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Keeping Promises: Joe Biden at the Michigan Theater

Wed, 02/07/2018 - 8:30am by christopherporter

Official portrait of Vice President Joe Biden in his West Wing Office at the White House, Jan. 10, 2013. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann.

Official portrait of Vice President Joe Biden in his West Wing Office at the White House, Jan. 10, 2013. Official White House Photo by David Lienemann.

I have a chaste crush on Joe Biden.

There is something special about him that shines through in a way that speaks to my heart. He’s one of those people onto whom I have projected unsolicited personal significance. When times are tough, Joe Biden is one of those people I think of to help me through a difficult time.

When I found out he was going to be at the Michigan Theater as a part of his American Promise tour, I bought a ticket immediately.  Now, 193 days later, a failed attempt to download my ticket, three customer service calls, and one backup ticket purchase later I found myself in a large line of people waiting to hear the former vice president on Monday, Feb. 5.

“Ann Arbor people don’t know how to [unintelligible]”
“They’d try to poison him with blowfish sushi.”
--Overheard waiting in line to enter Michigan Theater

University of Michigan football coach Jim Harbaugh introduced Biden, telling the audience about a time he met him at the White House in 2015. His tone is warm, as if he’s setting us up to meet a beloved friend of his. He describes Joe Biden’s trust in government, love for his country, and his dedication to his family.

“Joe is not concerned with praise. He is also an Eagles fan.” --Jim Harbaugh

Once Harbaugh concluded his introduction, a video montage visualized the circumstances that brought us all together that evening. There were pictures of a much younger Biden. We watched his response when he found out that he was to receive the Presidential Medal of Freedom.  And, of course, there were pictures of him with his son Beau, who he lost to cancer.

Biden walked onto the stage with what I’m going to call aspirational confidence. I wonder what it feels like to stride forward in a way that seems so natural in front of hundreds of people. He’s earned it, of course, living so much of his life in front of the public’s eyes.

The eyes in the Michigan Theater were adoring ones. The moment we got a glance of Vice President Biden, you could hear the sound of people leaving their auditorium seats, then the clapping and the occasional whoop.

The evening’s talk was moderated by Adam Shefter, sports writer and U-M alum.  The two men sat onstage together as if they knew each other. Rather than diving directly into questions about Biden’s new book, Shefter ribbed Biden about the University of Delaware, saying it stole the University of Michigan football helmets.

“It’s true!” replied Biden conceding that the uniforms are almost the same, but claiming that Delaware’s are a little better. He also said he was a Michigan fan.

Michigan Theater marquee for Joe Biden

Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose is a book about the time following his son’s diagnosis of brain cancer when he supported, then mourned, his son as he simultaneously fulfilled his responsibilities as vice president of the United States. He wrote the book because he wanted people to know how great Beau was. “I’ve never met anyone I admired more,” Biden said.  He wanted to write this book about hope and recovery and is interested in helping others find the sense of purpose that can help them navigate a tragedy.  He hopes his book will lift people.

“You take care of what’s left of your family.” --Joe Biden.

Shefter asked Biden whether he thought Beau would have been president one day if he had survived?

“I’m a dad,” replied Biden, leaving unstated that he believed in his son and would have wanted him to achieve anything his heart desired. He didn’t have to say it; we felt it.

Throughout his talk, Biden made the point to acknowledge that many other people have experienced great tragedy. It is the seasoning that peppered the entire evening. He talks directly to those audience members saying things like, “Some of you have been through the same thing.” He talks about the support that he has had through the difficult times in his life. When he talked a bit about the car accident in 1972 that killed his wife and daughter and put his sons Hunter and Beau in the hospital, Biden is full of dad details, such as an aside that the boys were a year and a day apart in age.

He also talked about how much his sons have helped him, how much he has leaned on them, saying, “My boys raised me as much as I raised them.” He also said that when his sons were 12 and 13 years old, he realized he admired them and said they have always looked out for him.

When Biden talked about Beau’s accomplishments, his pride and admiration for his son were clear. He talked about Beau’s military service and the therapy he underwent in order to fulfill his duties as attorney general after his cancer diagnosis.  When Biden talked about Beau, his fatherly glow radiated into the crowd. It felt good to be in the presence of that expression of love.

Shefter asked Biden, “What is the key to going on?”

After expressing that everyone is different, Biden talks about giving loss a purpose. He talked about committing to the things, for example, that Beau cared about and says that the entire family has done this.
Biden also says that his Beau wanted to encourage Biden to continue to focus on trying to make the world a better place. This is where the book’s title comes from.

“Promise me, dad" was what Beau said to his father on his deathbed, but it wasn't about wanting him to run for president; it was Beau asking Biden to promise that he would be OK, that his dad wouldn’t succumb to the instinct to withdraw from the world when he died.

“I kind of hope he is proud of me because that’s what I’m trying to do.” --Joe Biden

When Shefter asked Biden if he had any advice for young people considering public service he started by saying “it can and should be honorable.” He also said that one does not have to run for office in order to change the world: “You can be a nurse. You can be a steelworker. You have to care about something bigger than yourself."

Not surprisingly, Shefter asked Biden about the prospect of a presidential bid for 2020. But Biden wanted to talk about finding a cure for cancer. He passionately took us back to the Nixon administration when the president declared a “war on cancer.” He talked about the advances in science over the years, but shortcomings in the way that collaboration occurs. Here, his speech took on a sense of urgency. My notetaking hand could not keep up. It seems that when Biden thinks about the future, he is thinking about anything that he can do to buy people who have been touched by cancer more time with their loved ones.

As he graciously bid us farewell, I realized that in the course of an evening my feelings about Joe Biden had changed. Instead of being under the spell of a chaste crush, I find myself wanting to be a bit more like him.

Sherlonya Turner is the manager of the Youth & Adult: Services & Collections Department at the Ann Arbor District Library. She can be found diving headfirst into all sorts of projects over at


What a lovely piece. He has always seemed like a kind and honorable man, undeserving of the tragedies he's befallen. Glad to see he's working on keeping his promise to his son by staying strong and helping others to, as well.

Thank you for this piece!

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Sherlonya Turner