It was almost seven years ago, and I was working as a sports editor for the Ottumwa Courier in Ottumwa, Iowa, and I needed to get to whatever my assignment was. Probably a ball game somewhere.
But I was trapped in the parking lot. I was gonna be late.
The reason, I soon learned, was because the Vice-President of the United States was across the street. His caravan was taking up an entire city block.
Joe Biden was talking to some supporters at the county Democratic headquarters, and everything was at a standstill. A crowd was forming, people maybe hoping to get a glimpse of the man.
Although I have some deeply-held political views, politics was not my beat. I didn’t really have an opinion of Joe Biden, positive or negative. It was more negative than positive at that moment, because Joe Biden was gonna make me late.
I walked over to where the onlookers were waiting, and was able to ask a person, who I assumed was a Secret Service officer, what the deal was. She was a woman, and I told her I had an event I needed to be at in a few minutes. I wondered if there was any way I could get out of there.
“You’re gonna be late,” she told me, in an all-business, deadpan voice.
So I stood there and waited. I asked her if she thought Biden would be coming over to talk to the crowd outside the headquarters. She wouldn’t say.
She then asked to look at my ID. I showed it to her. She had me open my camera bag, to make sure I had only camera stuff in there.
I don’t think she was suspicious of me, I think that she thought if she hassled me a little I’d quit asking her stupid questions. She was right.
Finally, Biden came out of the building, and sure enough, he jogged across the street to shake hands with people.
I was still late, but now this was cool. A chance to shake the Vice-President’s hand is a cool thing, whether you’re a fan of the guy or not.
As he approached me, I tried to think of something intelligent to say, since it isn’t all that often someone gets a moment with the Vice-President of the United States. Everyone else was saying things like, “give ‘em hell, Joe!” I thought that seemed pretty unoriginal and inconsequential. I thought maybe I should say something to get the message across that sometimes decisions in Washington can directly impact regular folks at home.
“Thank you, sir, for helping wind things down in Iraq,” I mumbled as I shook his hand. “Thanks for getting most of our troops home.”
He hesitated, then looked me in the eye.
“Did you have family serving over there?” he asked me.
“Some friends served,” I replied. “And my cousin, Mike, was killed over there in August of 2005.”
Suddenly, the handshaking stopped, and instead he placed his other hand on my arm and pulled me in, an inch closer. I had his full attention.
“Oh no! What happened to your cousin?”
And while a bunch of regular people and some Secret Service agents waited, impatiently, I gave the Vice-President of the United States a 30-second abbreviated history of my cousin, Sgt. 1st Class Michael A. Benson.
It wasn’t hard. Over the previous seven years, I’d memorized the story. Biden held my hand firmly in his hands as I told it, giving me reassurance and letting me know Mike’s story was the only thing in the world he cared about, at least until I was done telling it.
The story goes something like this:
He enlisted in 1985 after graduating from Winona Senior High School in Minnesota. During his two decades in the U.S. Army, he was awarded at least 23 medals, awards, or decorations in recognition of his outstanding military service.
He served in the first Gulf War, Operation Desert Storm, where he helped clear minefields in northern Iraq. He saw time in many other hotspots, and in some places he was not allowed to reveal. He worked his way up from ammunition bearer to squad leader to recruiter to trainer. He was in Iraq assigned to train Iraqi police and security forces. He was in his final year of service.
He did not have to go to Iraq, but he wanted to.
He was always a soldier, a teacher and a student. He was described by some who served with him as a person who never looked for a fight, but never backed down from one. He often told people that his middle initial, “A,” stood for “Airborne.” He was obviously proud that he earned that designation as part of his service.
On August 2, 2005, Mike was riding in a gunner’s turret in Baghdad when a suicide bomber driving a car that was carrying an improvised explosive device attacked his three-vehicle convoy, resulting in his sustaining severe head wounds. He was initially transferred from Iraq to a hospital in Germany where he was awarded a Purple Heart, and, while he did not immediately perish from his injuries, he died in a military hospital in Maryland on August 10, 2005. He died on American soil.
I probably didn’t say all of that, I rushed and mumbled my way through it, but I know I said this last part.
“I hadn’t seen him face to face for many years, but he will always be a hero to me.”
When I got to that last sentence, I started to choke up, as I often do when I talk about Mike.
“He’s a hero to me,” I said.
And Biden choked up, too, and had a tear in his eye, honest to God.
He put an arm around my shoulder, and pulled me close to him in something of a “man-hug,” leaned his face in, very close to mine, and talked into my ear, words only I could hear.
“Mike is my hero, too,” Biden said. “Let’s never forget our heroes, brother.”
Then he continued on, glad-handing the crowd, and I finally got to go cover my ball game.
I was impressed. I felt as if I had made a connection. I felt like he would probably remember the things I had told him about my cousin. I have no idea if that’s the case, but that’s how Biden made me feel.
Was the touching and the closeness uncomfortable for me? Yes, a little.
Was it appropriate? Absolutely. I can’t think of a more appropriate way to handle that situation. The act of making me uncomfortable for a moment ultimately gave me comfort. That’s the healing power of the human touch.
Now, I admit, I am not a woman, and a woman may not have felt the same way I felt about the exchange. Many men, I’m sure, would also not like to be touched that way by another man. Certainly, each individual has a right to determine what kind of contact is and is not appropriate to them.
But honestly, after my own exchange with Joe Biden, I find these recent stories about how his “handsy” behavior made them feel more than a little bit disingenuous.
Does this mean I’d support Joe Biden if he runs for President? Not at all. The world is not binary, and binary thought is killing us as a nation. My brief exchange with Joe Biden has nothing to do with whether or not I believe he’d be a good President, or a better President than anyone else. It takes a lot more than that to convince me one way or the other, and hopefully it will take a lot more than that to convince you.
But by way of quick comparison, let’s talk about a President who, rather than trying to provide comfort, instead mocks the parents of fallen soldiers, mocks a former POW who’s recently died of brain cancer, and insults the wife of a man who died honorably under his watch.
Let’s talk about a President who is not just “handsy,” but has been accused by several women of sexual assault and harassment, and who actually brags about grabbing them in places where you’re just not supposed to grab people.
If you’re rejecting Biden as a possible President simply because you find his behavior in these recent alleged stories inappropriate, that’s absolutely your right.
Just remember you’ll be sweeping away a molehill, under the shadow of a big, unstable mountain.
By the way, if you were wondering, my cousin’s real middle name was not “Airborne.” It was “Allen.”
And Joe Biden said he liked that I told him that.