Biden and the Kennedys: Bonds of Catholicism, Power, and Tragedy

President Biden stood this week in the atrium of the John F. Kennedy Library, talking about his ‘cancer moonshot’ initiative, when he quoted a letter the Kennedy family patriarch once sent to console another father who had lost a son.

“You think of what he could have done with a few more years, and you wonder what you will do with the rest of yours,” the letter from Joseph P. Kennedy read. “Then one day, because there’s a world to live in, you find yourself being a part of it again, trying to accomplish something – something that he didn’t have enough time to do. “

It was not said how personal those feelings were to Biden himself. In many ways, he stood there to urge a renewed fight against cancer as a testament to his own deceased son, Beau. A major motivator for Biden’s presidential run, he said, was to honor a promise made to Beau to remain active in public life. And one of the main ways Biden has tried to honor Beau is to find a cure for the type of cancer that killed him.

“I give you my word as Biden,” Biden said earlier in that speech. “That cancer moonshot is one of the reasons I ran for president.”

But the emotion of the moment also lay in the ties between Biden and the Kennedy family. Part of that is a noticeable echo between the country’s first Irish Catholic president (Kennedy, the youngest president) and its second (Biden, the oldest).

Beyond that, Senator Edward M. Kennedy, John’s brother, entered the Senate at age 30, and Biden joined a decade later, also at age 30, to begin a lifelong friendship and partnership. . Ted Kennedy not only showed Biden the ropes — regularly visiting Biden’s office in the Dirksen Senate Office building — but embodied for Biden how the Senate should work.

Like many Democrats of a certain era, Biden traces his interest in politics to John F. Kennedy. He was a senior in high school when Kennedy became president and almost immediately saw similarities, but also differences.

“It’s not like the Kennedys have much in common with the Bidens. Kennedy’s father was one of the wealthiest and most well-known men in the country,” Biden wrote in his book.promises to keep.” “I had seen the photos. I knew Hyannisport didn’t look much like Mayfield. Senator Kennedy called on me despite his money.

Biden remembers hearing in John F. Kennedy’s speeches and insights the same lessons he learned from nuns in Catholic school, spurring his interest in a political career.

When Biden first ran for the Senate in 1972, his mother hosted “coffee shops” inspired by a Kennedy family technique, even bringing in a Kennedy alum, Matt Reese, who had helped organize family events.

Biden isn’t alone among Democrats to point to a connection to the party’s most legendary family. Bill Clinton’s campaign circulated a photo of him as a young man shaking hands with JFK. Barack Obama also embraced the Kennedy legacy, and Senator Ted Kennedy’s endorsement of his younger colleague marked a turning point in Obama’s presidential campaign.

But for Biden, the ties are particularly close — not least because Biden, like John F. Kennedy, faced questions about his Catholicism while seeking the presidency. When Kennedy ran in 1960, he had to assure voters that he would not respond to the Pope; Biden, for his part, has drawn attention for deviating from Catholic doctrine, particularly on abortion.

JFK’s meeting with the Pope foreshadowed Biden’s

On Monday, Biden told a story about Ted Kennedy coming for him, one of the biggest campaign highlights of his first run.

“There were, I don’t know, 6, 7,000 people gathered at St. Anthony’s,” Biden said. “And he got up and he said, ‘I really like Joe Biden. I love her so much. He will be a good — he will be very good in the United States Senate. The problem is that I think he’s a little too young. ”

It was a self-deprecating quip about Ted Kennedy’s age; he had entered the Senate amid questions about his own youth and whether he had benefited from his family name. But Biden said some newspapers missed the joke, intentionally or not, running headlines like “Kennedy says Biden too young to be in Senate.”

Biden recalled that after he won, Ted Kennedy took him under his wing, convincing him to come to the Senate dining room to learn bipartisan negotiation methods, or to hang out in the Senate gymnasium, which which led to some awkward moments. (“They were all as naked as the day they were born,” Biden recalls in his book. “I tried to keep eye contact, but I didn’t know what I was supposed to say.”)

Biden and Ted Kennedy have grown closer, sometimes with overlapping ambitions. Biden was the one who warned President Jimmy Carter that Kennedy was going to mount a Democratic primary challenge in 1980. He was then approached as a possible consensus candidate if Kennedy and Carter got so hurt that the Democrats wanted another candidate.

Biden’s own presidential campaign in 1988 was derailed by accusations of plagiarism, including an accusation that he lifted some of Robert F. Kennedy’s lines without attribution. At one point, Ted Kennedy sent Biden a note reminding him that there was life after a presidential campaign, as he knew from his own painful experience.

At another point, while Biden was recovering from an aneurysm, Ted Kennedy took the train to Wilmington, Del., to visit him, bringing an engraving of a large Irish deer that he had had framed.

“Every significant event in my adult life…every one, he was there,” Biden said in moving remarks after Ted Kennedy’s death in 2009. “He was there to encourage, counsel, empathize, uplift .”

The letter Biden quoted on Monday was written in 1958 by Joseph P. Kennedy, a businessman and US ambassador to the UK. Kennedy had sent the letter 14 years after losing his eldest son and namesake in World War II and 10 years after the death of his eldest daughter, Kathleen, in a plane crash.

Unbeknownst to Patriarch Kennedy, he was also writing five years before he lost a second son, President Kennedy, and 10 years before a third, Robert Kennedy, was overthrown.

Joe Biden and the politics of bereavement

The letter was often quoted by Ted Kennedy, who quoted it in Northern Ireland during a 1998 speech calling for peace.

Biden said in Monday’s remarks that Ted Kennedy’s widow, Victoria, sent him the citation after Beau’s death. Ted Kennedy himself had died six years earlier of the same type of rapidly growing brain tumor as Beau.

“For a lot of us, that’s what we’re trying to do,” Biden said Monday. “Let us live a life worthy of the loved ones we have lost and the loved ones we can save, with their absolute hope and courage, and with a reluctance to postpone and with one purpose for ourselves and as a nation. “

There is no member of the famous Kennedy family currently in Congress, a rare interval in the decades since John F. Kennedy was elected to the House in 1946. (John Kennedy, the Republican senator from Louisiana, is not unrelated).

During his remarks, Biden addressed Jack Schlossberg, grandson of the late president and son of Caroline Kennedy, currently Biden’s ambassador to Australia.

“Jack, I believe your generation is the most educated and talented generation in our history,” Biden said. “And that’s why I’m so optimistic about the future, and that’s not hyperbole.”

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