David Zurawik: Biden town hall defined by his respect, empathy and kindness toward questioners

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David Zurawik, The Baltimore Sun
·2 min read
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Joe Biden’s first cable TV town hall as president provided some news and policy substance. He talked about making it possible for everyone who wants a COVID-19 vaccination to be able to get one by the end of July. He talked about reopening classrooms for pupils in kindergarten to eighth grade this spring. He talked, and maybe went on a bit too long, about China and immigration.

But what was most impressive was the respect, empathy and kindness he showed to the audience members in Milwaukee’s Pabst Theater who asked questions. That is more a matter of style, I guess. But for many politicians, TV style often seems artificial, coached and rehearsed. And maybe I’m just so happy after four years to hear a president who isn’t a bully and blowhard that I’m willing to be fooled, but Biden’s kindness to questioners came across as sincere.

The best snapshot of that was an exchange with Jessica Salas, a graphic designer who had her 8-year-old daughter, Layla, standing by her side as she told the president that the girl and her 7-year-old brother are scared of COVID and they ask whether they are going to catch it.

“And if they catch it, they ask if they going to die?” Salas continued, adding that her children want to know if and when they will be vaccinated.

Biden immediately focused on the child, and his voice softened.

“First of all, honey, what’s your name? Layla? Beautiful name. First of all, kids don’t get COVID often. It’s unusual for that (to) happen. The evidence so far is that children are not the people most likely to get COVID. ... So, you’re in the safest group.”

When told by the child that she has not been back to school, Biden, said, “See, that’s a scary thing, too ... But don’t be scared, honey, don’t be scared. You’re going to be fine, and we’re going to make sure Mommy is fine, too.”

Reporters who have covered Biden talk about his empathy, and you could not watch that exchange and not be a believer.

Biden treated every questioner with respect and kindness, from the small-business owner who clearly had issues about Biden wanting a $15-an-hour minimum wage to the registered nurse who questioned him about Black and Hispanic people in Milwaukee not having the same access to vaccines that other populations do.

Some of his answers meandered and some of the facts were not immediately at the tip of his fingers. But I’ll take empathy, kindness and respect for citizens any night of the week over the loudmouthed, act-like-you-know TV style of his predecessor.

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