On Tuesday, as we learned that former Vice President Joe Biden had selected Senator Kamala Harris as his running mate, I saw a Tweet from Ron Klain, Biden’s former chief of staff. It was a picture of the moment the vice president asked Senator Harris to join him on the ticket.
The picture is pretty straight forward: the vice president is in profile, holding a smartphone to his computer while he chats with Senator Harris via video-conference. A used coffee mug sits just out of focus, along with a binder, some paper, and a letter opener, among the litter of a desk that looks like it’s actually used.
A small frame, sitting on the base of the desk lamp, caught my attention. It’s partially obscured by the computer screen, but if you zoom in, you see that it’s a framed strip from the “Hagar the Horrible” comic.
In it, Hagar—the conquering Viking drawn by Chris Brown—stands on a rocky coast, his warship smoking and sinking in the waves while rain pounds him and lightening strikes. Hagar looks to the heavens and asks, “Why me?!” In the next frame, a voice from on-high replies, “Why not?”
Biden—who has known great loss and tragedy in his life—has spoken about this comic-strip. He’s had it on his desk for 25 years. It’s a reminder of wisdom his father gave him that nothing is promised in life. It has helped him cope with the loss of his wife and daughter when he was a young, Senator-elect. More recently, it helped him cope with the loss of his son, Beau.
For those drawn to public life, however, I think there’s another message we can draw from those black-and-white lines on newspaper print. Anyone who has ever contemplated running for anything has had to grapple with the question “Why me?” Who am I to be elected to the school board? What makes me so special that I think I should be mayor? Or governor? Or senator? Or president? Literally, “why me?”
Candidates who are savvy or just slick have a good answer to this question—but in the quiet moments before they threw their hat in the ring, the modest among them had to ask and answer for themselves, “Why me?”
The most basic response in a society that prizes democracy and whose rhetoric and traditions speak to the ideal that anyone—anyone—can have their voice heard is, as Chris Brown depicts in this strip, “Why not?” It’s the promise of a first-generation American citizen whose parents met in the United States from opposite sides of the world. It’s the same promise made to the son of a successful real estate investor from New York, or the son of a former president and CIA director, or the son of an immigrant from Kenya and a woman from Kansas. The greatest promise of the American dream is that leadership in this country isn’t reserved for the high-born or the wealthy. It’s open to any of us who look at the world and want to change it.
I’ve worked for candidates who won and lost, and I’ve had friends win and lose, too. The genius of our system is that by merely engaging in the arena, anyone who runs, anyone who adds their voice to the debate, strengthens the fabric of our democracy—adding color, depth, and meaning along the way.
Often, in recent months, I’ve heard friends reacting to the latest loss or outrage with increasingly plaintive laments. They may not use the words, but they are asking the same question Hagar asked: “Why me?” Why did this have to happen, now? I know I asked myself that question after 9/11. My step-kids are asking it today.
The answer isn’t some divine message from the heavens, but the learned wisdom of human experience. The only way to change the world is to work for it, to lend your voice to arguments that matter, to march, to vote, and to fight for what you believe. We can’t leave those fights to others. It’s time for all of us to stand up and be counted.