Joe Biden American Promise Tour: Finding Purpose and Empathy in Politics

Joe Biden Speaks at the Durham Performing Arts Center

On June 6, 2018, the Joe Biden American Promise Tour made a stop in Durham, NC, and the AAE team took a field trip from the office to hear the former vice president speak at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

The Promise: To Family & To America

Biden’s book, Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose, is a memoir that focuses on his relationship with his late son, Beau, as well as his considered presidential bid. Despite his status as a political figure, the Joe Biden American Promise Tour emphasizes the personal side of the former vice president. Beau Biden died in 2015, leaving Biden wrestling with his duty to family in a difficult time, as well as his duty to his country. The book’s title stems from the promise Beau asked Biden to make shortly before his death: that Biden would be okay.

This promise, Biden explained, was not just a personal one. Beau knew that Biden would be there for his family. Instead, to Biden, his son’s words referred to the possibility that he would withdraw from his public life and all the causes he championed.

Dealing with Grief by Finding Purpose

Joe Biden and Celeste Ng
Joe Biden speaks with Celeste Ng at the Durham Performing Arts Center.

“You get through by finding purpose,” Biden stated of his grief following Beau’s death. True to those words, Biden continued his involvement in the things that he felt mattered. Amongst them: the Biden Foundation, the Biden Cancer Initiative, and teaching at Penn State. “I don’t think there is anything as healing to somebody in pain as to give,” said Biden. The strength of Biden’s emotions resonated with the audience. “It was interesting to see a man who was practically filmed and photographed almost every day of his career as a VP, show a side I had never seen before,” said Dylan Kirkpatrick, account manager at AAE, “Very emotionally exposed; at one point he even had to fight back tears. Putting yourself out there to a theater full of strangers is not an easy thing to do.”

Although grief played a significant role in this time in Biden’s life, he focused instead on moving forward. “When I wrote the book,” said Biden, “I didn’t want it to be about grief.”

Empathy in Politics

Instead of grief then, the Joe Biden American Promise Tour focuses on empathy, something Biden thinks has declined in America in general, and in politics in particular. He recalled a different atmosphere in the Senate during his time there, than the atmosphere he sees today. Specifically, Biden emphasized the way people are failing to get to know each other nowadays. “When I get to know you, it’s hard to dislike you,” Biden said, “I can disagree with you, but I won’t dislike you.” Account coordinator Maddy Robinson agreed: “We weren’t voters that night, we weren’t opponents, we weren’t any different than the man on the stage speaking about his life, his loves, his struggles, his tragedies.”

Our team members at the Joe Biden American Promise Tour in Durham, NC
Several members of the AAE team gather before Biden’s speech.

Empathy was a significant point for moderator Celeste Ng as well. The award-winning author of Everything I Never Told You and Little Fires Everywhere suggested that empathy was the “stock and trade” of fiction writing. Ng’s works are known for examining issues from a variety of different – often conflicting – perspectives. Little Fires Everywhere centers on a custody battle and the two opposing sides of the legal fight.

Addressing the recent white nationalist rally in Charlottesville, VA, Biden asked the audience if they ever thought they would hear the same slogans chanted by the Nazis in World War II spoken again, this time in America. “Why do you think that we tend to forget our history?” Ng asked him of this comment. The answer? According to Biden, fear. “Charlatans play on our fear,” stated Biden, elaborating on the fear of difference and division in society today. “Our children are listening,” Biden warned, “and silence is complicity.”

Finding a Way Forward

Despite the seriousness of his message, Biden ended the night on an optimistic note, saying, “If the problem is fear, the answer is knowledge.” Empathy, he believes, can cure America of its internal division. “There is an invisible moral fabric that holds up society,” continued Biden, “you can’t continue to divide America like this.” In a time of heated debate on both sides of the aisle, Biden placed importance on holding onto moral standards and human dignity, saying, “just be decent. It matters that you treat other people with respect.”

The Joe Biden American Promise Tour continues in Charlotte, NC, St. Louis, MO, and Memphis, TN.

The audience listens to Biden's speech