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How 9/11 shaped Joe Biden’s approach to the politics of national tragedy

Like everyone else on Sept. 11, 2001, Joe Biden found himself in a state of confusion when word trickled in that a plane had struck one of the iconic Twin Towers in New York City. He was on his way from Wilmington to Washington, D.C., anticipating a rather mundane commute and a rather mundane Senate confirmation hearing for John Walters, President George W. Bush’s pick for the Office of National Drug Control Policy.

But thirty minutes or so after boarding his usual train, fellow riders started buzzing about reports coming in from downtown New York. Shortly thereafter, his wife Jill called to break the news.

In those subsequent moments, Biden made his entrance into a dark and difficult chapter in U.S. history, one that would see him play an instrumental role in the U.S. response over the course of two decades. In the process, he gave the American public one of the first real glimpses of a personality trait that has come to define his career in politics and his conduct in the presidency. The then-Senator’s first inclination in the milieu of fear and chaos was that he had the responsibility, perch, and unique skill set to comfort; and that he needed to find a way to speak to the public.

Biden has always prided himself on his oratorical skills, which he had honed over time despite a childhood stutter. Sometimes, they worked to his benefit — like when he was hailed early in his career as the leader of a new generation of Democrats and presided over the Judiciary Committee during critical Supreme Court nomination hearings. Sometimes, his confidence in them was betrayed by the results, like when he went on a riff about Barack Obama’s articulateness during the 2008 primaries, or the countless other moments when he said something off the cuff that he later had to clarify.

But never, prior to 9/11, had he attempted to apply those skills to a moment of national tragedy.

When he stepped off the train that morning at roughly 10 a.m., Biden rushed the few blocks between Union Station and the Capitol. Off in the distance, smoke was rising in the air across the Potomac. Another plane, American Airlines Flight 77, had crashed into the Pentagon. A Capitol police officer stopped him at the entrance, refusing to let him into the building.

Margaret Aitken, Biden’s press secretary at the time, met up with him on his way to the Capitol steps. She recalled Biden trying to find a way to get in front of the C-SPAN cameras on the Senate floor in order to say something that the public could find reassuring. “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 that time,” Aitken recalled.

Part of Biden’s desire to speak that morning was driven by the fact that the other national figures couldn’t. Bush was still being kept away from D.C. for his safety, having spent the morning in a classroom in Florida promoting education and literacy. Then-Vice President Dick Cheney was in the presidential bunker. Biden, who had recently become the chair of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, was arguably the most senior foreign policy figure not in the executive branch.

But those who have worked with Biden note he also believes firmly in his capacities to project calm and empathy in moments where those two notions seem lacking. Whereas some politicians find it difficult to comfort the afflicted, Biden has taken pride in his ability to do so. He has eulogized colleagues who have passed, given national addresses around moments of gun violence, and commemorated grim milestones around the Covid-19 pandemic. It is a role not every politician can play. And, as the day of 9/11 unfolded, it was not clear if Biden, or anyone, could either.

Despite Biden’s protestations to Capitol police, he would never be allowed onto the Senate floor. Aides recalled, at that moment, that Biden looked at the jumble of lawmakers, staffers and tourists standing in shock after evacuating the Capitol and began going up to people individually, grabbing their shoulders, and sharing the message he wanted to share with the cameras: “We’re going to be OK, we’re going to be OK.”

Former Rep. Bob Brady, a Pennsylvania Democrat, was with Biden that day. The two of them tried to convince other members of the legislative branch to team up and push for access to the Capitol to gavel Congress back into session, if only to signal that the government was unbowed. But after hours of trying, they gave up.

Biden looked at Brady.

“He said, ‘you got a car?’ I said, ‘yeah I got a car,” Brady told POLITICO. So the two lawmakers, a member of Brady’s staff and Biden’s brother, Jimmy — who had been in D.C. that day and made his way over to the Capitol — piled in a car together to head home.

And then, Biden got what he had been looking for.

On the way to the car, Biden ran into Linda Douglass, the Chief Capitol Hill Correspondent for ABC News at the time. She had recently been evacuated herself and was looking for a place to do a live shot and, more importantly, any senior government official to talk to.

”It was just such a relief to see somebody of his stature and seniority, able to talk to the country, which was in a state of terror and confusion,” said Douglass, who went on to become an aide to the Obama-Biden 2008 campaign. “That is the part of it that was significant to me: there were no other voices. There were no other leaders who were able to start reassuring the country.”

Back at 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 in these circumstances is to be too focused on one man, one idea, one prospect … I think it’s much too early for us to make those kinds of judgments,” Biden said. “This cannot be dealt with overnight. It’s an incredible tragedy. But it’s a new threat of the twenty-first century, and we will find a way to do it. ”

After the interview, Biden and Brady hopped in the car, jumped into the heavy afternoon traffic and took what Brady remembers as a somber and quiet ride to Wilmington. The men listened to the news the entire ride, talked to family members and spent most of the ride in shock. “We just didn’t know what to think about it, what to do about it,” Brady recalled. He says the men sobbed and said a prayer any time there was an update on how many had been killed that day.

Close to Baltimore, Biden’s phone rang again. It was President Bush thanking “him for his remarks,” Brady said. The president also told Biden the intelligence community was telling him to stay away from the nation’s capital. Biden pushed back, “Mr. President, come back to Washington.”

Bush would eventually return to D.C. later that evening and would address 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 Bidens off at the Wilmington train station, where Biden’s own car had been all day. The next morning, Biden held a staff meeting back at the Capitol, where he found himself consoling young aides with a speech that Aitken says she told him more people needed to hear. So, they called the producers of the Oprah Winfrey Show.

“I’ve literally gotten heads of state on the phone quicker than Oprah,” Aitken says with a laugh. Her show was preempted by 9/11 coverage for days and Biden would appear on Monday, the 17th, nearly a week later.

The Oprah interview (done via satellite from Delaware) was a preview of the role that Biden would ultimately play for years to come: part soothsayer, part foreign policy analyst, part consoler.

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 University of Delaware’s president, his alma mater.

“We have fought evil. We have preserved our constitutional rights, our values and everything that’s so important to America,” Biden read before remarking himself, “They do not have the capacity to take this nation down. They don’t have the capacity.”

He would share a similar message two days later at the same university, where his reassurance included predictions that were much rosier than what ultimately happened.

“Don’t let yourself get carried away. What happened was horrible. Some have called September 11 a ‘second day of infamy,’” Biden told the students. “Some are telling you that it will change our way of life. I’m here to tell you it will not — cannot, must not — change our way of life. It is the beginning of the end of the way of life for international terrorist organizations — not ours.”

Biden would spend the next days, weeks, months and years helping to craft the policy responses to 9/11. His “focus in foreign policy shifted to Central Asia and the Middle East. And it should have,” recalled Mike Haltzel, the Democratic Staff director of the European Affairs subcommittee.

He made political calculations in the moment that would come back to 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, giving the White House the type of bipartisan buy-in to confidently launch the invasion.

But aides also say that Biden, over his four trips to the region, became disillusioned with the outcomes of 9/11, not just with the war in Iraq but also with the efforts to build a semblance of a nation state in Afghanistan.

“For years, it’d been more, ‘this is a f—ed up situation. The Bush administration is f—ing it up. And if I could just sit down with Karzai, maybe I could figure out a way of getting it un-f—ed,’” said Jonah Blank, the policy director for South and Southeast Asia on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee from 1999 to 2011. That, said Blank, led to “‘Okay, I’ve sat down with Karzai and no, he’s not part of the solution. He is part of the problem. I just don’t see a way of breaking through this. I don’t see a way of getting to the other side on this.’”

Just under 20 years after he stepped off the train, Biden found himself in a position to do something about that disillusionment. As president, he oversaw the full withdrawal of troops from Afghanistan by the end of August, despite immense political pressure to reconsider that decision. It was a bloody, chaotic mess of a withdrawal, one that raised serious questions about his approach to the region. To fend off the doubts about it — and to honor the U.S. military casualties that came with it — Biden followed his instinct once more: he gave a major national address to the nation.

Biden made a promise to avenge the deaths of the 13 American service members killed by a suicide bomber in Kabul in the final days of the drawdown.

“As we close 20 years of war and strife and pain and sacrifice,” he said, “it’s time to look to the future, not the past — to a future that’s safer, to a future that’s more secure, to a future that honors those who served and all those who gave what President Lincoln called their ‘last full measure of devotion.’”

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