Posted: Jan. 12, 2010
"THE BIDEN STANDARD"
By Celia Cohen
Jean Biden left this life so nobly, it could have done the Queen Mum proud.
No wonder. Catherine Eugenia Finnegan Biden -- a name right up there with the one for the late Queen Mother, born Elizabeth Angela Marguerite Bowes-Lyon -- was the matriarch of the foremost family of Delaware's political aristocracy.
Like the Queen Mum, no matter what people thought about the rest of the family or its politics, Jean Biden held their affection. They were a pair of tiny women with a twinkle to them, not given to make a fuss in public. Jean Biden had the advantage of having a touch of the leprechaun to her.
She was the mother of the Democratic vice president, the grandmother of the state attorney general, the wellspring of a consummate, sprawling Irish-American family.
They laid her to rest Tuesday on a cold winter morning at a splendid funeral in Brandywine Hundred at the Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church, where she worshipped since the 1950s.
The president and the first lady were there, thin as models. So was former President Clinton, white-maned and sure-footed.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi came, along with other members of Congress, including the Delaware delegation of Tom Carper and Ted Kaufman, the Democratic senators, and Mike Castle, the Republican congressman.
Only in Delaware would Castle be accorded such courtesies, even while his next race for the Senate could pit him against Beau Biden, the attorney general who is the vice president's son.
Altogether there were hundreds and hundreds of mourners, among them Gov. Jack Markell, Lt. Gov. Matt Denn, New Castle County Executive Chris Coons, Wilmington Mayor Jim Baker, state House Speaker Bob Gilligan, Cabinet members and White House staffers.
"Incredible. Incredible. I didn't focus on it until I sat there -- the president, the vice president and the speaker of the House, the presidential succession in the same room. I think the State of the Union is the only time you have that," said Kaufman, who was appointed to the Senate when Joe Biden left it for the vice presidency.
Delaware probably has not observed any of the rites of passage -- births, graduations, marriages, deaths -- so ceremoniously since President Franklin Roosevelt arrived in 1937 in Chateau Country for the marriage of his son Franklin Jr. to Ethel du Pont.
That one, however, just brought in the president and Cabinet members, not what looked like practically the whole United States government. That one was also a spectacle, with a description in Delaware, A Guide to the First State noting a hard rain on the day and calling the traffic situation "deranged by the lining of roads by hundreds of automobiles."
This one was stately. Joe Biden, his head so bowed, led the family into the church behind his mother's casket for the farewell.
The first hymn was a reminder of the long political journey of Joe Biden's life. It was "On Eagle's Wings." He used it in his speeches in his first failed bid for the presidency -- "that He will raise America up on eagle's wings."
The only eulogists were Joe Biden and Valerie Biden Owens, the kid sister who ran his campaigns. It would not have been a Biden family event without Owens enlivening it, and she did. A copy of her remarks seemed to be missing.
"OK, Mom, is this a joke? Where'd you -- oh, here it is, this is just like Mom. She wouldn't do this to Joey," Owens quipped to laughter.
Owens gave credit to her mother for sculpting the family, quoting Michelangelo -- "I saw the angel in the marble, and I carved until I set him free."
Then it was Joe Biden's turn. What would have been a rapid-fire, stream-of-consciousness introduction any other day sounded wistful on this one.
"Mr. President, Michelle, President Clinton, my good friend Speaker Pelosi, Gov. Markell, my friends in the House and Senate, my co-workers in the Cabinet and members of the White House," he began, "and all the Delaware elected officials who are here and who know us too well, don't tell them all you know about us."
Biden pressed his mother firmly into history. "One of her favorite pictures is a picture on Election Night in Chicago as we're about to walk out on stage, and she has Barack -- pardon me, Mr. President, you were Barack then -- Barack with her right arm and me with her left arm, and as my granddaughter said, Mom-Mom is leading us out on the stage," he said.
When Joe Biden eulogized his father Joe Sr. in 2002, he told stories about him. For his mother, he talked about the way she instilled character.
"She taught her children that the thickest of all substances was blood. . . . She taught us that failure at some point was inevitable in everyone's life, but giving up, giving up was unforgivable. . . . She taught never to be intimidated by power, wealth or station, that we did not have to accept social convention, that we could set our own standards, one that was based on character alone.
"She called it the 'Biden Standard.'"
Jean Biden was 92. Joe Biden said, "It's as if Dad whispered into God's ears the words of James Weldon Johnson, 'She's weary. Go down, Death, and bring her to me.'"
Jean Biden was the family's Biden Standard. It was not surprising the program included a poem: "You can shed tears that she is gone/Or you can smile because she has lived/You can close your eyes and pray that she will come back/Or you can open your eyes and see all she has left."
That poem was also quoted in 2002 at the funeral of the Queen Mum. Leave it to the Bidens to get equal standing for their own.