President Biden on Thursday laid a wreath at Arlington National Cemetery’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier and commemorated Veterans Day with a speech hailing the “unrelenting bravery and dedication” of America’s service members, including his late son Beau and the recently deceased Colin Powell and former Sen. Max Cleland.
On the 100th anniversary of the tomb’s dedication, Biden spoke of his friendships with Powell and Cleland and how his own family understood the experience of veterans through his late son’s deployments.
“I’ve lost, like many of you, three good friends in the last month,” the president said. “Gen. Colin Powell, the child of immigrants who grew up to be chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, the secretary of state — a man who was a friend but who earned universal respect of Americans and people for his leadership in uniform and out.”
Biden also paid tribute to Cleland, a Vietnam veteran and triple amputee who died Tuesday of heart failure at the age of 79, saying he “knew the cost of war as well as anyone could ever know it, and went on to champion the dignity and care of Americans and wounded veterans throughout his life.”
The president also honored the late Gen. Ray Odierno, a former commander of US forces in Iraq, saying they had met “many times” and adding that “it was an honor that my son, Major [Beau] Biden, served under his command.
Biden said that Beau, who died in 2015 of brain cancer at age 46, made the experience of veterans “personal” for him and added that the day was the time to remember “there’s nothing low-risk or low-cost about war for the women and men who fight it.”
“Jill and I learned what it meant to pray every day for the safe return of someone you love. So many of you have done that,” Biden said. “Our grandkids learned what it meant to have their dad overseas in a war zone instead of back at home for a year tucking them into bed and reading that story every night. Thousands of Americans, tens of thousands, have had that experience.”
Biden largely steered clear of politics during his remarks — unlike his Memorial Day speech in May from the same stage, which focused on the need to defend democracy and contained thinly veiled references to the Jan. 6 Capitol riot.
However, the president did turn heads with some curious comments Thursday. At one point, he passionately declared that veterans are “the very spine of America, not just the backbone,” appearing to parse synonyms.
Biden, who turns 79 later this month, also awkwardly used the term “negro” while making a joke about his age by invoking a story about former Negro league baseball player Satchel Paige.
“I’ve adopted the attitude of the great negro — at the time, pitcher in the Negro leagues, went on to become a great pitcher in the pros, in the Major League Baseball after Jackie Robinson — his name was Satchel Paige,” Biden said, repeating a story he recently told Pope Francis.
“Satchel Page on his 47th birthday pitched a win against Chicago. And all the press went in and said, ‘Satch, that’s amazing, 47 years old — no one’s ever ever pitched a win at age 47. How do you feel about being 47?’” the president recounted. “He said, ‘Boys, that’s not how I look at it … I look at it this way, how old would you be if you didn’t know how old you were?’”
Biden then turned to Secretary of State Antony Blinken’s father, 95-year-old former US ambassador to Hungary Donald Blinken, and joked, “I’m 50 years old and the ambassador’s 47.”
“But all kidding aside, Mr. Ambassador, thank you for your service during World War II as well as your service as an ambassador,” Biden concluded the digression. “And thank you for raising such a fine man, Tony Blinken, our secretary of state.
“To all our veterans, past and present, we thank you, we honor you and we remember always what you’ve done for us.”