The Designated Mourner

Mourning becomes Joe Biden. “I have found over the years,” he writes in his recent best-selling memoir Promise Me, Dad, “that, although it brought back my own vivid memories of sad times, my presence almost always brought some solace to people who have suffered sudden and unexpected loss…. When I talk to people in mourning, they know I speak from experience.” The most moving thing in that book is not even Biden’s restrained and heartbreaking account of the slow death of his beloved son Beau. It is the two brief appearances of Wei Tang Liu, whose son, Wenjian Liu, was one of two police officers murdered in New York City on the Saturday before Christmas 2014. Biden visited the family home in Brooklyn to pay his respects.

Joe Biden; drawing by Anders Nilsen
Joe Biden; drawing by Anders Nilsen

The father, an immigrant from China, had little English, but Biden picked up on his need for physical intimacy, for the consolation of touch: “Occasionally he would lean into me so that his shoulder touched my arm…. I did not pull away, but leaned in so that he could feel me there.” When Biden finally made to leave, Liu walked outside with him and embraced him in front of the line of policemen standing watch. “He held on to me tightly, for a long time, as if he could not bear to let me go.” Five months later, when Beau was dead, Biden was leaving the public wake at St. Anthony’s church in his hometown of Wilmington, Delaware. He saw, in the long line of mourners, Wei Tang Liu. Neither man spoke to the other: “He just walked up and gave me a hug. It meant so much to me to be in the embrace of somebody who understood. He held on to me, silently, and wouldn’t let go.”

Joe Biden is the most gothic figure in American politics. He is haunted by death, not just by the private tragedies his family has endured, but by a larger and more public sense of loss. Richard Ben Cramer, in his classic account of the 1988 presidential primaries, What It Takes, wrote how even then it was a journalistic cliché to define Biden by the terrible car crash that killed his first wife, Neilia, and their daughter, Naomi (and injured Beau and his brother, Hunter), in 1972, shortly after Biden was elected to the Senate at the age of twenty-nine. Cramer refers to the “type that fell out of the machine every time they used Biden’s name: ‘…whose life was touched by personal tragedy…’ Joe Biden (D-Del., T.B.P.T.).”

Even now, as Hunter Biden’s name is threaded through Donald Trump’s impeachment hearings, there is a ghost behind it: Hunter is Neilia’s maiden name. Trump’s preoccupation with Hunter’s presence on the board of the Ukrainian energy company Burisma hinges on a reality that is…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Get unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 an issue!

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 an issue. Choose a Print, Digital, or All Access subscription.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account. You may also need to link your website account to your subscription, which you can do here.