WASHINGTON -- What to make of Vice President Joe Biden? Sometimes he is gaffe-prone comic relief. Sometimes he is the possessor of the worst geopolitical judgment in Washington -- as when he opposed the Osama bin Laden raid or advocated the partition of Iraq. And sometimes he seems to be the last genuine human being in American politics.
This peculiar humanness was on display just before Memorial Day, when Biden spoke to a group of mourning military family members. Biden recalled the deaths of his wife and daughter in an auto accident in 1972 -- the horrible phone call, his anger at God, the sudden ambushes of grief. "Just when you think, 'Maybe I'm going to make it,'" he said, "you're riding down the road and you pass a field, and you see a flower and it reminds you. Or you hear a tune on the radio. Or you just look up in the night."
"For the first time in my life," Biden continued, "I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide." But he also recounted marking his worst days on a calendar, and finding over time that they grew further and further apart. "There will come a day -- I promise you, and your parents as well -- when the thought of your son or daughter, of your husband or wife, brings a smile to your lips before it brings a tear to your eye. It will happen."
This advice, brought back from the far side of loss, is the evidence of empathy -- the ability to identify with the emotions of others. It is a virtue with a biological basis. While displaying empathy for others, people employ the same neural circuits they use when considering themselves. It is the bridge between the first person and third person -- a bridge washed out in people with anti-social personality disorders.
The political role of empathy sometimes comes in for criticism, particularly among conservatives. "I feel your pain" smacks of too much Clinton, too much Oprah. Empathy is dismissed as a source of naive, counterproductive public policy, which it can be.
But critics of such sentiments run headlong into the example of Abraham Lincoln, whom his contemporaries described as having an unusual talent for empathy. His hatred of slavery can be traced to early experiences of seeing people shackled in irons, which caused a visceral reaction. "That sight was a continued torment to me," wrote Lincoln, "and I see something like it every time I touch the Ohio, or any other slave border. ... I have no interest in a thing which has, and continually exercises, the power of making me miserable."