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On somber anniversary, Biden copes with a new loss

December 18, 2012|By Michael A. Memoli
  • Vice President Joe Biden looks on after swearing in Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.) as president pro tempore of the Senate in Washington.
Vice President Joe Biden looks on after swearing in Sen. Patrick Leahy (D-Vt.)… (Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty…)

WASHINGTON – Vice President Joe Biden returned to the Senate on Tuesday to swear in Sen. Patrick J. Leahy of Vermont as the new president pro tempore, an office he now holds as the chamber’s most tenured member after the passing of Hawaii Sen. Daniel K. Inouye.

“It’s kind of a bittersweet moment,” Biden said to his former colleague after administering the oath.

It was especially so for the vice president, who had been scheduled to be at his home in Wilmington, Del., Tuesday -- as he has every Dec. 18 during his term as vice president -- to be with family on what is the 40th anniversary of the car accident that killed his first wife and young daughter and severely injured his two sons.

In 1972 Biden was a young senator-elect, having just turned the constitutionally required age of 30 to serve, when he learned of the accident while in Washington to set up his new office and interview potential staff members.

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Biden has recalled the incident often, noting how close he was to abandoning plans to take his office so that he could care for his sons during their recovery.

The majority leader of the Senate at the time, Mike Mansfield of Montana, urged him to take office and remain for at least a few months, if only to give Democrats the votes they’d need to pass legislation. Mansfield dispatched others, including Inouye, to do the same, and ultimately Biden agreed to do so.

“’Stay six months, Joe,’ remember Danny? ‘Just stay six months,’” Biden recalled in his 2009 farewell speech to the Senate, acknowledging Inouye as one of the few senators who remained from that time.

Inouye and Biden would strike up a tight bond during their service together in the Senate. So much so that when Biden launched his campaign for the presidency in 1987, it was Inouye whom he asked to introduce him.

“I saw him as a young man faced with a most horrible tragedy in his family. A tragedy of such dimension that most of us would have just collapsed and given up. But he did not,” Inouye said in that introduction.

After taking the stage, Biden responded to Inouye, a World War II veteran who would later win the Medal of Honor: “The fact of the matter is the man of courage on this stage today is you. And I am exceedingly proud that you would agree to co-chair this effort.”

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After learning of Inouye’s passing, the White House issued a statement from Biden that an aide said he had written himself, saying his former colleague “was one of the most honorable men I ever met in my life, and one of the best friends you could hope for. He was honest, and fiercely loyal, and I trusted him absolutely.”

The tributes continued from Inouye’s colleagues Tuesday, as his desk on the Senate floor was shrouded in a black cloth, adorned with a white roses.

Leahy, before taking the oath to replace Inouye as the president pro tempore, choked up as he called him “perhaps the best role model for public service any American could ever ask for.”

Leahy, 72, has served in the Senate since 1975. By virtue of his new office he’s now third in line to the presidency, behind Biden and Speaker of the House John A. Boehner.

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michael.memoli@latimes.com

Twitter: @mikememoli

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