Biden's extended family.

Photographer: Mandel Ngan/AFP/Getty Images

Biden's Broken Heart

Margaret Carlson is a Bloomberg View columnist. She was a White House correspondent for Time, a weekly panelist on CNN’s “Capital Gang” and an editor at the New Republic.
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Can a man with a big hole in his heart run for president? In a gut-wrenching appearance on the "Late Show" with Stephen Colbert on Thursday, Vice President Joe Biden came close to answering no.

If there is one cultural icon who would know what Biden was talking about, it is Colbert. There were a lot of damp pillows near midnight as the two went to sorrowful places in their lives: Biden, lost his wife and daughter in a car crash in 1972, and in May, his son Beau succumbed to cancer. Colbert's father and two brothers died in a plane crash in 1974, when the comedian was 10.

Losing a child is its own special hell. Biden’s bond with his eldest son was as tight as a fist. Colbert said that after his father and brothers died, he raised his mother. Beau played a similar role with his father, who was so devastated by the death of his wife and infant daughter that he could barely nurse his two surviving sons in intensive care. Beau, his bones crushed and in a cast from head to toe, kept the younger Hunter, in the bed beside him, cheered up. He did the same for his dad.

Now Beau is gone but life is about rising to meet the day again. “You gotta get up. And I feel like I was letting down Beau, letting down my parents, letting down my family if I didn't just get up,” the vice president said.

He told Colbert no one should run for president unless "they can look at folks out there and say `I promise you, you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion to do this.'”

He added: "I'd be lying if I said that I knew I was there.” As political speak, that gives Biden a lot of room to come back and run with his whole being. But many of the people who love him most don’t want him to, not because he couldn’t pull himself together, but because they don’t want to see him hurt in a brutal nomination fight against Hillary Clinton.

The Democratic front-runner has a huge head start, but she has stumbled. A less ambitious pol might be discouraged that  half the population thinks she's a liar, even women are showing doubts, and a swirling scandal over improper use of official e-mail shows no sign of abating. But what doesn’t kill Hillary (Gennifer Flowers, Whitewater, the travel office, the failure of health care reform, Vince Foster’s death, Monica) makes her stronger.

In reality, for Hillary to be weak enough to be seriously worried by a challenger, she would have to be indicted, which seems unlikely.

Clinton would attack Biden with reluctance, but attack she would. She’s been largely positive so far, except for a few easy jabs at Donald Trump. She has spared a surging Bernie Sanders because she can’t afford to alienate his base and because she figures a 74-year-old Vermont socialist will fade away without her having to tear him down. Biden would be a different story.

Hillary has big-name donors and endorsements by the dozens, but many of these may be starting to feel uneasy. If it gets any worse, they’ll start looking for someone to deliver them from an inglorious loss to a battered Republican ticket. The vice president wouldn’t enjoy quashing the dream Clinton’s probably held since her valedictorian address at Wellesley. But in a pinch he might do it.

One wild card in this is the president. Barack Obama has been oblique about the race to succeed him. With Biden not in, and Clinton getting in early, support for the former secretary of state seemed to be a given. Obama appeared to anoint her as she left the cabinet.

Still, the president has never been as close to Hillary as he is to Biden. He could rely on his vice president's  experience as two-time chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and his 40 years on Capitol Hill. For grieving military families, he was the scout from the other side to tell them life would go on.

And he was more:  a warm, reliable friend for a man who has few. Biden’s been as loyal a vice president as there has ever been.

Biden, who commuted home to Delaware daily during his 38 years in the Senate, is known as a nice guy. And nice guys finish last in politics. He's also described as too blustery, too off-the-cuff, too touch-feely to win the Oval Office. The president noted the latter at this year's Gridiron Club dinner after Biden was criticized for being too hands-on with the wife of Defense Secretary Ash Carter, at a swearing-in ceremony. “Joe rubs my shoulders, too,” the president said. “It’s not bad, it feels pretty good. I don’t let him give me a pedicure, but ...”

In any event, when it comes to bluster,Trump has reset the standard. And authenticity means a lot these days. Clinton’s staff said she would be emphasizing hers, along with her heart.

At Beau’s funeral, the president said, “Joe, you are my brother, and I am grateful every day you have got such a big heart, and a big soul, and those broad shoulders."

Obama said his own family had "become part of the Biden clan." He then gave his "word as a Biden" that he would be at Joe’s side, if not politically then emotionally for sure. It will no doubt help him heal.

When a loved one dies, we grieve in private but find solace in public, often not wanting the funeral to end. Biden's appearance on the "Late Show" was one of those public/private moments. The vice president had a moment to grieve with someone who knows the depths of his grief.

Biden exposed himself in a way that few public figures had before. Should he decide to run, no one will be able to say they don't know who he really is.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

To contact the author of this story:
Margaret Carlson at mcarlson3@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor responsible for this story:
Max Berley at mberley@bloomberg.net