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This is the Joe Biden you rarely see

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This week, Joe Biden is set to announce his candidacy for president. Forgive me for getting ahead of the punditry clutter with this story.

Meetings in the Oval Office with President Obama and Vice President Biden to discuss Democratic House races were always thrilling. Notably, the body language was instructive. The president would sit straight in his chair, cerebral and analytical, absorbing the analysis I presented as chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee. The vice president would hunch forward with his arms outstretched, as if waiting to dive into one of the districts and campaign there himself.

{mosads}At one such meeting in 2011, I was struggling to concentrate. My dad, who was living in Arizona, had just received a diagnosis of lung cancer. The prognosis was not good. On the way to the White House, I stopped to pick up a “get well” card. My plan was to ask the president to sign it. My dad was a fervent Democrat, and perhaps one of the only Democrats in the retirement community of Ahwatukee Foothills in Phoenix.

After the meeting, I asked the president to sign the card. To my chagrin, he nodded no, then went to his desk, pulled out a drawer, grabbed a piece of stationery, and wrote a personal note. As I left, Biden asked me to join him in his West Wing office. I thought we were going to review maps of competitive districts. Instead, he said, “Your dad’s condition is going to one of the hardest things your mom will go through. I’d like to call her.”

I hesitated. My mother is, well, talkative. So is Biden. I warned him that it might be the longest call in White House history. Then I gave him the phone number and watched as he waited to connect. Seconds letter, he said, “Mrs. Israel, this is Joe Biden.” Then there was a moment of silence followed by a quizzical expression. My assumption was that my mother immediately launched into a monologue with the vice president of the United States, whom she had never met in person or talked with before.

After a few seconds, Biden said, “Hello? Are you there?” Then he broke out laughing. My mother thought it was a robocall and was waiting for the rest of the message. It was a poignant conversation of 10 minutes sharing war stories, the war in this case being cancer. Then he hung up. My mother could not stop talking about that talk. For weeks, then months, she would remind me of when “Joe called me.” Then with the passage of time and the death of my father in August 2012, my mother stopped telling the story.

That was the case until it emerged again in the first week of January 2013. “Joe called,” she told me during a phone conversation. I said, “I know, mom. That was a couple of years ago.” She said, “No. He called on New Years Day. He told me that the first day of a new year without someone you love is hard, and he called to tell me he was thinking about me.”

I had no idea he called. That is the point of this true story. Many politicians might have made that phone call, and they would have let me know about it as a subtle way of claiming some credit for the effort. Not Biden. He called my mother not because her son was a member of Congress, but because she was struggling. He called not to take credit, but simply to make her feel better. It was not out of obligation but out of his humanity.

This is not a political endorsement, although not that such things matter. Wrapping oneself in the political endorsement of a former member of Congress has all the value of being wrapped in a worn vintage coat. Instead, this is a glimpse of a man who never forgot the struggle of a woman who had lost her husband, but did not feel compelled to crow about it to their son. That silence speaks volumes about Joe Biden.

Steve Israel represented New York in Congress for 16 years and served as the chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee from 2011 to 2015. He is now the director of the Institute of Politics and Global Affairs at Cornell University. You can find him on Twitter @RepSteveIsrael.

Tags Congress Election Government Joe Biden Politics Steve Israel White House

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