Biden eulogizes friends, allies — and a bygone era
President Biden in the last week has had to say goodbye to close colleagues at a series of funerals.
Biden offered a eulogy this week for former Secretary of State Madeleine Albright, noting that her career reflected the cyclical nature of world events.
She became the first woman to serve as secretary of State shortly after the end of the Cold War, and she died as the U.S. and its allies were confronting Russia over its invasion of Ukraine.
The president on Sunday will fly to a memorial in Minnesota for former Vice President Walter Mondale, who also briefly overlapped with Biden in the Senate.
The funerals have served as a reminder that the 79-year-old president is a member of a generation fading from public life, and that Biden — the oldest president in U.S. history — is meeting the demands of a challenging and grueling position at a time well past retirement for most.
They also have led to reflections about a bygone era, for as difficult as the politics were in the 1970s, ’80s, ’90s and 2000s, they feel removed from the extreme polarization of today — with the memories of the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol still relatively fresh.
The Albright eulogy marked something of a full circle moment for Biden personally.
As a senator, he led Albright’s confirmation hearing in 1997 as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. Twenty-five years later, he stood in Washington National Cathedral honoring her life.
“As a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from the time I was a kid — God, they were the good old days,” Biden said in his eulogy for Albright. “I was the chairman or the ranking member for a good part of that time. And in the ‘90s, I can attest that Madeleine, with the significant help of the president of the United States, kept the committee really busy.”
Biden has long been seen as an empathetic figure who can draw on a deep well of personal tragedy and strong faith to deliver heart-felt and personal speeches at funerals and memorials.
Over the past year, those speeches have repeatedly been made at the funerals of close political allies or rivals with whom Biden worked closely.
In the last year, Biden has attended and spoken at memorial services for former Sens. Bob Dole (R-Kan.), Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and John Warner (R-Va.). He may still attend services for former Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-Utah), who died last week at the age of 88.
Before taking office, Biden delivered eulogies for former Sens. Ted Kennedy (D-Mass.), John McCain (R-Ariz.), Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) and Fritz Hollings (D-S.C.).
Each of those individuals served in the Senate alongside Biden, making up a generation of lawmakers who shaped the U.S. political landscape for decades.
His eulogies at times read like an abbreviated history of the last 50 years of world events.
Biden spoke about Dole voting for civil rights and voting rights legislation and running for vice president on a ticket with Gerald Ford in 1976. He recounted Albright confronting world leaders after the Soviet Union had collapsed. And Biden told stories of how Reid helped repeal “Don’t Ask Don’t Tell” and secured the votes to pass the Affordable Care Act during the Obama administration.
One recurring theme in each of Biden’s eulogies is a focus on collegiality and the importance of bipartisanship, an idea underscored by the fact that Biden has eulogized multiple former Republican senators.
“You know, in the battle for the soul of America today, John Warner is a reminder of what we can do when we come together as one nation,” Biden said at the late Virginia senator’s funeral last June.
In December, Biden recounted that Dole “understood that we’re all part of something bigger than ourselves” and that “‘compromise’ isn’t a dirty word, it’s the cornerstone of our democracy.”
That Biden is asked to speak at the funerals of former Republican colleagues speaks to how drastically the political environment has changed in the U.S. since the likes of Dole, Warner and Albright were serving in government.
The president is now typically greeted when he travels with protesters who falsely claim he did not win the 2020 election or carry “Let’s Go Brandon” flags and posters, a popular conservative phrase used in place of “f— Joe Biden.”
Former President Trump did not speak at the funerals of major political figures, and in the case of McCain and former first lady Barbara Bush, did not even attend.
Republicans routinely attack Biden in personal terms and question whether he is fit for office, even as this week alone he sandwiched two memorial services around a schedule that included a call with the Mexican president, remarks on the Russian invasion of Ukraine that turned into a brief impromptu press conference, and a speech at the White House correspondents dinner.
Matt Dallek, a professor at George Washington University and political historian, described Biden as someone rooted in the present given his current position but with strong links to a bygone past.
“And that past, at least the idea of it which he holds onto, is that you can get things done in a bipartisan fashion, you can work with people like Bob Dole and Orrin Hatch, or at least you can find common ground,” Dallek said. “It sends a message that he sees politics less as a war and less in terms of armageddon and more as a kind of centrist chance to kind of legislate and negotiate and compromise.”