Biden Family Thanksgiving
The days were getting shorter, so the light in the sky had started to fall away when the gate to our temporary home swung open and our motorcade edged beyond the fencing that surrounded the United States Naval Observatory in Washington, D.C. We were riding from our official residence at the observatory to Andrews Air Force Base, where my children and grandchildren were already gathering. Jill and I were anxious to be with them for our annual Thanksgiving trip. Family had been an essential escape in the five-and-a-half years I had been vice president; being with them was like flying in the eye of a storm — a reminder of the natural ease and rhythms of our previous life, and of the calm to come when my time in office was done. The job had been an incredible adventure, but there were so many things Jill and I missed from life before the vice presidency. We missed our home in Wilmington. We missed the chance to be alone in a car on a long drive where we could talk with abandon. We missed having command over our own schedule and our own movements. Vacations, holidays, and celebrations with family had become the respites that restored some sense of equilibrium. And the rest of our family seemed to need these breaks as much as Jill and I did.
We had all been together just a few months earlier for our annual summer trip to one of the national parks. But five days of hiking, whitewater rafting, and long, loud dinners in the Tetons had apparently not been enough for the grown-ups. Jill and I were in our cabin packing for departure the last day when there was a knock on the door. It was our son Hunter. He knew Jill and I were going alone to the beach for a four-day retreat. But he wondered if maybe, because he and his wife had some free time, they might tag along. We said, Of course! Within a few minutes our other son, Beau, knocked. His in-laws had agreed to watch the children. Maybe we wouldn't mind it if he and his wife joined us at the beach on Long Island. We said, Of course!
I suspect there are parents who might feel put upon when asked to give up their alone time. I regarded these requests as the fruits of a life well lived: our grown children actually wanted to be with us. So we had had another wonderful four days at the beach together in August, but by November there was also a perceptible urgency to this need for togetherness that was a bit disquieting. And I was very mindful of it when Jill and I set out for our yearly escape to Nantucket, for another Biden Family Thanksgiving.
We passed through the gates of the observatory, and I felt our government-required armored limousine make its customary gentle pivot onto Massachusetts Avenue, where local traffic had been halted to clear the path for our journey. I glanced at the squat, standing digital clock at the top of the driveway, as I had maybe a thousand times since we had moved into the official residence. Red numbers glowed, ticking away in metronomic perfection: 5:11:42, 5:11:43, 5:11:44, 5:11:45. This was the nation's Precise Time, which was generated less than a hundred yards away, by the U.S. Naval Observatory Master Clock. Precise Time — synchronized to the millisecond — had been deemed an operational imperative by the Department of Defense, which had troops and bases in locations around the globe. 5:11:50, 5:11:51, 5:11:52.
Our limousine was already accelerating out of the turn, with an abrupt force that pushed me back into the soft leather seats. The clock was behind us in a flash, out of sight, but still marking the time as it melted away — 5:11:58, 5:11:59, 5:12:00. The motorcade arced toward the southeast, down one side of the circle around the observatory, and we could see the lights of the official residence as they flashed through leafless trees. I was happy to say good-bye to the house for a few days. Our departure meant that many of the naval enlisted aides who looked after us were free to spend the entire holiday with their own families.
The procession gained speed once we hit the parkway and our motorcycle escorts nudged aside other travelers. The motorcade traced the southern edge of Washington, within sight of the monuments and public buildings: Arlington National Cemetery, the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument — with the White House in the distance beyond it — the Jefferson Memorial, the United States Capitol. I had served in elective office in this city continuously since 1973, thirty-six years as a senator and six as vice president, but I had not grown indifferent to the beauty and import of these towering landmarks, which were now haloed in a glow of soft light. I still viewed those sturdy marble structures as representatives of our ideals, our hopes, and our dreams.
My working life in Washington had given me a sense of pride and accomplishment from the day I arrived, and that feeling had not dimmed after almost forty-two years. The truth was, on November 25, 2014, I was as excited and energized by my work as I had been at any time in my career, though my current office was, it must be admitted, a truly odd job. There is a strange and singular elasticity to the responsibilities of a vice president. As a strictly constitutional matter, the holder of the office has very little power. He or she is charged with breaking a tie vote in the Senate — which I had not been called to do in nearly six years — and waiting around to take over if the president is somehow disabled. A previous occupant was famously quoted as saying that the office is "not worth a bucket of warm spit." (That's the expurgated version. He did not say "spit.") The actual power of the office is reflective; it depends almost entirely on the trust and confidence of the president.
Barack Obama had handed me big things to run from the beginning of our first term, and once he assigned me to oversee the Recovery Act of 2009, or budget negotiations with Senator Mitch McConnell, or diplomatic relations with Iraq, he did not look over my shoulder. I believe I did my job well enough to earn and keep his trust. He sought my advice as much as ever at the end of 2014, and seemed to value it, which meant there were days when I felt that I had it in my power to help bend the course of history ever so slightly for the better.
And somewhere in the motorcade that evening, as we sped through the streets of Washington, was a car carrying the vice presidential military aide, who was in possession of the "nuclear football," which had to be within my reach at all times. I was one of only a handful of people who had control of the codes that could launch a nuclear strike on almost any target on the planet. So a reminder of the grave responsibilities of the office and the trust reposed in me was there, at all times, twenty-four hours a day, seven days a week.
But in spite of all that, in spite of position and standing, I was incapable of doing the thing I most wanted to do heading into that holiday week: to slow down that Master Clock at the top of my driveway, to make those red ticking numbers hesitate, to give myself, my family, and, most important, my older son, a little extra breathing room. I wanted the power to cheat time.
* * *
The Biden tradition of Thanksgiving on Nantucket started as an act of diplomacy, back in 1975. I was a first-term senator and a single father of two boys — Beau was six years old and Hunter just five — and Jill Jacobs and I had started to talk seriously about a future together. Thanksgiving was the first holiday for Jill and me together, and we had too many invitations. My parents wanted us to spend the day with them in Wilmington. Jill's parents wanted us in Willow Grove, Pennsylvania. The parents of my first wife, who had died along with my baby daughter in a car accident a few years earlier, wanted us to bring their grandsons to upstate New York and spend the long weekend with them. No matter which family we chose, we were going to hurt somebody's feelings, which was the last thing either Jill or I wanted to do. I was in my Senate office one day that fall, explaining this predicament to my chief of staff, and he said, "What you need is a nuclear Thanksgiving." Meaning the nuclear family alone. Only Wes Barthelmes was a Boston guy, so what he actually said was "nucle-aah Thanksgiving." I wasn't sure what exactly he was trying to say, until he explained it might be easiest on everybody if the four of us — me and Jill, Beau and Hunt — went away alone. He suggested the island of Nantucket, which was an hour by ferry south of Cape Cod. Neither Jill nor I had ever been there, but we decided to go ahead and make an adventure of it.
We filled my Jeep Wagoneer with fifty-seven-cents-a-gallon gas and piled the boys and the dog into the backseat for what was likely to be a six-hour ride to the ferry in Hyannis, Massachusetts. Now, six hours is a long time for two young boys to be trapped in the backseat of a moving car, but Jill was already proving herself a resourceful caregiver. She had picked up every toy catalog and clothing catalog she could find, and when Beau and Hunt started to get restless she tossed the catalogs into the backseat. The three of them spent hours leafing through the pages, and the boys started making and refining their wish lists for Christmas gifts so they would have something to send to Santa Claus, up at the North Pole. Jill told them to take their time and make sure to get it right; there was no rush.
Nantucket turned out to be worth it once we finally got there, eight hours after we left our house in Wilmington. It was chilly on the little island at the end of November, but you could smell the tangy salt air of the Atlantic. The island had emptied for the season, so we had much of the place to ourselves. Most of the restaurants and many of the shops were shuttered. The downtown was tiny, maybe five square blocks, but we spent hours there casing the storefronts and going inside the ones that were open to look around. I told the boys I would buy each of them a single gift on that trip — whatever they wanted, within reason. They took their time to look around. Beau especially liked Murray's Toggery Shop, home of the famous Nantucket Reds; the cotton pants were designed to fade to a soft dusty rose. Hunt fell for the Nobby Clothes Shop, where the owner made a fuss over him. We had Thanksgiving dinner at the Jared Coffin House, a 130-year-old inn built back when Nantucket was a commercial center of the whaling industry, and then we stayed around afterward to sit by the fireplace and play checkers. The next day we had lunch at a restaurant called the Brotherhood of Thieves, went to the little movie house in town, tossed a football on the beach, and drove back into town to watch the annual lighting of the Christmas tree. We took scouting drives around the island, and whenever we passed a radio transmission tower with a big red light on top I'd warn the boys to get down in the backseat so the Red-Eyed Monster couldn't see them. We had such a good time that we even went to check out a little saltbox house that stood above the dunes at 'Sconset Beach. The asking price was too rich for a senator's salary in 1975, but the four of us had our picture taken on the porch of the house, beneath a carved wooden sign that read FOREVER WILD. On the drive back to Delaware, I was already thinking about a return trip the next year.
Jill and I got married a year and a half later and our daughter, Ashley, was born four years after that. And time seemed to move faster. Beau and Hunt graduated high school, then college, then law school. Hunt married Kathleen in 1993, and they had three daughters. Beau married Hallie in 2002, and they had a daughter, then a son. Jill and I were no longer just Mom and Dad; we were "Nana" and "Pop." Ashley finished graduate school and married Howard. And every year, even as the family grew, we spent Thanksgiving on Nantucket — or "Nana-tucket," as our grandchildren took to calling it, even when they were old enough to know better. The little trip in the Wagoneer grew into a caravan of two or three cars, with grandchildren shifting loyalties among the fleet at rest stops. Then there was the final mad dash to catch the ferry, and hot chocolate or clam chowder for the ride across the water. We had some great years in that span, and we had some lousy years, but whatever was happening, whatever bumps and bruises we were suffering, we put it all aside and celebrated Thanksgiving in Nantucket. The holiday trip was a constant in our grandchildren's lives from the time they were aware, and they made it clear how much it meant to them. Little notes started appearing at our house as early as September, even before the leaves started to change color, all written out in the grandkids' hands: Two months to Nana-tucket. Five weeks to Nana-tucket. Some had drawings of the houses we had stayed at, or the beach. Two weeks to Nana-tucket. Only five days to Nana-tucket.
The frolics and habits of our earliest visits grew into immutable family traditions: shopping downtown, lunch at the Brotherhood, the trips to the beach with football in hand. We went back to that little saltbox every year to get the family photo under the carved FOREVER WILDsign. Those pictures became a marker of our family's progress, like the lines parents pencil in on the doorframe as a record of growth — first just the four of us, then five, eight, eleven, and after Beau's son, Hunter, was born in 2006 and Ashley's husband, Howard, joined the family a few years later, we were thirteen strong.
The great work product of the Thanksgiving trip, year after year, continued to be the Christmas lists; it was painstaking, deliberate, and serious business. Nobody shirked, and nobody would be hurried in the enterprise. The catalogs usually came out midway through the drive north, somewhere between the Tappan Zee Bridge and Mystic, Connecticut. But that was only the beginning. There were long sessions after dinners, at whatever inn or house we were in. And it might be the night after Thanksgiving before Jill finally closed down the bidding, and everybody — children and grown-ups alike — had to present to her their Christmas list, maximum ten items, minimum ten items. I was invariably in trouble with my grandchildren at the close of business. Pop only has two! Again!
There was one little hitch in the great Christmas list endeavor, and that was my becoming vice president in 2009. The entire clan flew together to Nantucket that year on Air Force Two, which struck me as a pretty welcome change after all those hours piloting a car up Interstate 95 during one of the busiest travel weeks of the year, and one that I thought would delight the grandkids especially. But it's not much more than an hour in the air from Andrews Air Force Base to Nantucket Memorial Airport — which turns out to be an interval of time wholly insufficient for catalog browsing. So on the flight back, after the vacation was over and that year's Christmas lists were safely in Jill's hands, my grandchildren filed into my private cabin on Air Force Two en masse, from fifteen-year-old Naomi to three-year-old Hunter. They had all talked it over and the finding was unanimous: this new mode of travel just wasn't going to work for them. "Pop," Naomi spoke for the group, "can we drive again next year?"
I suspected the head of my Secret Service detail, in weighing this consideration against security concerns, was not likely to be swayed by the power of the Christmas list argument — no matter how heartfelt.
* * *
Everybody in the family knew the drill by November 2014; this trip would mark our sixth flight to Nantucket on Air Force Two. We usually drove out to Andrews in separate cars and met on the tarmac. The rest of the family was already there when Jill and I pulled up after our twenty-five-minute ride to the air base. Our German shepherd jumped out of the car and scurried across the tarmac. No leash. No guide. This was old hat to Champ. He went right up the stairs and onto the plane. The staircase leading to the entry door of Air Force Two is just wide enough for two people, and there are about twenty steps. I kept an eye on Beau as he made his way up the left side of the staircase. My older son was a little thinner than when I had seen him last, but I thought maybe he had regained some of the strength he had lost in his right arm and his right leg a few months earlier. Getting up those stairs was a struggle, but he insisted on doing it himself. He was fine, he kept saying. In fact, I had not heard him complain once since his diagnosis fifteen months earlier. "It's all good," he would say, over and over. "Getting better every day." I was under strict orders never to betray worry in front of anybody. "Dad, don't look at me sad," Beau had admonished me once, when he caught me eyeing him. He had been firm: "Dad. Dad! You understand me? Don't look at me like that."