Joe Vadala’s question was heartbreaking in every way imaginable.
During Thursday night’s CNN town hall in suburban Scranton, Vadala, a high school teacher whose fight against multiple sclerosis has left him immunocompromised, looked Joe Biden in the eye and told him that he wanted to teach, but “I don’t want to die,” and leave his wife, who’d lost her own mother to COVID-19, a widow.
Vadala wanted to know if Biden would require kids to get vaccinated for COVID-19 the same way they’re now required to get measles-mumps-rubella vaccinations before they can attend school.
Biden listened carefully. Then his face was clouded by something far away, haunting, an echo of a time familiar, yet not familiar.
It was empathy.
“Ah, man, I’m so sorry,” Biden told Vadala, before going on to say he wouldn’t issue a vaccine mandate until it was proven safe for children. But, he added, emphasizing, “if Fauci says a vaccine is safe, I would take the vaccine. We should listen to the scientists, not to [President Donald Trump].”
There were moments like that throughout the more than hour-long town hall staged on a baseball field just outside Biden’s childhood home of Scranton.
He opened the debate by comforting Shani Adams, a Philadelphian who’d lost her sister to the pandemic. His face creased in sympathy, his lips pursed, recognizing a pain radiating from Adams that couldn’t be obscured by a head scarf and face mask.
Biden sympathized with Joe Farley, a healthcare worker, who told the Democratic nominee that he’d taken out a credit card with 25 percent interest during the pandemic because he was making less than $15 an hour, and couldn’t make ends meet.
“The idea that you’re not making the minimum of $15 an hour is just wrong,” Biden said. “No one should have to work two jobs to get out of poverty.”
While some employers pay more, Pennsylvania’s minimum wage has been mired at the federal level of $7.25 an hour for more than a decade. The Republican-controlled General Assembly has resisted repeated attempts to raise it.
Biden listened. He let people finish their questions. He was polite and inquiring. And like any good pol, he reached across the vast distance separating him from his audience to try to establish a connection — even if it was occasionally clunky, as was the case when a young woman from Philadelphia asked him a question.
“A Philly girl!” Biden said, then, referring to his wife, Dr. Jill Biden, who actually grew up in nearby Montgomery County, he added, “I married a Philly girl.” The young woman took the attempt at connection with good grace and moved on with her question.
And maybe this shouldn’t be unusual. But after four years of hectoring, bullying, blustering, and a complete empathy vacuum under Trump, the contrast of Biden’s fundamental decency and sincerity could not have been more stark.
Trump was in Philadelphia earlier this week for a town hall put on by ABC News and hosted by anchor George Stephanopoulos.
The defining moment of that event, sure to live in a thousand campaign commercials, came when college professor Ellesia A. Blaque, who lives with a chronic inflammatory disease, had to shut Trump down, as he tried to roll over her question about his plans to protect people with pre-existing conditions.
Trump told Blaque that “we are not going to hurt anything having to do with preexisting conditions. We’re not going to hurt preexisting conditions. We’re going to be doing a healthcare plan very strongly and protect people with preexisting conditions.”
That’s nonsense on two counts: Republicans and Trump are in court suing to overturn the Affordable Care Act, and with it, protections for people with preexisting conditions. Second, as my colleague and fellow Cagle Syndicate columnist Dick Polman points out, Trump doesn’t have an alternative.
The 45th president’s prompted some major — and deserved — clap back from Blaque.
“Encountering my question, one that millions of other Americans have, seemed to be a circumstance he had to suffer through to promote his reelection,” Blaque wrote in an op-Ed for CNN. “Rather than seeing a human being asking for his support and help, perhaps all he saw was a fat Black woman — a metaphoric rock in his shoe that, if not for saving face, he would have begrudgingly removed and resentfully thrown into the Schuylkill River on his way back to Air Force One.”
Again, contrast that to Biden’s thoughtful and detailed answers, coupled with the grace and empathy we expect of our leaders at a time of need.
It’s what we expect of presidents. It’s not what we’re getting now.