Speed Reads

In Memoriam

Beau Biden's death and the poetry of public condolences

On Saturday night, Joseph R. "Beau" Biden III died from brain cancer. Vice President Joe Biden and a close circle of friends and family had been quietly preparing for the death, but most people were caught by surprise. "In a town where few events ever truly break through the thick layer of partisanship," said Michael Shear at The New York Times, Beau Biden's death, at age 46, "unleashed an outpouring of sorrow."

The condolences came from all over: from top Democrats and high-profile Republicans, and from people with less of an obvious connection to the Biden family, like Sarah Palin and Liz Cheney. President Obama, who canceled a reception Sunday to mourn with the Biden family, reached for poetry, quoting William Butler Yeats on how believing "the best of every man," as Beau Biden did, "is enough to make a bad man show him at his best or even a good man swing his lantern higher."

Secretary of State John Kerry, though, had perhaps the most memorable public statement. The Biden family "has experienced pain before and come out stronger at the broken places, as Hemingway wrote so poignantly," he said:

As we know, there are some things only God can explain. The tragic loss of the good, the young, and the brave has haunted me for a long, long time now — and again today, with Beau's passing.

A few years ago, Joe, who, tragically, was already speaking from experience, described the period after losing a loved one as akin to "that black hole you feel in your chest, like you're being sucked back into it." But Joe has also said there comes a day "when the thought of your son or daughter, or your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eyes." As usual, Joe said it better than anyone else could. [Kerry]

Biden, wearing dark sunglasses, recounted that earlier loss — his first wife and infant daughter killed in a car accident in 1972 — just two weeks ago while giving a speech to graduating seniors at Yale, even though he knew Beau Biden was likely dying. You can watch excerpts of the poignant speech below. Peter Weber