Joe Biden is the PTSD president we need

A man who's been hurt can be the person to help us heal

By Mary Elizabeth Williams
Published November 15, 2020 2:00PM (EST)
Joe Biden (Getty Images)
Joe Biden (Getty Images)

I have a t-shirt that says "SETTLE FOR BIDEN." I was an Elizabeth Warren supporter who who spent much of the past year baffled over how this often problematic elderly man whose chief allure seemed to have been proximity to Obama could possibly ascend to the presidency of the United States of America.

I wore that shirt all summer long, as it garnered approving nods from fellow wearily resigned voters here in New York City. I was wearing it on Saturday, in a small town upstate, as the news came in of Biden's victory. But then on Saturday night, I watched Joe Biden give his socially distanced victory speech in a parking lot in Delaware. And suddenly, I was all in. This man, he's our guy. Because what America needs right now isn't charisma. It definitely isn't a mandate of "F__k your feelings." It's someone who understands suffering. Knows it the way Joe Biden does.

Biden's track record with personal catastrophe is an integral part of his public persona. On December 18, 1972, one month after his election to the Senate, his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident that also seriously injured his young sons Hunter and Beau. In 2015, Beau died of brain cancer at the age of 46. His surviving son Hunter has struggled with addiction. And as he's faced each devastating crisis, Biden has carved his identity around it. As Delaware Senator Chris Coons told Politico in 2019, the president-elect "has almost a superpower in his ability to comfort and listen and connect with people who have just suffered the greatest loss of their lives." In other words, basically everybody right now.

It would be fantastic enough just to have a leader who respects science and diplomacy and knows how to turn off caps lock; you could stop right there, and the world would exhale a sigh of relief. But what will guide the Biden era is the example of empathy. A presidency for our PTSD.

There are moments in history that require somebody with real world experience of being broken. Whatever you think of Bill Clinton (and I, too, have many thoughts), his presidency was in no small way won in 1992 on his oft-mocked "I feel your pain" position. "I understand that you're hurting," he told an audience at a campaign stop, "but you won't stop hurting by trying to hurt other people." He sealed the deal during the debates, when he elegantly answered a question about on how recession affected him personally. "When people lose their jobs, there is a good chance I know them by their name," he said. "If the factory closes, I know the people who ran it." George H.W. Bush simply did not.

Barack Obama similarly marked his presidency with his particular gift for understanding grief — the grief of parents, the grief of communities. "When Trayvon Martin was first shot," he said in 2013, "I said that this could have been my son. Another way of saying that is, Trayvon Martin could have been me 35 years ago," Obama said in a White House press briefing. "And when you think about why in the African-American community at least there is a lot of pain around what happened here, I think it's important to recognize that the African-American community is looking at this issue through a set of experiences and a history that doesn't go away."

In contrast, when George Floyd was killed earlier this year, Trump called it "terrible," but then replied to a journalist who asked, "Why are African Americans still dying at the hands of law enforcement?" by saying, "What a terrible question to ask. So are white people. More white people by the way. More white people."

And you need only watch Trump's dead-eyed performance after the 2018 mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School to see his fundamental inability to connect. "Answer hate with love; answer cruelty with kindness," he read off the teleprompter, as if he were sounding out a foreign language. After the 2019 mass shooting in El Paso, Trump took the moment to praise heroic Army specialist Glendon Oakley — whose name he didn't seem to recall — by noting, "You could be a movie star, the way you look. That'll be next. Who knows, right?" It was as if he'd forgotten he wasn't at a dinner party.

Empathy is a simple concept to grasp. Either you can put yourself in someone else's place or you can't. Either you can feel their pain or you can say "f**k your feelings." Consider how John McCain's five years as a prisoner of war guided his opposition to the use of torture as an interrogation tool. Donald Trump, meanwhile, called him a loser, on the rationale that he "like[s] people that weren't captured."

Joe Biden, a military dad, doesn't see our service men and women in that light. If you want to see fired up Joe in action, watch him talk about the "unseen wounds" that veterans endure, the suicide rate among them. If you want to see him vulnerable, watch him with the parents who've lost their children in the armed forces. "Just when you think you will make it, you pass a field, or hear a tune on the radio, or look up at the night sky, and you feel the same as the moment you got the news," he said in 2012. "You say, 'Maybe I'm not going to make it.' " That blunt, stomach dropping, visceral re-experiencing of trauma? That's PTSD. Biden can speak to it because he's been there.

He likewise doesn't do stigma, for himself or others. In the first presidential debate, Donald Trump mocked his son Hunter's past, misleadingly claiming he'd been "thrown out" of the military for his drug use. Biden replied, " My son, like a lot of people, like a lot of people you know at home, had a drug problem. He's overtaken it. He's worked on it. And I'm proud of him. I'm proud of my son." And when Rudy Giuliani and his cronies attempted a Hunter-focused smear on Biden in October, part of the hot goods they had on the family was an alleged text from the elder Biden to Hunter while he was in rehab, telling him, "Good morning my beautiful son. I love you and miss you. Dad." Can you seriously imagine anyone with the last name Trump sending a message like that?

I don't need to idolize my president, because I'm not a cult member. I can vote for someone without unconditionally supporting everything he's ever done. But I'm lately really, really grateful at the thought of someone sitting in the Oval Office who has cried, who has grieved, who felt the kind of pain that shakes you to your foundation and changes who you are. Someone who knows exactly what it feels the agony of, in his words, "an empty chair at the kitchen table this morning," to be "that man or wife going to bed tonight reaching over to try to touch their wife or husband who is gone." 

In a recent Harvard Business Review feature, author Nancy Koehn said that "Real leaders are not born; the ability to help others triumph over adversity is not written into their genetic code. They are, instead, made. They are forged in crisis." Joe Biden knows about crisis. He knows that we are in crisis, and that you don't get out of a crisis with "It is what it is" guy at the helm. Openly sobbing on CNN this weekend, Van Jones called this moment "a vindication for a lot of people who have really suffered," a condemnation of the past four years and a recognition that "Being a good man matters."

I think often about the scene in "Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt" where Kimmy, an abduction and abuse survivor, is approached by a soldier who assumes she's a veteran because "You've kind of got that look." People who lived through hell, whatever that hell may be, often do that with each other. They recognize each other, they have a common language of survival. This collective pain of sickness, injustice, systemic racism and four years of psychological abuse while teetering on the precipice of destroying democracy for the whims of a tyrant is real. Thank God, it's real to Joe Biden. He's kind of got that look.

Mary Elizabeth Williams

Mary Elizabeth Williams is a staff writer for Salon and author of "A Series of Catastrophes & Miracles."

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2020election Donald Trump Joe Biden Ptsd