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Me, Joe, and the Worst Phone Call in the World

The link between empathy and leadership.
by Tom Hixon
October 29, 2020
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More than 225,000 Americans have now died from COVID-19, a tragedy so vast that it’s hard to comprehend. Some people have searched for understanding by noting that the death toll is greater than the number of U.S. deaths in our last five wars combined, others have equated it to experiencing 9/11 on 70 consecutive days.

But when I hear there have been 225,000 deaths, I think about the 225,000 families who have had to receive the worst phone call in the world.

I know what that’s like, and so does Joe Biden.

For me, the call was from my mother telling me that my dad, Chris Hixon, had been shot in the mass shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida—where he worked as the athletic director—while heroically trying to save the students he loved so much. Hours later, I learned he had died.

For Joe, the call came in 1972, not long after he won his first Senate race, when he was told that his wife and daughter had been killed in a car accident on their way to buy a Christmas tree.

Losses like that change you forever, and it’s not hard to see what type of person Joe Biden has become since that day nearly half a century ago: a man who has worked tirelessly to channel his grief into helping others.

You don’t have to take my word for it. Just watch the video that went viral this week of Vice President Biden hugging and comforting my brother after the loss of our dad.

Now read the tales of him reaching out to grieving families, or watch him get emotional while speaking to a pastor who lost his wife in the tragic Charleston shooting. That grief is raw and real—stemming not just from the loss of Joe’s family in 1972, but the loss of his son Beau 45 years later. It has molded into empathy and kindness, over and over again.

This may seem like a small thing, but it’s not. This is a moment where we need a leader who feels deep empathy and love, both for this country and the people in it, and pairs it with action. Joe Biden does that. Not only has he spoken to families like mine who have lost loved ones to gun violence, but he’s also beaten the NRA and passed some of the only common-sense gun safety laws in the past 30 years; not only has he met with Ady Barkan, a heroic healthcare activist who himself is dying of ALS, but he’s helped pass the Affordable Care Act; and not only has he grieved with families who have been hurt by unchecked police actions, but he’s running on police reform and tackling systemic racism in this country. Every time, Joe’s compassion comes with a plan.

Our country needs leadership like that today—someone who doesn’t care only about votes, but about the people casting them. Nowhere is that more evident than with COVID-19. At the beginning of the pandemic, the American people were told that the virus is no worse than the flu, despite the administration knowing how dangerous it actually was. And they reportedly referred to the pandemic as an “effective political strategy”  because they believed it may kill more people in blue states than in red states and that Trump would “own the reopening” of the economy.

Unfortunately, the stark contrast between Joe Biden’s empathy and the current administration stretches beyond COVID-19. When it comes to gun violence, an estimated 145,000 Americans have been killed by guns over the last four years, but rather than finding common sense bipartisan solutions, Republican leadership has actively blocked gun safety legislation. This administration has done less than nothing to address racial injustice in America or prevent killings like those of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor.

As commander-in-chief, Joe Biden would never refer to the Marines I served with and the sailors my dad served alongside as “suckers” and “losers” for risking their lives for our country.

Joe Biden has proven time and time again that he has the empathy to understand what we’re going through in this dark American moment and the strength to lead us out of it. That’s the kind of leadership we deserve.

So I ask you to consider the options before us from the perspective of someone like me and Joe. People who have been on the receiving end of the worst phone call in the world. Get out and vote for compassion, empathy, and character. Because in this time when so many American families are receiving that call, they should be confident that their leaders know what that feels like and know how to help.

Tom Hixon

Tom Hixon is a former Republican, a Marine Corps veteran, and a member of the Everytown for Gun Safety Veterans Advisory Council. His father, Chris Hixon, was shot and killed in the shooting at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida, in 2018.