When Joe Biden was announced as Colby’s commencement speaker, the response was jubilation. Everyone I encountered, student and faculty alike, expressed excitement regarding the selection. From my friend squealing, “Are you serious?” to my professors’ more measured, but equally fond appraisals, positive reactions were unanimous. This is no easy feat in today’s political climate.
The unanimity is even more surprising because Biden’s political career has spanned decades: a millennial knows Biden as Vice President, while those who are older most vividly remember his years in the Senate. In addition, considering the diversity of news outlets, we would expect perceptions of Biden to vary considerably, even among Colby’s mostly liberal student body. But Biden has somehow transcended these disparate mediums to engender positive feelings all around. Everyone agrees: he seems like a great guy.
This consistency in our responses points towards the consistency in character with which he has conducted himself through decades of public life. For myself, I first heard of Biden when then-candidate Barack Obama selected him as his running mate. I knew vaguely that he was meant to add experience to the ticket, but it was experience with which I was unfamiliar. All I knew was that he was pro-choice—which my Catholic school teacher told us—and that he seemed less gaffe-prone than his counterpart on the other ticket, Sarah Palin.
But over the years, as I began to pay attention to the news, Biden became a clearer image in my mind: someone who was smart, capable, and, of course, funny. In a government class, I encountered Biden’s previous political life in the book Hardball by Chris Matthews. Biden is mentioned in his senator days, retelling jokes to reporters. My friend pointed out the passage to me and laughed.
“That sounds like him,” she said.
And it sounded like him, too, when Matthews told another anecdote about Biden, one that Biden himself shared in his farewell address to the Senate. When Biden first arrived at the Senate in 1973, Biden heard Sen. Jesse Helms criticizing the Americans with Disabilities Act. He spoke to the majority leader, Sen. Mike Mansfield about what he heard, outraged by Helms’s comments.
“I can’t believe anyone could be so heartless and care so little about people with disabilities,” Biden said. Mansfield stopped him. He told him about how five years ago, Sen. Helms was reading a local newspaper and saw a story about an orphan teenager with disabilities who said his Christmas wish was to be a part of a family.
“What if I told you Dot Helms and Jesse Helms adopted that young man as their own child?” Mansfield asked him.
“I’d feel like a fool, an absolute fool,” Biden responded.
But it was true. That’s when Mansfield left him with a piece of advice: “Joe, never question a man’s motive. Question his judgment but never his motive.”
This advice has stayed with me ever since I read it. It’s a useful reminder in the heat of political discussions, or when I see something I strongly disagree with on television.
Additionally, I believe the advice is the key to understanding Biden’s appeal. Biden embodies this nonjudgmental attitude. He appears open to friendships with everyone, and has appeared this way throughout his entire career. As I consider the excitement the announcement of his commencement address has generated, I have concluded that what animates people is his kindness. More than Buzzfeed listicles, more than the various memes with which he’s been associated, his fundamental appeal lies with his character.