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Joe Biden’s first 100 days as consoler-in-chief

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WASHINGTON — Joe Biden wanted a vacation. Instead, he got another funeral.

It was May of last year. Biden had recently secured the Democratic presidential nomination, and he wanted to take some time off the virtual campaign trail to coincide with the fifth anniversary of the death of his son Beau.

But then George Floyd was killed, the country exploded into a racial reckoning, and the man who has been dubbed “America’s Grief Counselor,” the “Emissary of Grief” and the “Designated Mourner” felt compelled, once again, to eulogize.

“Unlike most, you must grieve in public,” Biden told Floyd’s family at the funeral. “And it’s a burden. A burden that is now your purpose.”

Public grieving has been Biden’s burden and purpose since he was first sworn into the Senate from a podium erected next to the hospital bed where his sons were convalescing from the car accident that had killed their mother and sister.

And it’s the burden Biden now carries for the nation 100 days into being president of a country that has lost more than 570,000 people to a pandemic while martyrizing people like Floyd.

“Grief must be witnessed,” said David Kessler, a grief expert and author who runs Grief.com and has himself received a condolence call from Biden. “I often talk about how we’re a grief-illiterate society. But we certainly have a leader who knows grief.”

Many of the public rituals of grief were impossible to observe during the pandemic. Families couldn’t gather. Houses of worship were closed. Bodies of loved ones were deemed to be biohazards that had to be disposed of quickly. And Biden’s predecessor showed no interest in performing even the most basic consolations expected of every president.

Kristin Urquiza, who after speaking at the Democratic National Convention about her father’s death from Covid-19 formed a group to work with and advocate for people touched by the virus, said many who lost loved ones felt former President Donald Trump was “gaslighting” them and denying their grief by downplaying the severity of the pandemic.

“It’s been very meaningful for our community to have the president acknowledge that this is happening, this is real, and to do events and take time to recognize this loss,” she said of Biden. “We have all been on this tragic journey for months and months and months where we haven’t been able to collectively grieve.”

Grief has defined Biden’s public life and public image since the story of the young senator’s postcard-perfect family’s being ripped apart made national news shortly after his election in 1972.

And he has become both a student and a master of thanatology, the grim field of study named for the Greek god of death. Biden kept a binder filled with the dozens of eulogies he has delivered, quotations about death he likes or little axioms and anecdotes he had collected along the way.

He weeps in public, speaks often about his personal losses and remembers the death anniversaries of people close to people he knows, and he has been known to appear at a wake or a shiva gathering or a funeral unannounced and without fanfare.

“His empathy is real, it’s authentic — and it’s something he is able to deploy at will like a master craft person,” said Arun Chaudhary, who was the Obama White House videographer.

Chaudhary can still recall verbatim part of the eulogy Biden gave for the 29 coal miners killed in the Upper Big Branch mine in West Virginia in 2010: “They went into the dark so we could go into the light.”

“I filmed thousands of speeches, hundreds of Joe Biden speeches and thousands of Barack Obama speeches, and I can still remember this all these years later,” he said.

Biden wrote a book about grief, “Promise Me, Dad: A Year of Hope, Hardship, and Purpose,” about Beau, the family’s golden child — decorated soldier, attorney general of Delaware, the one who Biden said should be president instead — who died of a brain tumor in 2015.

At Beau’s funeral, the Rev. Leo O’Donovan, the former president of Georgetown University, who was giving the homily, erupted in tears almost immediately after he started.

“He began to comfort me,” O’Donovan revealed to the National Catholic Reporter about Biden. “He became the pastor there.”

Even before the pandemic, when Biden would linger on the rope line at events, sometimes every fourth or fifth person he met would share a story of loss. Some would leave their fleeting encounters with tears in their eyes or feelings of being unburdened, at least for a moment.

At a televised town hall in March 2020, he nearly gave out his cellphone number live on the air to someone grieving before he stopped himself. “Not that I’m an expert, but just having been there, I’m so sorry for you,” he said.

The night before his inauguration, Biden held a Covid-19 memorial service instead of a party and used his first major address from the White House to commemorate the anniversary of the pandemic. He carries in his pocket, on the back of the day’s agenda, the virus’s latest death toll. And his administration has made public funds available to help with funeral costs.

Beyond the pandemic, he has called the families of those killed by law enforcement officers, including Floyd’s, and met with people touched by mass shootings, like the one in the Atlanta area that appeared to target Asian Americans.

“[We] didn’t really talk about hate crime sentencing and all of these things there’s been a lot of discussion around. We really talked about the grief people are feeling,” Georgia state Rep. Marvin Lim told The Associated Press about his meeting with Biden.

Michael Wear, who led faith outreach efforts for Barack Obama’s 2012 re-election campaign, said: “In a previous political era, Biden’s acquaintance with grief could have quite reasonably been identified as a negative. Do the American people really want a man who will cry in public at the thought of his children? For Biden, the culture has sort of caught up with his grief.”

In this moment, empathy is Biden’s “superpower,” his advisers have often said.

“We always heard people talk about Biden, even if they didn’t like that he was a Democrat or didn’t necessarily like all of his policies, one thing that connected them to him is his personality — is that he’s compassionate, is that he’s empathetic,” said Biden’s chief campaign pollster, John Anzalone. “I remember people multiple times saying, ‘He has lived my life.’ And part of that was the tragedies that he had gone through.”

It’s an ability only someone with Biden’s story could have, said Massimo Faggioli, a professor of theology at Villanova University, who wrote a spiritual biography of Biden’s Catholic faith published in January.

It’s not just the loss; it’s his status as a living, breathing example that people can not just endure but “get up, get up, get up,” as Biden often ended his stump speeches, and go on to do great things after great loss.

“He’s not selling talking points. He’s selling his experience, his soul,” Faggioli said. “He has digested tragedy without becoming dark or inward-looking. That is something like a miracle from a human point of view. And it’s also a political miracle, because he became president much, much later than anyone would have expected he possibly could.”

Many presidents have been called upon to act as consoler-in-chief; some of the most memorable moments in the American presidency have come in memoriam.

Abraham Lincoln deliveringd his Gettysburg Address at the commemoration of a cemetery at the battleground. Franklin D. Roosevelt marking “a date which will live in infamy” after the attack on Pearl Harbor, Hawaii. Bill Clinton telling people he could “feel their pain.” George W. Bush speaking with the megaphone on the smoldering ruins of the Twin Towers. Obama singing “Amazing Grace” after a mass shooting at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in Charleston, South Carolina.

Presidents play a unique role in the American psyche, Faggioli said, as both prime minister of the government and high priest of the so-called American civic religion.

“You can go through tragedies, but despair is not an option if you become commander-in-chief,” he said. “When you accept the job, you understand that you have to deliver on hope, no matter the circumstances.”



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Ruth Davidson blasts voter ID proposal as 'total b*****s' – 'Problem doesn't exist'

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RUTH DAVIDSON, former Scottish Conservatives leader, has blasted the Government’s voter ID proposal.

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Lawmakers warn Pentagon of impending bloodbath for Afghan partners

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WASHINGTON — Two lawmakers who are veterans of the war in Afghanistan warned a Pentagon official on Wednesday that Afghans who had worked for the U.S. government would be hunted down by the Taliban unless the Biden administration organized an emergency evacuation before American troops withdraw in four months.

“We need to get these people out,” Republican Rep. Michael Waltz, a former Green Beret who saw combat in Afghanistan, said at a House Armed Services Committee hearing. He said U.S partners faced a “death sentence” when the U.S. leaves.

Waltz and other lawmakers expressed frustration at the hearing with David Helvey, the acting assistant defense secretary for the Indo-Pacific, about the Biden administration’s plans for tens of thousands of Afghans who face retribution from the Taliban for their association with the U.S. government or other Western organizations. Helvey said the Pentagon would be able to evacuate the Afghans if it were requested, but the lawmakers wanted to know what steps were imminent.

“We need to evacuate them out,” Waltz told Helvey. “What’s preventing you from doing that?”

Helvey replied that the administration hoped to see the Taliban and the Afghan government reach a peace settlement to end the conflict. “We’re focusing on a peaceful outcome in Afghanistan.”

Peace talks between the Taliban and their adversaries in the Afghan government have stalled.

Waltz said the Biden administration had to take action now to save the lives of Afghan partners and fly them out to a U.S. military base or territory outside the country, where their paperwork could be vetted and reviewed.

“These people who stood with us are being hunted down as we speak,” said Waltz.

The congressman recounted how one of the interpreters he had worked with was murdered by the Taliban six years ago after he was stopped at an insurgent checkpoint on his way to the U.S. embassy in Kabul. The interpreter was heading to the embassy with documents to apply for a visa under a program set up for Afghans who were employed by the U.S., Waltz said.

“I want to be clear, we need an evacuation plan and time is of the essence,” the Republican lawmaker said.

“We are working with our inter-agency partners to look at the resources and mechanisms to support those folks,” Helvey said.

But Waltz said when the remaining U.S. forces leave as scheduled in September, former Afghan partners would have a target on their back.

“When that last soldier goes wheels up, we have essentially handed them a death sentence,” Waltz said.

To help Afghan interpreters and others who face retribution from the Taliban for their links to the U.S., Congress in 2009 set up the Special Immigrant Visa, or SIV, program, to provide U.S. visas to Afghans who had been employed by the U.S. government. The program has a backlog years long. More than 17,000 Afghans have applied, and their paperwork is still being reviewed.

“We do have a special responsibility to support and protect those who supported and protected us for the past 20 years,“ Helvey told lawmakers. He suggested Congress devote more resources to the SIV program as a way to help Afghans who worked with the United States.

Veterans organizations from across the political spectrum sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Monday calling for an evacuation of Afghan partners to American territory.

Rep. Jason Crow, a Democrat from Colorado and former Army Ranger who served in Iraq and Afghanistan, said at the hearing Wednesday he might not be alive today without the help of interpreters.

Crow asked Helvey if the Defense Department was ready to organize an evacuation of Afghans who were employed by the U.S. government.

“If directed to do so, we can,” Helvey said.

Rep. Jason Crow, D-Co., speaks during a news conference outside the U.S. Capitol, on April 22, 2021.Erin Scott / Reuters file

Crow pressed him on which agency in the U.S. government was taking the lead on the issue.

Helvey said he believed it was the State Department.

“You believe or do you know?” Crow asked.

“I do not know for sure,” Helvey said. “It depends on what we’re talking about.”

Crow said there was a moral and national security imperative to take action to airlift Afghan partners out of the country.

“We are several weeks into this drawdown. We have no time left. “

Helvey said the administration had no agreements in place in neighboring countries that would allow access to bases for U.S. troops or permission for overflight into Afghanistan for surveillance or counterterrorism-related missions. The administration is “exploring” options with some regional governments, he said.

Discussions were underway with Kabul on the size of the future U.S. diplomatic mission after troops withdraw; as well as how the U.S. would help train Afghan security forces or collect intelligence without boots on the ground, according to Helvey.

The Pentagon official offered few details on a number of key questions, including the nature of the Taliban’s relationship with al Qaeda, and said he would address the topics in a classified hearing later on Wednesday.

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Republicans announce federal bills to ‘restrict the spread’ of critical race theory

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A group of House Republicans on Wednesday took recent attacks on critical race theory a step further by introducing a pair of bills to ban diversity training for federal employees and the military.

Some 30 GOP representatives have signed on to support both the Combatting Racist Training in the Military Act and the Stop CRT Act, Rep. Dan Bishop of North Carolina said at a news conference in Washington.

The first bill is a companion to legislation introduced by Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas that aims to prohibit teaching “Anti-American and racist theories” such as critical race theory at any academic institution related to the U.S. Armed Forces. The Stop CRT Act works to codify former President Donald Trump’s executive order banning diversity and racial equity training for federal employees — an order President Joe Biden reversed in January.

“Critical race theory is a divisive ideology that threatens to poison the American psyche,” Bishop said at the news conference. “For the sake of our children’s future, we must stop this effort to cancel the truth of our founding and our country.”

He said the initial bill “stands for the idea that CRT does not belong in our armed forces. The Stop CRT Act will be the most comprehensive legislation to restrict the spread of CRT.”

The bills are the latest in a string of proposed legislation targeting diversity and anti-racism teaching — which is being characterized as critical race theory — in several states across the country. Such bills in Idaho, Louisiana, Rhode Island and Tennessee target the teaching of anti-racism in schools.

Conservative leaders began focusing on critical race theory after Trump used the decades-old academic term in a September 2020 memo ordering the Office of Management and Budget to stop funding diversity training. Around the same time, educators were using the Pulitzer Prize-winning 2019 New York Times “1619 Project” in the classroom to teach a more holistic history of the country. So, Republican leaders began publicly criticizing both the project and critical race theory, often using the term to describe all anti-racism efforts.

“Many that are condemning critical race theory haven’t read it or studied it intensely,” Jonathan Chism, assistant professor of history at the University of Houston–Downtown and co-editor of “Critical Race Studies Across Disciplines,” previously told NBC. “This is largely predicated on fear: the fear of losing power and influence and privilege. The larger issue that this is all stemming from is a desire to deny the truth about America, about racism.”

Critical race theory is a concept that seeks to understand racism and inequality in the United States by exploring and exposing the ways it affects legal and social systems. The school of thought was founded by academics including Derrick Bell, Alan Freeman, Richard Delgado, Kimberlé Crenshaw and others in the 1970s and ‘80s and builds on critical legal studies and radical feminism.

On Wednesday, the Republican leaders said they hope the two proposed bills will continue the work Trump started. The news comes just hours after the Texas House passed a bill to limit what educators can teach about the nation’s history of racism and contentious current events. Dozens of education, business and community groups in the state condemned the bill, noting that it would limit local control. Texas state Rep. Jarvis Johnson, a Democrat from Houston, called the bill “tyranny,” according to The Texas Tribune.

“We have come to this body and have made the decision to tell our teachers how and what to teach,” Johnson told the paper, noting that there is “not one agency that has compelled a teacher to teach critical race theory, so this author literally is legislating nothing — an overreach of power.”

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