From November of 2001 to July of 2015 I worked as a Senior Computer/Network Engineer for General Dynamics, assigned to the US Senate support contract. For the first seven of those years, before my wife’s failing health led to me working more and more remotely, I worked out of an office in the basement of the Senate Russell building with about 40 or so other techs.
We would be sent out on trouble tickets to work on computers, networks, printers, Blackberries, Sling Box, iPhones – basically anything vaguely IT related with a problem.
I excelled at the job, mostly because I really enjoyed the work. As a youth, I had been attracted to the medical profession because I liked the idea of diagnosing problems and curing them. Tech support is very much like that. You approach a problem looking at the symptoms, deciding what may cause that and how to test your hypothesis, and then implementing a fix or a “cure”. A big advantage in the IT world is that if you can’t fix a Blackberry, nobody dies – you just replace it.
It wasn’t long before I had a reputation as someone who could solve even difficult problems quickly and efficiently. Soon offices began requesting me when they called in to open a ticket. I remember several SAs (System Administrator – each office had one, and they generally opened a ticket for anything they couldn’t fix) telling me how they liked that I always seemed so calm when I worked on a problem, never flustered or upset.
At first I would try to explain it was because I really didn’t have any skin in the game. Whatever the problem was, I knew it wasn’t MY fault. I would fix it or not, and if it couldn’t be fixed, usually something was just replaced or re-installed. When it became clear they didn’t really believe that, I would instead jokingly reply, “Well, I’m just well medicated.”
At any rate, soon I was also the one asked to work on the upper echelon of the office staff – Chief of Staff, Legislative Assistant, the Senator’s personal assistant and the Senators themselves.
When you are working in a Senate office on a computer, you are very much a fly on the wall. Staff completely ignore you, and I have overheard some pretty startling things while waiting for software to load or an anti-virus scan to complete. For example, one day in Senator Clinton’s bullpen, one of the staffers yelled across the room, “Hey, what’s the bosses home phone number?”. As the answer was yelled back, I mentally ran through random numbers to avoid temptation.
I worked directly with a dozen or more Senators over the years, and one of those was Senator Joe Biden of Delaware.
I was called to his office late in the afternoon one day because he wanted to learn how to do a particular skill on his Blackberry. I can’t remember what exactly – I think it was something to do with a new security protocol the Sergeant at Arms had just instituted.
I arrived at his secretary’s office and told her why I was there, and she told me the Senator would be along shortly. I sat down to wait with three military officers who were also there to see him. I have no knowledge of military dress or ranks, but each wore a different colored uniform and there were lots of ribbons and badges. They eyed me, the fat guy with the longish hair, a little suspiciously and haughtily.
We didn’t have long to wait before Senator Biden bounced into the office with a big smile. We all stood as he said hi to his secretary and shook hand with each of the officers. When he turned to me he said, “THERE’S the guy I need to see! Wait right here fellas, I’ll be with you in a few minutes.”
He put a hand on my shoulder and walked me past the rather stunned brass, and into his office.
Instead of getting right into it, he asked me how I was doing, and how I like working in the Senate. I told him I had just seen him on Bill Maher’s HBO show a week earlier, and I thought he did great – especially since Robin Williams was on the panel too. He laughed and thanked me, and told me about how Williams had them all in tears in the green room while they waited to go on.
We eventually got down to business, and I remember he was happy to be learning something new, and had no problem with deferring to me as someone who knew more than he did on this subject. He asked questions when he didn’t understand. This was NOT always the case with Senators. Some seemed resentful, a couple even demanded I change things they didn’t like and then were upset if I explained it wouldn’t work that way. I could tell you stories.
About a half hour into our talk, his phone rang. It was his son Beau, who would tragically die just a few years later.
Senator Biden gladly took the call, and leaned back in his chair to talk to his son. I tried hard not to listen, but I couldn’t help but notice that he was genuinely happy to talk to him. He didn’t rush him, he never said I have someone in my office teaching me something now, or even that there are three military officers still waiting to talk to me.
He talked until his son was ready to say goodbye, and ended the conversation with “Thanks for calling, I love you son”.
He apologized to me for the delay, and asked if I had kids. When I said yes, he insisted on seeing pictures. We chatted for a while about family, and we eventually got back to the lesson.
I only worked directly with him one other time, but after that first meeting every time he would see me working on something in his office, or I would pass him in the halls of the Senate or the basement of the Capitol, he would smile and point me out with some variation of, “That’s my guy” or “There’s my tech wiz.”
Our new President Joseph Biden was not my first choice during the primaries. Honestly, he was not my second, third, or fourth either. But after the events of 2020 and an outgoing president who childishly refused to cooperate with the hand-off, I am glad that he is the one now in charge. With his decades in Congress and eight years as Vice President, it is hard to imagine someone else with the experience to take over quickly and hit the ground running.
But mostly because I remember that man who treated me like a human being instead of just the hired help. Someone who honestly cared about his family and would make time for them. Someone who was eager to learn something new and acted with humility but no embarrassement when he got something wrong. And someone who remembered the insignificant tech guy who helped him out once and would publicly acknowledge my aid.
So does that one hour I spent with him mean I think he will be a better president than Trump?
Well, yes it does, but I admit the bar is pretty low there. As long as he doesn’t cage children, try to start a war with North Korea, call a pandemic a hoax for months, tweet insults and conspiracy theories, or encourage an armed insurrection over his hurt ego, he’ll come out on top in that comparison.
Does it mean I think he will be a good president? Well, the past couple of decades have taught us you can only be as good a president as Mitch McConnell will allow you to be. Nevertheless, I think Biden is probably the best one we could have a time when we need someone with experience, humility, love of family over self, and a willingness to recognize that all people are worthy of respect and have something to offer whether they are a military officer or a fat tech support guy. Someone who worked their way up every step of the way, and has overcome deep personal tragedy more than once in their lives and has not turned bitter.
We are in the midst of several crises at the moment, and after today’s Inauguration for the first time in years I actually feel like there is some hope for the future. It won’t be easy, and it won’t be without cost, but it will be worth it if it can bring the whole country together, to once again be the United States of America.