February 23, 2021
Atlanta I was driving in what I hoped was post-rush hour traffic in Atlanta after 6pm. I had the local public radio station on, which was interrupted by an NPR feed that was live from the White House. President Biden would be speaking in a commemoration of the US marking 500,000 Covid-19 deaths in the country. I was moving to change the station, but had to change lanes and focus, so put my hands back on the wheel, and left it where it was.
I have to admit that I have never listed to a Joe Biden speech. Ever. Nothing personal, just not my thing. I’d rather read about them, if it’s important, than hear them. It’s not just Ol’ Joe, but any of them. At most, I can only handle dribs and drabs. I don’t feel like they are talking to me, and often, they just sound polished and rote, a form of political marketing.
Listening to Biden was actually a powerful experience. It was solemn, sincere, and, frankly, moving.
I know radio. We run stations. We try to train our hosts to understand how the medium is different from what they’ve heard elsewhere or maybe even experienced. The best of them understand that it is intimate. Their voice in our ears. At best, no distractions that come with a screen or the rustle of a piece of paper. Some get it and some don’t.
Biden seemed to get it. Even knowing exactly how radio works and its seductive power, I felt like he was talking directly to me, just me. I felt this even while knowing and hearing that he was talking especially to so many about losses of family, friends, neighbors, and fellow workers.
Part of it was what he said; I know all too well. I know what it’s like to not be there when it happens. I know what it’s like when you are there holding their hands; there’s a look in their eye and they slip away. That black hole in your chest — you feel like you’re being sucked into it. The survivors’ remorse, the anger, the questions of faith in your soul.
I thought it might seem maudlin, but it didn’t somehow. The papers want to underline Biden’s empathy and his own experience with personal tragedy to explain the reaction, but it wasn’t that at all. It really was the fact that, as he had said earlier, we all have experienced death now, it’s come too close, and we don’t want to linger in it or understand it, but still, it hovers around too many of us all the time.
Comparing the 500,000 Covid dead and counting to the combined total of America’s great wars, I, II, and Vietnam, was more than metaphorical. Many of us had also been touched by those deaths, an uncle or a classmate here or there, gone to soon. Times that marked us all, just as the pandemic will mark and name this generation, rather than some meaningless letter of the alphabet.
There can’t be such a thing as missing mourning, but in recent years there has been a vacuum there in our national psyche and soul. Mourning was a photo op or a tweet, not an experience. Biden, surprisingly, brought real grace to these deaths and to any of us lucky enough to actually hear his words breaking through out jaded national callousness.
When it ended, I found myself wondering if maybe this bringing people together thing, this healing the national divide, and all that other Biden rhetoric might have real meaning to the rest of us. Probably not, but the feeling lingered for a minute, as I found my exit and changed stations.