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Joe Biden visits Denver on national book tour to share White House stories and hope

Author: Marianne Goodland - December 3, 2017 - Updated: December 4, 2017

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Former U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden arrives at a convention center in Toronto on Tuesday, Nov. 28, 2017, to give a keynote speech on leadership. The speech was closed to the media. (Colin Perkel/The Canadian Press via AP)

Former Vice President Joe Biden, whose road to the White House in 2008 officially began in Denver, returned to the Mile High City Saturday night to talk politics and the Trump administration — and to promote a new book on the relationship with the son who died of cancer two years ago.

Biden spoke for about 90 minutes at the Paramount Theater Saturday night on “Promise Me, Dad,” a book that he said was about hope, not grief. Biden is now on the faculty at the University of Pennsylvania, which named its center for diplomacy and global engagement in his honor last February.

Beau Biden, who served as Attorney General for Delaware, died of inoperable brain cancer in 2015. It was Beau Biden who in 2008 officially placed his dad’s name into nomination for vice president at the Democratic National Convention, held that year at Denver’s Pepsi Center, only a short mile-and-a half away from the Paramount.

“Uncle Joe is in the house!” shouted Mayor Michael Hancock in bringing on the vice president, and referring to him as “one half of the team we miss the most,” which drew a few “amens!” from the audience.

Biden’s talk began with a mostly light-hearted video of his days in the White House with then-President Barack Obama, a relationship that has been called a “bromance.”

“The memes are mostly accurate,” Biden quipped, referring to jokes that flooded the Internet after 2016 election about the relationship between the two men and their unique senses of humor.

Biden talked about that relationship and why it was so unusual for a president and vice-president. “We learned to trust each other,” Biden said. Each made up for the other’s shortcomings. Biden also recounted the one condition he had to join Obama at the White House, that the president allow Biden to be the last guy in the room for important decisions, such as when Obama made the call to go after Osama bin Laden in 2011.

A president is never equipped with more than 70 percent of the facts when making a tough decision, and Biden said that was definitely true with bin Laden. They weren’t sure the 9/11 terrorist ring-leader was even in the house in Abbottabad, Pakistan, at the time of the raid that captured and killed him. Only four people in the administration even knew about the operation beforehand, Biden recounted, not even then Secretary of State Hillary Clinton or the head of the Department of Homeland Security.

“It was a highly risky thing,” Biden recounted, but failing to act was almost as dangerous as not acting. Only three people had firm views that the U.S. should go after bin Laden, including then-CIA director Leon Panetta and the head of the Navy Seals.  Even then Secretary of Defense Robert Gates said no.

But when the question came to Biden, he instead spoke to Obama in the Oval Office, alone, and told him to follow his instincts. “Had (the president) been wrong, it would have been the end of his career, with catastrophic consequences for the nation’s relationship with both Pakistan and Afghanistan.”

Biden at times appeared somewhat wistful about what could have been in 2016, mentioning “if I ran for president” several times early on in the evening.

He said his motives for writing “Promise Me, Dad” was not about grieving for the loss of one of his two sons, whom he refers to as his best friends. “I’m a selfish, proud dad,” Biden said. He wrote about his son so that his grandchildren and their children would have “an artifact about what an incredible man Beau was” and that the public should know it, too. “It’s not about grief. It’s about hope.”

People who have experienced great loss, as Biden has, wonder if they will ever get through the grief. “Will I ever be okay again? I want this to be about hope. There’s a way through this.”

Biden has had more than his fair share of loss; in addition to losing Beau to cancer, his first wife and daughter were killed in a car accident shortly after his first election to the U.S. Senate in 1972. Both sons were in the car and were trapped for hours, he said.

Both sons encouraged him to run for president in 2016, but it was Beau who wanted his dad to continue on. Biden said the press made it sound like Beau made a deathbed request, but the request was not about politics. Biden recalled Beau’s words, eight months before his death. “He leaned across the table and said ‘Dad, look at me. No matter what happens I will be alright. Promise me you’ll be okay.’”

Beau wanted a promise that “I would stay engaged in public policy and fight for the things he cared about,” adding that “when you lose a loved one, you find yourself trying to accomplish something he could not.” Biden and his wife, Jill, have launched a cancer initiative that intends to “accelerate progress in cancer prevention, detection, diagnosis, research,and care.”

Biden shared anecdotes about his work in foreign diplomacy and policy, his specialty. During his eight years as vice president, that included meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and with the Chinese vice president. Biden explained that President George H.W. Bush had once said you could see Putin’s soul in his eyes. Biden didn’t see it that way. To Putin, Biden said, “Mr. President, I’m looking into your eyes and I don’t think you have a soul.” Putin replied, “I think we understand each other,” according to Biden, which drew “oooohhhhs” from the audience.

A more cordial relationship developed between Biden and then-Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping, a relationship prompted by Obama, who believed the two should get to know each other. Biden said that led to about 25 hours of meetings between the two vice presidents. Xi Jinping is now the president of China.

Biden also addressed the current resident of the White House, although never mentioning him by name. “Big nations can’t bluff,” he said, referring to the comments President Donald Trump has made about North Korea. “If you were to threaten a nation that is acting out of bounds of international mores, and you don’t do anything about it, you embolden other nations to do the same.

“It’s not the example of power. It’s the power of example.”

Biden said he and Obama have tried to give the new administration the opportunity to get their footing. “Barack and I wanted them to succeed.” But instead politics have become coarse, debasing and personal based on invective, he said.

To that point, Biden bemoaned that people in Congress don’t know each other anymore. He noted that the U.S. Capitol once had two dining rooms for the Senate. One was for senators and their families, but the other was just for senators to have a place where they could go in private and talk. That second dining room is now gone, Biden said. “They don’t talk to each other anymore.”

Despite the political environment, Biden said there are “overwhelming reasons to be optimistic.”

“Never have we ever been in a better position to be the leading nation,” as an epicenter of energy, worker productivity and great education, he said. “There’s not a damn thing we can’t do!”

Biden refuted the claim by the Trump administration that American has not been a great country. “Go spread the faith!” he said, to a standing ovation and exuberant cheers from the audience.

Biden did not sign books, nor did he meet with the general audience following his remarks.

Almost everyone who spoke to Colorado Politics following Biden’s remarks said they hoped he would consider a run for president in 2020, although he will be 78 years old and, if elected, would be the oldest American to ever reach nation’s highest office. Most didn’t miss an opportunity to take a dig at the White House’s current resident.

Some said they came to be inspired. John Mitchell of Denver said he loves Biden.

“He’s a true American. He’s genuine, unlike who’s in office now” and “hopefully the next guy who runs for president.”

His wife, Jessica Gregory, said she came not just to hear about Beau’s story, but to “hope for the best.”

“We can only hope that Joe runs for president,” she said.

She called Biden’s message heartfelt and sincere. “He doesn’t tweet it. He lives it and you feel it.”

“I’m trying to hold onto hope,” which is hard in this day and age, said Diana Doyle of Denver.

Attorney Allison Tungate of Colorado Springs said she admired the emotional courage Biden demonstrates and that she’s also hopeful for a Biden presidential run in 2020. She called his viewpoint on the current state of politics refreshing, and said he would make a very competent candidate in 2020.

“It’s just what our country needs,” she added.

Biden displays the kind of leadership the nation is missing on the national scene, said Andy Koss of Colorado Springs.

Biden’s appearance was a birthday gift for 13-year old Reece of Denver, who said he’s just beginning an interest in politics. But he said Biden is a “stark contrast (to) who we have in office now,” calling him a humble man who isn’t shy about his shortcomings.

Joe Cushing of Denver said he liked hearing Biden’s anecdotes from eight years in the White House and would have liked to hear more. He also appreciated Biden’s comments on remembering “who you are when everything else washes away.”

“It seems that everyone loves Biden,” said Mark Wilensky of Lakewood. “Everyone knows and respects him.”

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland

Marianne Goodland is the chief legislative reporter for Colorado Politics. She's covered the Colorado General Assembly for 20 years, starting off in 1998 with the Silver & Gold Record, the editorially-independent newspaper at CU that was shuttered in 2009. She also writes for six rural newspapers in northeastern Colorado. Marianne specializes in rural issues, agriculture, water and, during election season, campaign finance. In her free time (ha!) she lives in Lakewood with her husband, Jeff; a cantankerous Shih-Tzu named Sophie; and Gunther the cat. She is also an award-winning professional harpist.