That Kind of Night: An Evening with Joe Biden

The total length of my stay in Portland will be twelve hours; I came here for one reason.

After my dad picked me up from the airport, I went and got my hair cut. When I got home, I ironed my shirt and put on the dress shoes that I had worn on the plane ride home. I wanted to look nice tonight. I was about to see Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr., 47th Vice President of the United States of America and my hero, at the Arlene Schnitzer Concert Hall in downtown Portland. This was going to be that kind of night -- the kind where memories are made and good things happen. 

Margaret Doherty, my former boss, got me a ticket. We gave ourselves two hours to make what ought to be a twenty minute drive -- after we hit some traffic in the Terwilliger curves, we were glad for the buffer. We had also been warned that parking would be a nightmare downtown, but Margaret told me not to worry, she would say a "Hail Mary" -- but not the "Hail Mary" you're thinking of. "Hail Mary, full of grace, let me find a parking space," she said. A minute later, I kid you not, a giant space opened up half a block from the entrance of the Schnitz.

It was that kind of night.

Joe Biden Marquee.JPG

Every month for the last several years, I've taken at least one trip to Portland to eat ice cream. A dedicated troupe of fellow ice cream aficionados and I go to Salt and Straw, usually the one on Northwest 23rd, to try the new seasonal flavors. I love ice cream. Last time he was in town, noted ice cream connoisseur Joe Biden visited Salt and Straw, too. I couldn't help but laugh when the evening's interviewer was introduced: Kim Malek, founder and owner of Salt and Straw ice cream. His first comment when he came out was, of course, about ice cream. He told us that if there's two things he knows a lot about, it's ice cream and sunglass. "Best ice cream in the world," he told us, pointing at Malek.

That kind of night, indeed.

Joe Biden's introduction had not even concluded before every person in the auditorium stood, applauded, and cheered. Portland is Joe Biden Country. Actually, America is Joe Biden Country. It's no secret that I hope he'll be leading us soon. This talk, though, was not about running for president -- at least not in 2020. This conversation was about Beau Biden, and loss, and grief, and hope, and friendship, and family: the type of stuff that Donald Trump is incapable of talking about in any meaningful way. Donald Trump's name was not mentioned once the entire night -- but the contrast between Joe Biden and Donald Trump was always there, inescapable and stark.

One gives, the other takes. One was the poorest man in Congress who took the train 259 miles round trip every day to be with his boys, the other called the White House "a real dump." One is humble and self-deprecating, the other says "I alone can fix it." One's dad never made more than $12,000 a year, the other borrowed millions of dollars from his father then lied about it. One speaks with empathy and compassion, the other with insensitivity, disrespect, and boorishness. And yet, somehow, the second one is our president.

The first one, though, was in Portland, Oregon tonight, making us laugh, cry, yearn, and believe.

He talked about the origin of his relationship with Barack Obama. In response to a question about the Joe Biden/Barack Obama memes, he said, "Most of those memes are true," and the audience roared

He talked about originally turning down the Vice Presidency, but being convinced by his wife (who preferred VP over Secretary of State because he wouldn't travel as much; it would be "better for the family") and his mother (who pointed out that the man who might be the first black President of the United States needed him to win Pennsylvania, Ohio, and Florida, and he was going to say no?).

He talked about the need for empathy in a big, pluralistic place like America, particularly in policing: cops need to know that the kid in a hoodie might be the next poet laureate; kids need to know that the policewoman in the cop car is a mother of three that coaches her kid's basketball team, he said. 

He talked about the difficulty of admitting fault and apologizing. He talked about treating people with dignity -- in personal relationships, politics, and international relations. 

He talked about words of wisdom from his dad ("never complain, never explain") and his mom ("you're defined by your courage and redeemed by your loyalty") and his late son ("all good, all good").

I loved every moment of tonight. Every memory, every anecdote, every pearl of wisdom -- but I think I loved the end of the evening the most. When the questions were over, and Kim Malek thanked Joe Biden on behalf of all of us, Joe Biden stood up. "One more thing," he said to the audience's delight. Then he told us, in clear and certain and compelling terms, why America is the best positioned -- and best, period -- country in the world. He lamented the head-hanging and waning patriotism in America today: "What in the hell is the matter with us? There is not a single, solitary thing we can't do," he said. But change won't happen on its own.

There's reason to be optimistic, he said. Before he walked off the stage, he asked all the high school students in the audience to stand up, and he spoke to them. He said they are part of the best educated, most forgiving, most tolerant generation in history. "You've all got to get involved," he said.

As I sit here and reflect on the evening, I think Joe Biden was talking to more than just the high school students when he said that. I think he was talking to all of us.