Back in the day when biglaw was my professional home, I was a road warrior. United Airlines loved me – I still have one of those ‘million miler’ logos on my membership card. And I was a global services member which elevated my travel still further. It was heady, I admit. I share this only to put the story in context. Why would I be in first class flying from Frankfurt to the US? Why would someone with a carnation in his lapel come on board to welcome me into my seat and thank me for traveling with United? I’m tellin’ ya – crazy..
Our flight was delayed for reasons that were not made quite clear. Unclear that is, until Joe Biden, John Kerry and Chuck Hegel came on board. They had been in Afghanistan and there was a problem with their plane. So they were flying United. And here I am, in seat 1A, one of only two people who had been pre-boarded trying to look as bemused and nonchalant as possible. John Kerry walks by, nods at me and sits behind me in 2A. He immediately gets on his cell phone and calls…Ted Kennedy who was in Texas campaigning for Obama. In a toneless and enthusiastic voice, he sang ‘Happy Birthday’, joked a bit and said his good-byes. I thought that was so touching, and was debating the appropriateness of turning around and saying something; Kerry put his sleep mask on and remained stationery and inert throughout boarding, take-off, etc…
Chuck Hegel recognized me, but couldn’t place the face. Andy and I had seen him and his wife a few times at the movies. He took his seat, took out reading material, and after take off, engaged a bit with the gentleman next to him.
Not Joe – Joe sat in his seat to eat, but beyond that was up and talking with everyone. He was carrying a copy of the magazine ‘Country Home’ and told me that Jill told him he’d be in trouble if he didn’t come home with an opinion about some proposed redecorating project. He laughed, he kibbitzed, so comfortable in his skin, so untouched by the mantle that he wore. It was the most intimate and delightful flight of my hundreds. Thanks to Joe.
When we landed at Dulles, we met again at baggage claim and he asked his Secret Service guys to grab my bag too. As we walked out, my husband and son were there, Matt’s eyes wider than usual. Joe asked if I wanted a Starbucks, and I declined. I wanted to get home. And so did he. It was a courtesy. Of course, Matt couldn’t believe I turned down the offer. In retrospect, neither do I.
Yes there were times too, when Joe and I were on the same train heading to or from Union Station in his days as a Senator. He knew everyone in his ‘usual’ car, every ticket collector, their families, their stories. You could feel his affinity for others – and you just wanted to be around the guy.
Why write of this now? Yesterday’s emotional tribute to him at the Capitol affected me. To hear bipartisan, emotional appreciation for someone – for anything – was a moment’s balm during these unnerving times. Somehow it doesn’t surprise me that it would be because of Joe.
And know what? It doesn’t even feel presumptuous calling him by his first name.
C.S. Lewis said, “For what we see and hear depends a good deal on where you are standing: it also depends on what sort of person you are.” Hey Joe, thank you for the time I got to stand with you. Best.flight.ever.