With his potential 2020 campaign announcement nearing, former Vice President Joe Biden returned to South Carolina on Tuesday not as an official presidential candidate but as one of the nation’s most prominent political eulogists.
Biden, accompanied by his wife Jill, eulogized former US Sen. Ernest “Fritz” Hollings, a South Carolina Democrat and longtime friend whom the former vice president credits with helping him get elected to the Senate and with convincing him to remain in the chamber after a tragic car accident claimed the lives of his first wife and 13-month-old daughter in 1972.
“He was there when I was on top of the world. He was also there for me when I was at the bottom,” Biden said at a service at the Summerall Chapel at The Citadel here. “Aside from my family, the first people to bring me back from that black hole that I found myself in were Fritz and (his wife) Peatsy, and that’s not hyperbole.”
The role of political eulogist is one that’s grown increasingly familiar to the 76-year-old former vice president, who can personally speak of political titans’ legacies after cultivating close relationships with his fellow lawmakers over a career spanning more than four decades in Washington, DC.
“I’ve spoken at more eulogies than I like to remember,” Biden said at the 2013 funeral of former Sen. Frank Lautenberg, a Democrat from New Jersey. “I advise you all … Never make a good eulogy. You’ll be asked again and again and again.”
Throughout the eulogy for Hollings, Biden stayed away from the politics of the day, speaking instead in highly personal tones about his friend Hollings, who he said recognized “that people can change. With every breath, we have hope. That we can learn from the past and build a future. Your dad learned from the past and he built a better future constantly. He was constantly evolving.”
“He was South Carolina. With every breath, he brought hope to so many in this state and around the country. What set him apart was not only his big ideas, but he knew how to get things done. He knew how to succeed in the United States Senate,” Biden said. “He knew how to build coalitions. He even knew how to get along with Strom (Thurmond) when he needed to. I sat next to Strom a long time in the Judiciary Committee as well. He knew how to change as well. He changed. He learned. As he learned, he changed.”
Biden’s eulogies have ranged across the political spectrum, from Democrats like former Michigan Rep. John Dingell and former Massachusetts Sen. Ted Kennedy to Republicans like former Arizona Sen. John McCain and Thurmond, a prominent segregationist.
“He’s genuinely someone who bridges philosophical and political chasms,” Dick Harpootlian, a South Carolina state senator and longtime supporter of Biden, told CNN. “You can have a relationship with somebody even though you disagree with their political underpinnings.”
But those types of remembrances also highlight a complicated political dynamic for Biden, whose praise for those across the aisle has irked some Democratic primary voters, and it further emphasizes his decades-long career in the nation’s capital at a time when some in the Democratic Party are pushing for fresh faced and diverse candidates.
Biden’s tributes to his longtime colleagues often strike a bipartisan, unifying tone, pressing for a restoration of civility in politics – a tenet that has become central to the Biden brand.
“My name’s Joe Biden. I’m a Democrat,” Biden said at a service in Phoenix last August. “And I loved John McCain.”
“He came from another age, lived by a different code, an ancient, antiquated code where honor, courage, integrity, duty, were alive,” Biden said. “It wasn’t about politics with John. He could disagree on substance, but the underlying values that animated everything John did, everything he was, come to a different conclusion. He’d part company with you if you lacked the basic values of decency, respect, knowing this project is bigger than yourself.”
Biden’s friends and supporters point to those values and his empathy and ability to comfort others as some of his greatest attributes.
“He’s someone that relates to people, that relates to people on a human and personal level,” Harpootlian, who first met Biden at an event with Hollings in the state in the 1980s. “He’s offered solace and comfort. Those are human traits that Joe Biden has that most politicians don’t have.”
Biden’s ability to connect with people in their moments of grief was born in part out of his own experience with tragedy. In 1972, his first wife Neilia and young daughter Naomi were killed in an auto accident, which also injured his two sons, Beau and Hunter. The Biden family experienced loss again in 2015 when Beau, the former attorney general of Delaware, died after a battle with glioblastoma, a disease that also claimed the lives of McCain and Kennedy.
“I probably wouldn’t be here without Joe Biden,” Meghan McCain, the daughter of the late Arizona senator who enjoys a close relationship with the former vice president, said earlier this year. “I don’t know if I would have really survived it without him.”
That sentiment is shared by Michigan Rep. Debbie Dingell, whose husband and former congressman John Dingell passed away earlier this year and to whom Biden paid tribute in February.
“I wouldn’t have made it through, but for Joe Biden,” Debbie Dingell told CNN. “I wanted to fall apart, but you’re not allowed to and he knows what that’s like. People forget that we’re human.”
She added: “He brings humanity back, but at the same time he gives you strength because you have no choice but to be strong.”
Biden’s role as a eulogist extends beyond political heavyweights. Last fall, the former vice president crisscrossed the country, taking a break from a days-long speaking stint in California to travel to Delaware and back to deliver a eulogy for his longtime friend and former staffer Tommy Lewis. Days later, Biden jetted from a speech in Las Vegas to the Boston area for the funeral of his friend and former political consultant John Marttila.
In 2012, Biden took a break from the campaign trail to eulogize former senator and Democratic presidential nominee George McGovern in South Dakota.
“Several of you said, ‘How could you be here in the middle of a campaign?’ Where I come from you ask, ‘How could you not be here for someone who’s done so much?’” Biden said at a prayer service for McGovern, who was at the top of the Democratic ticket when Biden first ran for Senate in 1972.
As for Hollings, the late senator was long aware of Biden’s affection and praise, joking about what his own funeral might look like.
“We don’t have to have any speech at the funeral,” Hollings said at a 2015 library dedication ceremony where Biden offered up praise for his close friend. “All they got to do is just play the Biden tape. I’m going to play it every other day.”
At Hollings’ own funeral Tuesday, Biden quoted a phrase Hollings often shared with his colleagues: “What a man will do in public office is best told by what he’s done. Performance, performance is better than promise.”
Biden added, “Fritz always promised, he always performed. What a life, what a legacy.”