Long after the last partisan battle has been fought over Obamacare, long after Barack Obama has settled into a comfortable post-presidency, and long after the last joke has been made about some Joe Biden verbal misstep, people will remember the moment when the always-in-control president struggled to control his emotions. They will remember the moment when president and vice president embraced in front of the altar and exchanged heartfelt kisses on the cheek. And they will remember how their hearts ached at this intimate glimpse of one family's pain.
In an age when so many political moments are scripted, this was real. In a country whose presidents and vice presidents have rarely been close, this was genuine closeness. In an administration that prides itself on being hip, this was decidedly old-fashioned love.
But it was something more than that, something that the country has never before seen in real time. In its raw emotion and aching poignancy, the burial Saturday of Beau Biden, son of the vice president, was a rare moment in the long history of the United States, one unlike any ever before brought to the nation through live, often moving, television coverage.
As a nation, we don't normally play witness to such personal grief on the part of our leaders. Earlier generations followed by telegraph and grieved when Abraham and Mary Todd Lincoln lost their 12-year-old son Willie to typhoid fever in 1862. They devoured the newspapers and wept when Presidents John Tyler and Woodrow Wilson lost wives Letitia and Ellen in 1842 and 1914. And they stay tuned to their radios and mourned the tragic denouement of President Calvin Coolidge's bedside vigil when 16-year-old Calvin Jr., succumbed from blood poisoning in 1924.
But here, on Saturday, was a family's grief playing out on live television from inside St. Anthony of Padua Catholic Church in Wilmington, Delaware. From the first strains of the bagpipes outside the church, something was different. It was clear that this was not the usual political funeral, one where many of the participants were following a well-read script. This was not the funeral of an elderly party veteran, one whose career had played out over many decades.
This was saying goodbye to a young man whose family was youthful and potential seemed unlimited, someone who very well could have ended up surpassing his father's success. The grief was compounded by the universal truth that parents are not supposed to bury their children. That had not happened for any president or vice president since President John F. Kennedy and Jacqueline Kennedy buried their newborn son Patrick Bouvier in 1963. Before that, it had not happened since Calvin Coolidge Jr. developed a blister playing tennis that led to his death four decades earlier.
Almost as rare for Americans today are signs of emotion from their famously unflappable president. Obama struggled to get through his heartfelt eulogy at St. Anthony's. For only the third time in memory, he lost the battle to contain his emotions. The first came just hours before the 2008 election when his grandmother, Madelyn Dunham, died at age 86. Tears streamed down his face as he talked about her at a campaign rally at the University of North Carolina.
Four years later, he would again shed tears in public. That came at the White House when he tried to talk about the shootings at Newtown, Connecticut, that claimed 18 children among the 27 victims.
The funeral at St. Anthony's was another highly personal moment for the president. White House aides often have tried to persuade reporters that this president and this vice president have a close bond. Just as often, reporters have voiced skepticism, aware of a two-century history of relationships ranging from open enmity to cool indifference between the men in the White House and their vice presidents. But more than six years into the presidency, it may be time to accept the claims as accurate. Even when Biden has misspoken or jumped the gun on positions, aides insist that Obama harbored no anger at the vice president. "That's just Joe being Joe," they often say. "It's part of who he is."
They always appreciated Biden's loyalty and humanity. Saturday was a chance for the president to return that embrace. How he did it will be hard to forget.
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