Biden always took pride in his oratory skills, which he had honed over time despite a stutter in his childhood. Sometimes they worked to his advantage – for example, when he was hailed early in his career as the leader of a new generation of Democrats and chaired the judiciary committee in critical Supreme Court nomination hearings. Sometimes his confidence in her was betrayed by the results, such as when he spoke about Barack Obama’s eloquence during the 2008 primaries, or during the countless other moments when he said something on the spur of the moment that he later had to clarify.
But never before 9/11 had he attempted to use these skills in a moment of national tragedy.
As he got off the train at around 10 a.m. that morning, Biden hurried over the few blocks between Union Station and the Capitol. In the distance, smoke rose into the air over the Potomac. Another plane, American Airlines Flight 77, crashed into the Pentagon. A Capitol police officer stopped him at the entrance and refused to let him into the building.
Margaret Aitken, then Biden’s press secretary, met him on the way to the Capitol steps. She remembered Biden trying to find a way to get in front of the C-SPAN cameras in the Senate, saying something that the public could find comforting. “He wanted our country and the rest of the world to know that our government was still operational. That was extremely important to him at the time, ”recalls Aitken.
Part of Biden’s desire to speak that morning was fueled by the fact that the other national figures could not. Bush was still kept out of DC for his safety after spending the morning in a Florida classroom promoting education and literacy. Then Vice President Dick Cheney was in the presidential bunker. Biden, who recently became chairman of the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee, was arguably the most senior foreign policy figure outside the executive.
But those who have worked with Biden believe that he is also a firm believer in his ability to exude calm and empathy in moments when these two terms seem to be absent. While some politicians find it difficult to comfort those affected, Biden prides itself on his ability to do so. He has praised deceased colleagues, given national speeches on moments of gun violence and thought of dire milestones in connection with the Covid-19 pandemic. A role that not every politician can play. And as the day of September 11th unfolded, it wasn’t clear whether Biden or anyone could do the same.
Despite Biden’s assertions to the Capitol Police, he would never be admitted to the Senate. At that moment, Aides remembered Biden looking at the jumble of lawmakers, staff, and tourists standing in shock after the Capitol evacuated, and began walking up to people one by one, taking their shoulders and sharing the message he was wanted to share with the cameras, “We’ll be fine, we’ll be fine.”
Former MP Bob Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was with Biden that day. The two tried to convince other members of the legislature to band together and push for access to the Capitol to bring Congress back into session, if only to signal that the government was not bowed. But after hours of trying, they gave up.
Biden looked at Brady.
“He said, ‘Do you have a car?’ I said, ‘Yes, I have a car,’ Brady told POLITICO. So the two lawmakers, a member of Brady’s co-worker and Biden’s brother Jimmy – who had been in DC that day and making his way to the Capitol – piled up in a car to drive home.
And then Biden got what he was looking for.
On the way to the car, Biden met Linda Douglass, the then chief Capitol Hill correspondent for ABC News. She had recently been evacuated herself and was looking for a place to record live, and most importantly, a senior government official to speak to.
“It was a great relief to see someone of his stature and seniority able to speak to the country in a state of terror and confusion,” said Douglass, Obama’s 2008 advisor -Biden was campaign. “That was the part that was important to me: there were no other voices. There were no other leaders who were able to calm the country down. “
Back in the studio, ABC news anchor Peter Jennings asked Biden about Al-Qaeda leader Osama Bin Laden, who was already being discussed as the mastermind behind the attacks. “The tendency under these circumstances is to focus too much on one man, one idea, one perspective … I think it is far too early for us to make such judgments,” said Biden. “You can’t do that overnight. It’s an incredible tragedy. But it’s a new threat in the 21st century, and we’re going to find a way to do it. ”
After the interview, Biden and Brady hopped in the car, hopped in the heavy afternoon traffic, and took a drive to Wilmington that Brady remembers. The men listened to the news throughout the journey, spoke to family members, and spent most of the journey in shock. “We just didn’t know what to make of it or what to do about it,” recalls Brady. He says the men sobbed and said a prayer every time there was an update on how many were killed that day.
Biden’s phone rang again near Baltimore. It was President Bush who “thanked him for his remarks,” Brady said. The president also told Biden that intelligence services were telling him to stay away from the country’s capital. Biden pushed back: “Mr. President, come back to Washington. ”
Bush would eventually return to DC later that evening and speak to the nation from the Oval Office at 9 p.m., nearly 12 hours after the first plane hit the World Trade Center.
Brady dropped the Biden at Wilmington Train Station, where Biden’s own car had been parked all day. The next morning, Biden held a staff meeting at the Capitol where he comforted young helpers with a speech that Aitken said she told him more people should hear. So they called the producers on the Oprah Winfrey Show.
“I literally got heads of state on the phone faster than Oprah,” says Aitken with a laugh. Their show was anticipated for days by coverage of 9/11 and Biden would appear on Monday the 17th almost a week later.
The Oprah interview (conducted via satellite from Delaware) was a preview of the role Biden would ultimately play for years to come: part fortune teller, part foreign affairs analyst, part comforter.
Oprah introduced Biden as “a key player” for the country at that moment. The senator read from a letter written by the son of the President of the University of Delaware, his alma mater.
“We fought evil. We have upheld our constitutional rights, our values and everything that is so important to America, “read Biden before remarking himself:” You have no capacity to bring this nation down. You don’t have the capacity. ”
Two days later he would deliver a similar message at the same university, where his reassurance included predictions much rosier than what ultimately happened.
“Don’t get carried away. What happened was terrible. Some have called September 11th ‘the second day of shame’, ”Biden told the students. “Some tell you it will change the way we live. I’m here to tell you it won’t change the way we live – it can’t, it can’t. It is the beginning of the end of the way of life of international terrorist organizations – not ours. “
Biden would spend the next days, weeks, months, and years shaping the political responses to September 11th. His “foreign policy focus shifted to Central Asia and the Middle East. And it should have been, ”recalled Mike Haltzel, Democratic Staff Director of the Subcommittee on European Affairs.
At that moment he was making political calculations that would complicate his career. He spoke highly of President Bush and worked closely with the Bush administration. He offered his support for the use of military force in Iraq and gave the White House the kind of bipartisan approval to confidently launch the invasion.
But aid workers also say that during his four trips to the region, Biden became disillusioned with the results of September 11, not just from the war in Iraq, but from efforts to build a semblance of a nation-state in Afghanistan.
“For years it was more like, ‘This is a shitty situation. The Bush administration is screwing it up. And if I could just sit down with Karzai, maybe I could find a way to get it un — ed, ‘”said Jonah Blank, South and Southeast Asia Political Director on the Senate Foreign Affairs Committee from 1999 to 2011. That , said Blank, leading to “‘Okay, I sat down with Karzai and no, he’s not part of the solution. He’s part of the problem. I just don’t see any way to break that. I don’t see any way to get to the other side here. ‘”
Almost 20 years after getting off the train, Biden was in a position to do something about this disillusionment. As president, he oversaw the full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan until the end of August, despite immense political pressure to reconsider that decision. It was a bloody, chaotic jumble of retreat that raised serious questions about his approach to the region. To ward off doubts – and to honor the associated US military losses – Biden again followed instinct: He delivered an important national address to the nation.
Biden pledged to avenge the deaths of 13 American soldiers killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul in the final days of the retreat.
“When we have been through 20 years of war, strife and pain and sacrifice,” he said, “it is time to look to the future, not the past – to a future that is safer, to a future, one that is more certain, into a future that honors those who served and all those who showed what President Lincoln called their ultimate level of devotion. “