Remarks by President Biden at the National Prayer Breakfast
The U.S. Capitol Visitor Center
9:06 A.M. EST
THE PRESIDENT: (Applause.) Well, thank you. Thank you, thank you, thank you. I — I don’t know who she’s talking about — (laughter) — but thank you.
Folks, look, let me say — I hadn’t planned on — I didn’t know I was going to get that kind of introduction. But let me say at the outset that, you know, we’ve all gone through really difficult times — every one of you out there — one way or another. And I had an overwhelming advantage, and I mean it sincerely.
I had a family that was there for me every single, solitary moment. And so, I don’t deserve this credit for enduring that so many people I meet — think of all the people you know, whether they’re constituents or friends or relatives, who get up every morning, don’t have anybody — don’t have anybody, and they put one foot in front of the other, and they do it. They lost a child, they lost a mother, a father, a husband, someone close to them — just plucked away — and they get up every single day and put one foot in front of the other. And they’re the people who deserve our recognition and our credit.
I — I think I’ve talked to Bill and Grace Nelson about this: The only thing — today is my son Beau’s birthday. But the only thing that Beau said to me when he was — we were told he was — he was going to die within minutes or — if an hour — that he looked at me, and he said, “Dad, promise me — promise me, Dad, you’re going to stay involved.” I said, “I’ll be involved. I’ll be — I’ll be good, Beau.” He said, “No, dad, promise me. Give me your word as a Biden that you’re going to stay engaged.”
Because he knew, like a lot of you — what you’ve been through — the first instinct is you just want to curl up in a ball and just leave, no longer do what you’ve done your whole life that you’ve —
He said, “Dad — Dad, promise me.” “I give my word.”
And that — that was the last conversation in Walter Reed Hospital — laying there in the bed. And — and then he looked at me and he said, “And, Dad…” — and his brother Hunter was his closest friend. We were all three on the bed. And he turned to me and he said, “Dad, I want you to know I’m not afraid.”
So, you know, I had so much help — so much help, starting from the time that I lost my wife and daughter in an accident. But look, everybody has got horrible things they’ve had to deal with.
And we’ve watched them — I sat in the Senate for 36 years. We watched people literally die in our midst. I remember that scene where Teddy walked out. Or — I mean, there — so, you know, I’m flattered that you think as highly of me as you stated, Kirsten, but I had — I had a lot of help. I had a lot of help.
And I want to thank you for the intr- — the introduction. It’s very gracious. But like I said, there’s a lot more people who’ve done a lot more.
And to my good friend Chris Coons — two things I tell everybody about Chris Coons you got to know: One, he’s smarter than you. (Laughter.) And, two, the boy can preach. He’s the only guy that went to law school and got a divinity degree at the same time. I worry about “divine” lawyers. (Laughter.) But — anyway.
Chris, thank you. You’ve been a great friend.
And as — Bryan, as you were speaking, Chuck sort of leaned over; he didn’t say anything, but he just like, “Was that Delaware?” But it was Delaware. It’s why I got involved in politics in the first place.
I remember sitting on — going to a little Catholic grade school in Claymont, Delaware, which was a steel town that was dying. And the bus would go — my mother would drive me to the school parking lot — it was called Holy Rosary School — from a little — and it was called Brookview Apartments. Used to be Section 8 housing later.
And I get out of the bus — I get out of the car. And this is where I-95 runs parallel to these days. And I said, “Mom, why are all those kids” — it was then “colored.” “Why are all those colored kids in that bus?” Because in Scranton there weren’t any — there were very few Blacks. She said, “They’re not allowed to go to school with us here, in Delaware.” So, you know — and Milton wasn’t what you might call the epicenter of desegregation.
And so, you’ve been through a lot, but you’ve done a lot as well. And I thank you.
And, Kari — Kari Jobe, you have the voice of an angel, kid. I tell you what: You really do. And that guy sitting next to you, he’s a lucky guy. (Laughter.) He’s a lucky guy. And besides, he’s got all his hair. (Laughter.)
And Vice President Harris, Majority Leader Schumer, Mitch McConnell — and, Mitch, I don’t want to hurt your reputation, but we really are friends. (Laughter.) And that is not an epiphany we’re having here at the moment. We’ve always — you’ve always done exactly what you’ve said. You’re a man of word — of your word, and you’re a man of honor. Thank you for being my friend.
And, folks, members of Congress and spouses: I’m honored to join you all today.
You know, we’re keeping our prayers for Senator Luján, and keep him in your prayers today. I think, from what I understand, he’s going to be okay and be back with us in the not-too-distant future. But we pray for a safe recovery.
And a special thank you to the bipartisan chairs of this breakfast: Representative Lamb and Walberg, [Senators] Gillibrand and Rounds.
Mike, I know it’s been three months to this day that you lost Jean to cancer. So, you know — you know of which I speak. And it’s like losing a piece of your soul. And I — you know, I — I remember.
Today, as I said, is a day that a lot of us can remember the times when we lost — each of us. And just like I miss my son every single day, I — there’s — I know he’s always with me, for real. He’s always with me.
Congresswoman McBath, just like your precious son Jordan — he’s always going to be with you, for real. It becomes a piece of you. You know, how many times did you all been through this, about to make a decision and say, “What would Beau want?” Or “What would Jill want?” Or “What would…” — you know, whatever it is. So, it’s — you know.
And for everyone out there who has lost a piece of their soul, they’re always with you. And all through the pain, I think you — if you can find purpose, find purpose. Purpose of a life that makes you worthy in their eyes and what they expect of you.
This breakfast usually is held in a big Washington hotel with a big crowd.
Today, we’re here in the Visitor Center of the United States Capitol with a much smaller crowd, a more intimate setting to see each other here and listen to each other — standing in this, which is, in governmental terms, a “sacred place.”
I thank our — I think about our former colleagues and close friends we lost this year: Bob Dole; Harry Reid; Johnny Isakson, who was a hell of guy; Max Cleland; Carl Levin; Mike Enzi; John Warner; and Walter Mondale.
And, you know, I learned a long time ago: Never make one good eulogy. Because if you make one good eulogy, you got to do a lot of eulogies. But I’ve had the pleasure of knowing their families. And — and there’s a lot of good friends, both sides of the aisle, who disagreed on many, many things, who still talked and listened to one another.
I think I’ve said to Mitch and some of you earlier, in the last couple of years, that, you know, one of the things I don’t know for sure but I think is missing in the Congress is we don’t spend as much time with one another as we used to. We used to eat lunch together. I mean, literally sit down — not in the Senate Dining Room of the Senate or that small dining room off to the — right across the hall from the visitors dining room, and there were those two big round tables — big — big dining room tables and a buffet.
And I remember when I first got here, after my wife and daughter were killed in an accident, my boys were still in the hospital — and I remember Teddy would always come and say, “Come to lunch.” I didn’t want any part of going to lunch. And one day, he just dragged me over to lunch. He said, “You’ll learn more there than at any place else.”
And I would go to lunch there, literally every day, and listen to the senior members. And you learn about their losses, their happiness. You learn about them. You learn about their —
You know, I remember one day I walked in and there was a little corner in the table — or a corner table, when the big table was filled. And I sat down. And Jimmy said, “Come over here, Joe. Sit down here.” And I wasn’t about to sit in John Stennis’s seat, because he sat at the head of the table. And he said, “No, come on. He’s gone.” So, I ordered my hamburger or whatever (inaudible) and took a couple of bites. And in walks John Stennis. And I immediately put a napkin on all my stuff and I said, “I’m finished Mr. Chairman. Come on. Right here.”
I later got a handwritten letter from him, about three o’clock in the afternoon: “I appreciate the honor of you recognizing my seat, but you didn’t finish your meal. I promise this favor will be returned.”
He not only returned, he actually endorsed me when I ran for President from Mississippi. (Laughter.) And I think — that was an expensive hamburger for him. (Laughter.)
But I guess what I’m trying to say is: You know, when you know one another, when you know — and no matter how badly you disagree — and people think, Rev, that in the days as divided here, we had — we had a lot of flat-out, old segregationists still in our caucus. But Teddy Kennedy would argue like hell with Jim Eastland, and then he’d go down to have lunch. Didn’t agree with one another, but they treated each other with respect even in that day.
And I — I just think that, when you learn that another man or woman — and you’re flying a codel, and someone has their husband or wife with them, and you learn that they have a kid with a problem with alcoholism, or you learn that they have a daughter who is — has breast cancer. You learn that they have — it’s hard to dislike the person.
And so, one of the things I pray for — and I mean it — is that we sort of get back to the place — and it’s so busy; I think things have changed so much — but that we get to really know each other. It’s hard to really dislike someone when you know what they’re going through is the same thing you’re going through.
You know, like President Eisenhower, the first president to attend this breakfast 70 years ago — at the time, President Eisenhower said — he said, “There’s a need we all have in these days and times for some help which comes from outside ourselves.” Outside ourselves.
I’ve attended many of these prayer breakfasts over the years — with our nation at war, in struggle, in strife, peace, in times of prosperity, when everybody was getting on, but a nation in prayer.
Jill and I have been humbled by the prayers of so many of you, and it means everything to us. We pray for our nation as we face an inflection point in our history.
So much is going to change no matter who’s sitting in my job. The world is changing. The world is changing.
I — there’s a — the moment — but there’s also a moment of great progress, of lives saved in this pandemic, not just the ones lost — new jobs created for people, new hope for rebuilding the nation, but also a moment of pain for the lost lives and the — and the lives lost in this pandemic. And the cruel twist of fates that occur.
You know, at a moment of great division of our democracy is at great — grave risk. I pray that we follow what Jesus taught us: to serve rather than be served. I don’t always do it. I hope try. I don’t always do it.
I pray to keep the faith. That very promise of America, believing that there’s nothing we can’t do, where every person is created equal in the image of God — no matter who or where we come from, who we are, or what our color, or how we choose to pray, or whether or not we choose to pray — they deserve to be treated equally throughout their lives.
Faith in the very idea of America that can be defined, in my view, by a single word. I’ve been saying this for over 30 years. When I get asked to define America, one word: “Possibilities.” “Possibilities.”
One of the reasons why other countries sometimes think we’re arrogant is we believe anything is possible. Anything is possible. And faith in the American people will prove each and every day we’re a great nation because we’re, at our heart, a good people. We do bad things when we get frightened.
Saint Augustine wrote that, “A people was a multitude defined by a common object of their love.” I believe the common objects of our love that define us as Americans are opportunity, liberty, dignity, respect, honor, service, truth — things everybody recognizes both here and around the world.
As I stand in this citadel of democracy that was attacked one year ago, the issue is — for us is unity. How do we unite us again? Unity is elusive, but it’s really actually necessary. Unity doesn’t mean we have to agree on everything. But unity is where enough of us — enough of us believe in a core of basic things: the common good, the general welfare, a faith in the United States of America — the United States of America.
Nearly three weeks ago, we were reminded of that truth. A gunman entered a synagogue in Colleyville, Texas. He took four worshippers hostage, including a rabbi, for 11 hours.
But violence and vengeance didn’t pierce the goodness and grace of that scene. Heroic law enforcement officers were joined by local faith leaders, including an imam, a Baptist minister who offered their help. A nearby Catholic church opened its doors for the hostages’ families.
At sunset, a group of Muslim women — friends of the rabbi’s wife — walked in with one of the rabbi’s favorite foods. They hugged and they wept.
Because of the bravery of the hostages and the law enforcement officers, the hostages were — escaped safely, and the families were reunit- — reunited.
When asked later if he would change anything, the rabbi said, quote, “We will do what we always do, which is the best we can.” “Which is the best we can.” I had a long conversation with the rabbi. It was interesting to hear him describe the scene and how faith mattered: Whether you’re in a synagogue or a church or a mosque or a temple, whether you’re religious or not, we’re all imperfect human beings, trying our best — the best we can, because we can’t know the future. We can’t know what’s coming. But we also can’t live in fear every step of the way.
That’s America. From darkness, we found joy, hope, and light.
Rather than driving us apart, faith can move us together. Because all the great confessional faiths have the same fundamental basic beliefs: not just faith in a higher power, but faith to see each other as we should: not as enemies, but as neighbors; not as adversaries, but as fellow Americans.
And as leaders of this nation who work and pray together, there is an oath to God and country to uphold and a charge to keep: to stand in the breach and to protect our democracy, to work together to right wrongs. That’s why we all came here, to make the most of our time on Earth.
For if a house divided cannot stand, surely a house united can do anything. And if we do that, I think we’ll have done our duty.
With history and God watching, we will have to prove that there is nothing beyond the capacity of the United States when we’re united — the United States.
You know, some of the senior senators who are here used to kid me because I was quoting Irish poets on the floor of the United States Senate. And there’s a poem, “The Cure at Troy,” written by an Irish poet who I got to know.
It says: History teaches us not to hope “on this side of the grave. But then, once in a lifetime, [that]…tidal wave of justice [rises] up, and hope and history rhyme.”
I honestly believe we’re at one of those moments. There’s so much at stake. The division has become so palpable, not just here, but around the world.
We have a chance. We have a chance — a chance to make hope and history rhyme, because the rest of the world is looking to us.
Every time I’d walk out of my Grandpa Finnegan’s house up in Scranton — some of you heard me say this before — he’d yell, “Joey, keep the faith.” My grandmother would yell, “No, Joey, spread it.” Let’s go spread the faith. (Applause.)
9:26 A.M. EST