Parker column: The empathy factor in 2020
WASHINGTON — In 2008, when Sarah Palin entered the stage to debate her fellow vice presidential candidate, Joe Biden, she asked him first thing: “Hey, can I call you Joe?”
It was a charming moment. In Palin’s aw-shucks manner, she not only neutralized Biden as a formidable foe but reminded folks watching at home that she was just a gal from Wasilla, Alaska, who liked to keep things simple and personal. It may have been the only brilliant line to come from the then-governor of Alaska that night.
In reality, the reason she asked to call him Joe was because during debate preparations, according to her memoirs, she had called him “O’Biden.” Obama, O’Biden, get it? Finally, her team advised her to just-call-him-Joe.
A couple of years later, I asked Biden how much he had held back during the debate, figuring he had been instructed to treat her gingerly, to avoid appearing the bully or a show off.
He laughed and said, “A lot!”
But the truth is, Biden wouldn’t have had to try very hard to be generous with Palin. Notwithstanding his handling of the 1991 interrogation of Anita Hill while chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, when Hill testified against then-Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas for sexual harassment, Biden is naturally kind. And, as we’ve recently been reminded, affectionate.
Most important, in contrast to President Trump, Biden is freighted with copious supplies of empathy. While Biden’s well-known personal losses have made him a fuller man capable of great compassion, Trump seems to have been born without the capacity to feel anything for others beyond their utilitarian value. Following his annual physical in February, the surprise wasn’t that he has a strong heart but that he has one at all.
The question for Biden, who became the 21st Democrat to toss his hat in the ring, is whether he is tough enough to be president. And, given the youthful fervor of the Democratic Party these days, is he, at age 76, too old?
I’d never say someone is too old for a given job, assuming qualifications and good health. I might question why anyone would want to be president at any age, but Biden’s explanation rings true. He is viewed by many as the candidate most likely to take Trump down. To kill him with kindness, as it were, as well as with experience, knowledge and a remarkable personal history.
That Biden isn’t a cauldron of raging hormones, or shouting slogans of radical change, is likely more comforting than not to many Americans, including baby boomers who aren’t dead yet and who tend to vote. Moreover, he’s a longtime populist and activist for America’s working class, thus perfectly positioned to woo back some of the almost 40 million white working-class Americans who voted for Trump.
Unlike Trump and Sen. Bernie Sanders — 72 and 77, respectively — Biden isn’t a grumpy old man. He’s got a mega-watt smile and doesn’t hide it behind a pout. He’s imperfect, yes. But his malaprops and his too-affectionate ways are endearing compared with the boasts and bloody bombast of The Current Occupant.
Finally, age confers some privileges: Joe won’t have to chop wood, shoot a gun or perform any of the other “manly” stunts male candidates often do, presumably to convey strength, stamina, virility or whatever. Really, hasn’t this gimmick run its course? The presidency hardly requires that one mount a rough steed and spear an antelope for din-dins. Besides, we’ve all witnessed Biden’s suffering and profound grief. He doesn’t have to prove a thing.
Come primary season, Biden may well be the only Democrat for whom Republicans could vote and, later, the only one who could graciously show Trump out. But all factors considered, he’s not otherwise the obvious candidate. That person is a male veteran, a former Navy intelligence officer, who studied at Harvard and Oxford as a Rhodes Scholar. Well-rounded, in other words. At 37, he’s very young, but he speaks engagingly in ways that wouldn’t strike fear in the elder heart.
Pete Buttigieg, who has served as mayor of South Bend, Indiana, since 2012, is the Barack Obama of his generation — a composite of opposites generated by an anti-Trump algorithm — and today’s quintessential candidate. The country may not yet be ready for a gay man and his husband in the White House, but Buttigieg is in my view the most significant voice in the presidential race.
And, hey, you can call him Mayor Pete.
Kathleen Parker’s email address is email@example.com.
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Sticks in the mud. Overly cautious. Obstacles to progress.