Grief has many stages. First is disbelief. Then anger. Then sorrow. Then numbness. Then, finally, comes calculating how a strategically leaked anecdote about the deceased to a friendly New York Times columnist might make the public more receptive to a presidential run.
Bill Kristol argued back in August after Maureen Dowd’s column was published that, given the level of detail reported, only Biden himself or perhaps his wife could realistically be the leaker. But Kristol’s piece didn’t get much traction online, probably because it seemed mean to suggest that Biden might have tried to use Beau’s death to some sort of political advantage. That’s the sort of cold, self-interested tactic that — well, that Bill and Hillary Clinton might use. Fast forward two months and here’s Politico:
According to multiple sources, it was Biden himself who talked to her, painting a tragic portrait of a dying son, Beau’s face partially paralyzed, sitting his father down and trying to make him promise to run for president because “the White House should not revert to the Clintons and that the country would be better off with Biden values.”
It was no coincidence that the preliminary pieces around a prospective campaign started moving right after that column. People read Dowd and started reaching out, those around the vice president would say by way of defensive explanation. He was just answering the phone and listening.
But in truth, Biden had effectively placed an ad in The New York Times, asking them to call…
“Calculation sort of sounds crass, but I guess that’s what it is,” said one person who’s recently spoken to Biden about the prospect of running.
Here’s an innocuous way this could have happened. Dowd, having known Biden for years, might have gotten him on the phone in July just to extend her condolences and they ended up chatting about Beau’s illness and his last days. At some point Biden might have idly relayed the conversation he and Beau had had about him possibly running and Dowd, realizing she’d just been handed the political equivalent of a gold nugget, set about trying to persuade him to let her use it in a column. To believe that, though, you’d need to believe that a man who’s been dealing with media types for more than 40 years as a senator and vice president really might have an absentminded moment regarding his possible presidential run in talking about it with a famous columnist. And even if he had, he presumably gave Dowd permission later to use what he said knowing full well what the fallout would be among Democratic donors and strategists once the column went live. Nor was she the only person to hear this story. “Before that moment and since,” Politico notes, “Biden has told the Beau story to others” — and “sometimes details change,” like the setting or the exact words. You don’t say.
What you’re seeing here is how Biden’s public image as a not-especially-bright regular guy, right down to his oafish verbal gaffes, actually insulates him somewhat from more damaging criticism that other politicians routinely take. If Hillary were whispering to reporters about how a loved one encouraged her to run for president before she passed away, we’d sneer that it’s just further evidence that the Clintons are power-hungry sociopaths. Biden will get a pass for this, though, because it’s simply too difficult for most of the public to see him as the sort of reptilian conniver that virtually any other politician in D.C., starting with the Clintons, would be perceived as if they were caught in this same situation. It’s easier to imagine an innocent explanation for how he transmitted this info to Dowd, however unlikely that might be, than to conclude that he’s a ruthless climber like the rest of them. Which brings us to the new “who leaked?” question: Namely, who leaked this story to Politico? It’s almost certainly Team Hillary, right? Biden’s reportedly on the verge of announcing his candidacy; meanwhile, just by asking around among Democratic movers and shakers, the Clintons probably figured out almost immediately that Biden himself was Dowd’s source and was trying to build public sympathy. They wouldn’t want to reveal that, though, until it became clear that he was running; otherwise, it might have backfired on them by assassinating the character of a grieving dad who’s not even challenging her for the nomination. So they waited until it seemed like there was no doubt he was getting in, then they dialed up Politico with the names of a few friendly Democrats who’d heard Biden tell the Dowd story in strikingly similar terms and would be willing to confirm that for the site. That’s how this happened, I’d bet. Let the war for the nomination begin.
Even so, this isn’t remotely the worst case of a would-be Democratic nominee exploiting a family tragedy on the trail. Here’s John Edwards back in 2007 referencing his wife’s cancer for sympathy points in his own campaign. This spot began running in November of that year. Rielle Hunter was already pregnant with his child by then.