Joe Biden initially said no when then-Democratic presidential candidate Barack Obama asked him to be his vice presidential running mate in 2008. A 36-year veteran of the U.S. Senate, Biden thought he could better serve the future president in Congress than in the White House.
“All the vice president is, you’re stand-by equipment.” Biden recalled.
Obama gave him 48 hours to think it over and talk with his family in Delaware. Biden polled each relative. “I shouldn’t have asked,” he said, recalling that his mother had made a persuasive argument that Biden’s personal and professional lives had put him in a unique position to help Obama win battleground states like Ohio, Pennsylvania and Florida and become the first African-American president in U.S. history.
Convinced, Biden accepted the offer. “It turned out to be the best decision my family ever made for me,” he said.
The country’s 47th vice president reflected on his time in office and family history in a moderated discussion Thursday afternoon at the University of Utah. Biden was in Salt Lake City to serve as keynote speaker for the My U Signature Experience (MUSE) Project, a department that hosts events throughout the year that connect students with their fellow Utes, professors and local and national community leaders.
Biden’s recently published book, Promise Me, Dad, is the centerpiece of MUSE’s theme this year, “Purpose.” The memoir chronicles Biden’s time during the last year of his son Beau’s life, who died in 2015 after succumbing to a malignant brain tumor.
Biden’s conversation with Professor and MUSE Project Director Mark Matheson was personal and political. He spoke highly of Obama, “a man of absolute character and integrity.” In his only indirect reference to President Donald Trump, Biden said he was particularly proud that he and Obama made it through eight years without a major scandal. “And by the way, all those memes are true,” Biden joked. “He made the first friendship bracelet, not me.”
Acknowledging Utah’s red voting record, (“I know you vote the other way,” he said), the veep also expressed admiration for local leaders, like Jon Huntsman Sr. and Jr., praising the former for his cancer institute—which Biden toured in 2016—and Huntsman Jr.’s public service as U.S. ambassador to Russia.
Biden also spoke fondly of his parents—“I won the gene lottery”—and the morals and wisdom they instilled in him and his siblings. “My mother used to say that the greatest virtue of all was courage,” he said. “Without courage you can’t love with abandon.”
Much of the discussion centered on loss and the soul-searching and sense of purpose that arises after a tragedy. Biden was by his mother’s bedside in 2010 during her final moments. The doctor had urged him to leave because she wouldn’t die with him by her side. “She’s always taught you, never, never to give up,” Biden remembered the doctor saying. He walked into the bathroom and counted to 60. When he came back, she was gone. “She just wasn’t going to give up in front of me.”
Talking to a college-aged crowd, Biden told the students that his two sons and daughter each graduated with more than $100,000 in debt. “I borrowed every single penny I could as a United States Senator,” he said. “Nothing has escalated in cost as much as college education.”
A 45-year veteran of public service, Biden has called himself “the poorest man in Congress.” He urged the U scholars to pursue a career they’re passionate about and not take a high-paying job solely for the sake of higher earnings. “I think money in and of itself is sort of a hollow goal. What do you want to do with it? What’s the purpose of it?” Biden asked. “Just to make money as opposed to trying to benefit society as a whole, or just your neighborhood, I just never got it.”
Before exiting the stage, he left the crowd with one short sentence of encouragement: “Go spread the faith.”