More than six months after his eldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer and six weeks after effectively setting a date for the end of his political career, Vice President Joe Biden is mostly at peace.
Atop his desk aboard Air Force Two as he returns from a trip to the Ukraine is a red folder with the word "cancer" scribbled across the tab, filled with notes and names. On his left wrist, a bracelet made of dark beads and a cross. It's the rosary Beau fingered until he died in May.
He misses his "exceptional son" terribly and, while he admits to a certain wistfulness for the campaign trail, he has come to terms with his decision not to follow through on Beau's wish that he make a third run for the presidency.
"My decision, I know, was the right decision," Biden says of his October announcement that he would not be challenging Democratic front-runner Hillary Clinton and her rivals, Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont and former Maryland Governor Martin O'Malley of Maryland, for the nomination.
"I believed I could win, but that's not enough. I know myself. And I know it takes time," says Biden of the process of finding his way back to life. "You've got to get through the first Thanksgiving—the first empty chair; the first Christmas, the first smell of spring."
In the course of a 40-minute interview, the vice president comes across as much more emotionally settled than over the summer and fall when he was mulling a presidential run. Yet he is still clearly vulnerable, a man trying to make the transition from grieving what's gone to treasuring what's left—his wife, Jill; his surviving adult children, Hunter and Ashley; five grandchildren; and the next chapter in his professional life.
Biden says he wants to honor Beau by spending much of his last year in office and his post-political life making cancer research and treatment a bigger national priority. Right now, he's trying to learn the science, the finance, the politics and complexities of a disease that is dreaded and yet ubiquitous. He hopes it will soon be treatable with an arsenal of new discoveries. He meets with cancer experts. He attends conferences. He carries his red folder with him to Ukraine and back.
"What I'm doing now, I'm meeting with every center of power within the cancer world. I'm meeting with billionaires who have set up foundations. I'm meeting with everyone from the Mayo Clinic to one of the largest outfits that took care of Beau," he said, as well as "all the researchers."
He is not yet quite sure the direction it will take him, but he's following a lesson he learned early in his Washington career, when he swaggered onto the Senate floor for an energy debate, armed with a series of talking points. He encountered Senator Russell Long, son of the legendary Louisiana "kingfish," Governor Huey Long. Russell Long had been in the Senate a quarter-century when Biden was elected. He didn't need talking points to debate energy.
As he describes his humiliation at the hands of the wily Louisianian over the technicalities of oil drilling, Biden jumps from his chair and imitates the late senator's pigeon-like posture and his thick accent, saying "earl" for oil. For Biden, whose career was bookended by personal tragedies, the Senate has been his energy source, the bipartisan family that sustained him after his first wife and infant daughter were killed in an automobile crash shortly after his election in 1972. As he reminisces about those days, his joie de vivre returns.
Biden doesn't share the widespread cynicism about politics. Calling Donald Trump's politics a "dangerous brew," he expresses confidence that Americans will reject it. "Even though it appeals to some people who are really frightened and scared, even though it appeals to some prejudice and fears, I don’t think it’s sustainable."
He admits he hasn't let the 2016 election go, sometimes measuring the candidates' actions and statements against what he would have done. "I've always thought in those terms, from the time I was a 29-year-old senator," he says. "How would I have done it differently?"
Biden hasn't endorsed in the Democratic nomination contest and says he won't, though he has spoken at length with Clinton, Sanders and O'Malley. He says he's told each he's there for them if they want advice.
With President Barack Obama’s blessing, Biden has been moving to re-engage both on the domestic policy front and on the foreign policy front, where he built so many relationships over the past four decades, and to make the most of his remaining 13 months at the White House.
At a time when Trump is dominating the 2016 narrative, and Obama and other world leaders are focused on how to stop the Islamic State terror group in Syria and Iraq and radicalized devotees around the world, including in San Bernardino, California, the U.S. vice president has spent two days in Kiev assuring the Ukrainians that their plight since Russian aggression commenced in 2014 still matters.
The U.S. will not forsake Ukrainians because of Syria, Biden told them, but they must crack down on their own corruption and infighting if they want the West’s money and sanctions to keep coming—and if Ukraine fails, all of Central and Eastern Europe could come apart. In a likely editorial comment on Ukraine's struggle against Russian invaders, Biden kept a biography of Eamon de Valera, a father of Ireland's independence, conspicuously on view in his Air Force Two cabin.
This was Biden’s second foreign trip since his decision not to run for president, a decision he reached after months of grieving for Beau, once the assumed successor to his legacy.
At a refueling stop in Shannon, Ireland, a favorite trip-inside-the-trip for this vice president with proud Irish Catholic roots, Biden allows himself his usual meandering shopping spree for his family at the airport’s gift shop. He always poses for pictures with the airport staff. Between picking out gifts on this trip, he heads to the sunglasses section to try on a pair of the aviators that are part of his trademark look. An aide confides that the vice president keeps backup pairs.
On this stopover, Biden also makes a special visit to the airport chapel. It was a Catholic holy day of obligation in observance of the Immaculate Conception and the airport manager had arranged for a priest to hold a special short-program mass for Biden and any of his traveling entourage that wanted to attend. Biden bowed his head as the priest spoke of the Virgin Mary, of accepting God’s challenges, of mercy and peace.
Back on the plane, the vice president revealed how he's coping with some of those challenges. “Beau was my soul. Beau was an exceptional son,” Biden said. He keeps on his smartphone a copy of "Invictus," a Victorian-era poem by William Ernest Henley whose title means "Unconquered." Biden shares the opening stanza:
Out of the night that covers me
Black as the pit from pole to pole
I thank whatever gods may be
For my unconquerable soul.