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Why Beau Biden's Passing Is Devastating to the Entire Country

06/04/2015 02:05 pm ET | Updated Jun 04, 2016

I am really sad about Beau Biden's death. Really, really sad.

A handful of news organizations have noted the outpouring of support for the Biden family coming from all over the country since the announcement Saturday night, much of it focused on the unfathomable grief that Vice President Biden must be experiencing -- not only because of his history of family tragedy, but because Beau was the quintessential, perfect first-born son he adored.

I, too, feel awful for the vice president. But the reason I'm so busted up about this is because I think Beau's passing is a devastating loss for the entire country, for many of the reasons why his father basically worshipped him.

Allow me to get a little political.

My favorite part of being a political reporter is watching stars rise. Believing in unlimited potential is part of the American way, and Beau had it.

It's not just how he lived his life as a doting family man and a devout Catholic. And it's not just his CV: University of Pennsylvania graduate, law school graduate, federal prosecutor, state attorney general going after child abuse, soldier in Iraq. That, of course, is as perfect as presidential material can possibly get.

Add to that his spark, genuineness, earnestness and unconditional love for public service. I firmly believe the pendulum swing in American politics is real, and I believed that in some swing toward the Democrats in the future, Beau would be president. That's how I'm going to remember him.

Joe Biden has said success is seeing your children turn out better, and that he knows he succeeded. So, for Joe's sake, let's all believe Beau would go a little farther, too.

In 2009, two days before the inauguration, several friends and I gathered for brunch at an apartment in Georgetown overlooking the Holy Trinity Catholic Church knowing the Biden family and other dignitaries were there for Sunday morning services in honor of the week's events.

I shouted hello at Beau when he got out of the motorcade carrying his son.

"That has to be a reporter, because no one knows who I am," he said, laughing emphatically to his wife and brother.

I shouted back my name and said I worked for National Journal and let him know I'd be covering him when he got to the Senate, because at the time, nearly everyone in Washington figured he'd be headed there two years later. He was tickled by the exchange.

It was nothing short of a bombshell months later when he announced he wasn't going to run in 2010 because he wanted to finish what he started as attorney general. A crew of Democratic officials I spoke to often, and whom I respect, were livid about that and held it against him. For several years they wouldn't entertain discussions about his future political career because of this grudge. That surprised me.

In May of 2012, I ran into Beau at a Starbucks near the vice president's residence and had a long talk with him about all of that. I asked him if he thought he would run for Delaware Sen. Tom Carper's seat when he retired but figured he might be interested in running for governor, which he said he was.

He said to me that day, "I'll do one of them," but he was leaning toward a future gubernatorial race because he was disappointed in the Senate.

I'll never forget his exact words: "I grew up in the Senate. I love the smell of the Russell building." But as he talked to me, he was scratching his head in disbelief about how dysfunctional the Senate had become and said he had friends in the Senate who were really unhappy because they were unable to do anything, and that really bothered him. (Senators, please take note and fix that for him.)

The way he talked about it made it clear that he loved public service with every bone in his body. Reporters can tell when they're hearing an ambitious dance from a politician, and what Beau said was not that. Everything he said was real, honest and earnest. Quite frankly, I was mesmerized.

As close as he was to his father, he wanted to chart his own course, which he did with his service in the National Guard and would have done as the almost-certain next governor of Delaware. You have to respect that kind of individualism and leadership.

This spring, I made an appeal to one of his top political aides to come to Delaware to spend some time with him and talk about the upcoming governor's race, because I'd been itching to write a long-form profile of him for a long time. We planned to do it late this summer or early fall after the governor's race got off the ground. This week, I felt it was necessary to find some way to write part of what I was planning.

Now I want to use this opportunity to make a bigger point in honor of Beau.

The best part of American election cycles is what we're experiencing now: When potential candidates explore the possibility of leadership and greatness. That's when the best stories are told and it's what makes us love what government can achieve for everyone. But one executive producer I worked for told me recently that attitude is Pollyanna-ish.

Survey the news coverage of all of the major candidates before they even entered the presidential race this year. It's remarkably cutting. It wasn't always like that. When people offer themselves up for public office, they deserve some real respect at the outset.

But the way we live now is chasing special people like Beau Biden away from the system. Beau himself wasn't going anywhere. He was dedicated to it. The next time someone like him wants to finish a job in a state office, I hope the same officials who were miffed he didn't head to the Senate in their timeframe will be more forgiving.

As for the media, the problem goes way beyond ungodly intrusive opposition research (which at appropriate times is a very good and necessary thing to weed out bad guys) and even mainstream snark. We are influencing society to buy into a series of unbelievable nitpicks: Boring. Short. Too polished. Sometimes, as I heard about Beau occasionally, you might even hear, "too perfect."

These days, if a candidate for office isn't a lightning rod or the most electrifying person on Earth or perfectly imperfect, they don't pass muster for the press.

I often get that when I write about Ohio Republican Sen. Rob Portman, whom I believe deserves substantial coverage for the work he does and the way he conducts himself. One editor recently challenged me on this: "Don't you think you might be drawn to him because you're from Ohio, too?"

Some, sure. But that's not all. When I wrote about former Indiana Gov. Mitch Daniels as he was gearing up for a 2012 presidential bid that ultimately didn't happen, I heard similar complaints. Too short, too boring, not this, not that.

Give me a break. Journalists absolutely must hold government officials accountable, but what good are we doing anyone if we're just mean? How do these absurd complaints have any bearing on what kind of leader either Portman or Daniels would be? Those two Republicans are the kind of public servants Beau was, and we need more people like them on both sides of the aisle: officials who love government and want to do good things and work hard to do them.

One more important point here, specifically for the Democratic Party. There's a real growing fear in the party that there is not a great farm team. It goes beyond the current lack of challengers to Hillary Clinton -- it's down the road.

I was heartbroken the day former Arizona Democratic Rep. Gabby Giffords was shot in 2010 and had first heard she died when I was driving along T Street in northwest Washington. I pulled over and cried. She survived, but she no longer holds office and likely won't again.

She is another great character in the same mold as Beau. On one run-in I had with her in an elevator when she first got to Congress, she was so excited to be talking to a political reporter who was a girl. She said she had just read a study about how women legislators pass more bills than men, she encouraged me to keep going and she was charmed that I was wearing flip-flops and packing shoes.

Giffords was beloved on Capitol Hill, and she also was headed for great things: Before she had settled on running for then-Arizona Republican Sen. Jon Kyl's seat in 2012, she also considered the possibility of waiting to run for governor in 2014.

She is still doing great things, but what a travesty. Imagine a world in 2017 in which she was a senator and Beau was a governor. In my mind Gabby Giffords and Beau Biden were going to be giants in Democratic politics in the post-Hillary era. I'm furious about the new reality.

This time, Beau's passing has put out some of my own fire for politics, at least for the moment. So I hope this outpouring of support means something. I hope there are great leaders who will pick up where he left off and I hope the media gives them a real chance to succeed.

Let's make sure that is part of his legacy.