In October 1972, our family moved from the Philadelphia area to Auburn, New York, a small city Upstate in the remarkably beautiful Finger Lakes Region. Two weeks after we relocated, America held its presidential election, giving Richard Nixon a second term.
While the nation focused on Nixon, for a different reason our new hometown overflowed with excitement. One of our local Auburn girls, Neilia (“Susie”) Hunter, was headed to Washington. Her husband, Joseph Biden, had been elected to the United States Senate from the State of Delaware. The Bidens had met as college students. Joe was only 29 on election day, but Susie and he already had three beautiful children.
Six weeks later, on December 18, 1972, Susie Hunter Biden was driving her children home from Christmas tree shopping when their car was struck by a tractor-trailer. Susie and their 18-month old daughter Naomi were killed. The two older boys – Beau age 4 and Hunter age 3 – were seriously wounded.
Auburn went into shock. Its new princess was dead before even taking her throne. Little Naomi was gone as well, and news reports were not promising on Beau. Biden rushed to his boys’ hospital beds, taking time to bury Susie and Naomi side by side, beneath a joint burial marker.
Biden wasn’t sure if emotionally he had it in him to take his seat in the United States Senate. It took the personal intervention of Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to convince him to do so. On January 5, 1973, in a small chapel in the Delaware Medical Center, Senator Joseph Biden was sworn into office. In the room were both his sons – Beau being wheeled in while still in traction. Also in the room, if only in spirit, was the entire City of Auburn, which hadn’t watched this story so much as lived it during the previous three weeks.
For obvious reasons, we “Auburnians’ have watched Joe Biden’s career closely over the last 46 years. During that time, he became one of the most effective and important senators of his generation.
Biden certainly has his flaws. In person, he can be both charming yet oddly condescending. During one of his aborted runs for president, Biden was caught plagiarizing British politician Neil Kinnock. He also has a tendency to put his foot in his mouth. But Joe Biden always maintained his grace, effectiveness and respect for people who disagree with him or represent another political party. When Barack Obama chose Biden to be his running mate in 2008, Obama couldn’t have made a better choice. In eight years as Vice President, Biden exemplified American politics at its best, even while dealing with another personal tragedy, the death of his son Beau from cancer.
Now 76, Biden remains popular in Democratic circles. Yet his way of playing politics, which focuses on the good of others, is under attack.
Last week at the Munich Security Conference, Biden gave a speech in which he called his successor as Vice President, Mike Pence, “a decent guy”. Instantly he was pilloried, most notably by failed New York Gubernatorial Candidate and former actress Cynthia Nixon. “[Joe Biden] you’ve just called America’s most anti-LGBT elected leader a ‘decent guy.’ Please consider how that falls on the ears of our community.”
Biden retreated. “You’re right, Cynthia,” he responded. “…There is nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, and that includes the Vice President.”
There may be nothing decent about being anti-LGBTQ rights, but there might still be something decent about the person. Biden has seen and dealt with thousands of American politicians over his career, and probably called many of them “decent”. Now, he and we are told by the shrillest voices among us that this no longer applies. If the person about whom you are speaking does not agree with you on every issue, that person apparently can’t be “decent.”
For Jews, it’s easy to imagine the retort. “We Jews must be especially sensitive to the plight of others. If we believe that someone is Anti-Semitic, we never will accept that person being called ‘decent’”. Perhaps, but there are degrees of everything. LGBTQ rights encompasses a broad topic. Even those who fought the hardest for the right to “come out of the closet” now differ on many LGBTQ-related issues.
There is great danger to us in this new politics of absolutism. Far and away, Israel is the most progressive country in the Middle East when it comes to LGBTQ issues. In return, however, it gets no support from those whom one would expect to be most impacted – the pro-LGBTQ progressive movement. Instead, Israel is treated exactly the opposite. The progressive movement even tagged Israel with a made-up term, “Pinkwashing”, to describe that the movement believes Israel uses its LGBTQ policies as a smokescreen to deflect attention from its supposed mistreatment of Palestinians. For these pro-LGBTQ activists, attitudes toward LGBTQ issues seem less important than absolute commitment to a rigorous ideological agenda.
It seems now that on both sides there is conflation when it comes to every political issue. The progressive elite has declared that Israel is a serial human rights violator, making anyone who supports Israel by definition an enabler. Thus old-fashioned Anti-Semitism is turned into a virtue. Jews support Israel, so they support oppression. To oppose Jews is to take a principled stand against that oppression. Through simple logic, the odiousness that is Anti-Semitism is wiped away. “Pinkwashing” has become “Whitewashing”.
Joe Biden was a bulwark against such intersectionality. He refused to accept the idea that because a person disagreed with him on certain issues, this made him/her “indecent”. It allowed him to see the good in others, and to work across the political aisle with people whom he disagreed about many political issues. This moved our country, and our planet, forward. By seeing that good, he was not lead down the path of absolutism which turns vice into virtue.
Cynthia Nixon and others on the progressive left know no such distinctions (neither does the extreme right, but this is about the left). The day that the Joe Bidens of the world must accept the political tune called by the Cynthia Nixons is that day that our politics clearly is diminished. It also is the day in which our American world becomes more dangerous for its Jewish citizens.