Nance Garner, Franklin D. Roosevelt’s vice president from 1933-1941 famously said, “The vice presidency is not worth a bucket of warm spit” (although he didn’t use the word “spit." This is a family newspaper).
Rogers’ and Garner’s assessments of the office of the vice presidency were offered during an era when that office filled little other than ceremonial and occasional legislative roles. Since that time the office has assumed greater responsibilities. Joe Biden, vice president in the Obama administration, was given extensive foreign and domestic policy assignments based on his experience and relationships developed during his 36 years as senator from Delaware.
In “Promise Me, Dad,” Biden recalls the events of the 18 months between Thanksgiving 2014 and May 2015. In that year-and-a-half Biden dealt with the deterioration of Iraq’s government in the face of the newly insurgent ISIL (Islamic State in Iraq the Levant), the developing Russia interference in Ukraine, and attempts to encourage the growth of democracy in Honduras, Guatemala and El Salvador.
But those 18 months also marked the final decline in the health of Biden’s son Beau, former attorney general of the state of Delaware, culminating in his death at age 46 from an aggressively malignant brain tumor. The memoir weaves the two stories together and describes how events unfolding in one realm influenced events in the other.
At the time of his initial diagnosis Beau Biden had made it clear to his family that he did not want his illness and its treatment to be a subject of public scrutiny. As a result it was necessary for his father to modify some of his diplomatic or domestic assignments to be present with the family at the time of crucial procedures or interventions.
Only in the last months of the younger Biden’s life was his father willing to be more transparent about his absences from his office and the stresses he was feeling. And in those months Biden began to move toward what might have been the most momentous decision of his life; the decision not to seek the 2016 Democratic nomination for the presidency.
Biden’s writing style is straightforward and unadorned, but it permits the depths of his feeling to come forward. He has said in media appearances after the book’s publication that writing it was difficult because even so soon afterward many of the details were already becoming hazy in his memory. History will eventually be the judge of the effectiveness of his service as vice president, but there can be no debate about how deeply his son’s death cut into him and continues to do so.
This is ultimately a book about hope. Six months before his death, Beau Biden called his father aside and said, “I’m going to be okay, no matter what happens. I’m going to be okay, Dad. I promise you,” an indication that he was “beginning to make peace with his own death.”
Beau went on, “But you’ve got to promise me, Dad, that no matter what happens, you’re going to be all right. Give me your word, Dad, that you’re going to be all right. Promise me, Dad.” The last chapters of the book detail where the former vice president has found the resources to keep the promise he made to his son.