Inevitably, he arrives late, by SUV or van. The former vice-president is thin and, yes, he’s old. He dresses neatly and always in blue. Staff envelop him. There’s the body man, the advance man, the videographer, the photographer, the digital director, the traveling chief of staff, the traveling press secretary, the local press secretary, the adviser, the other adviser, the adviser’s adviser, the surrogate, the other surrogate, and the bodyguard. ¶ The looming presence of the last guy, Jim, is especially important for optics. Jim is tall and official-looking. He greets the world chest-first, his hands resting in a dignified clasp, his expression even, his mouth unmoving. Most people assume that he’s a Secret Service agent. Which he was.
But ex-VPs don’t get security for life the way ex-presidents do. Most people don’t know that, not even the politically savvy types who attend these sorts of things. And that’s all for the best, because Jim—or whatever local guy they’ve got filling in for him in Iowa or New Hampshire or Nevada or wherever else—is a necessary component of the vibe they’re trying to generate here, the Big Presidential Energy, if you will, that powers this production.
And it is a production. This is true even when the event is small, which it often is, because the stakes never are—Joe Biden speaking off the cuff is something the entire campaign seems focused on preventing at all costs. Inside the community center or union hall or college auditorium, the stage is crafted just so. The red and blue letters— each roughly the size of a 9-year-old—spell iowa 4 biden. The American flag is stretched taut and stapled to the plywood. The lawn sign is stapled to the lectern. The delicate panes of teleprompter glass angle to meet his hopeful gaze, so that he may absorb the programmed speech as he peers out at his audience, which usually skews quite old and white, unless he’s in South Carolina.
This first part—the reading of the speech—he almost always gets right. Even when he makes changes, rearranging the order of the words, skipping over a few, adding others, how could he not get it right? He’s been delivering some version of it for more than 40 years and living it for longer. He could deliver it in his sleep, if he ever sleeps. It’s like my father always said: Joey, a job is about more than just a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about being able to look your child in the eye and say, “It’s gonna be okay …” There is an undercurrent of shame that pulses throughout, this idea that the unequalness of our society is embarrassing for those who have access to less, rather than embarrassing for those who have more than anyone could need.
Folks … Not a joke! He’s always saying something rather solemn, about cancer or immigration, and then adding, “Not a joke!” as if anyone thought it might be. I’m being serious here … Come on … The bottom line is … I’m not kidding around … The fact of the matter is … Barack and me … Folks … Folks … Folks … folks … folks … folks … folks … folks … folks … folks … FOLKS … folks … FoLkS … fOlKs … F. O. L. K. S. …
And this next part—the greeting of the voters—he gets right, too. In this context, he possesses an almost mystical quality that, for whatever reason, does not come across when filtered through the kaleidoscope of newsprint or television. It’s the way he focuses his eyes, which are as blue as the seas, except for (yikes) that time the left eye filled with blood on CNN a few weeks back.
He is swarmed. Women reach out to him, linking their arms in his. He bows his head and lifts their hands to his mouth for a kiss and, later, when you ask them if that makes them uncomfortable, they look at you like you have three heads. This is the best day of their lives. Are you insane? There are men, too, who embrace him, wrapping their hands around his neck. He calls every male presenting human he encounters “man.” I watched him call a baby “man.” As in, Hey! How areya, man?! He is as skilled a selfie-taker as any influencer, and in the span of 30 or 40 minutes, he snaps hundreds, leaning his body against the rope that separates him from the crowd, straining it one, two, three feet forward. He really does connect with every living being this way, talking about their jobs or their health care as he listens, sometimes crying with them, whispering in their ears, taking their phone numbers and promising to call them. He does, in fact, do that. Everybody is Joe Biden’s long-lost friend. Every baby is Joe Biden’s long-lost child. A little girl in Iowa City called him her uncle Joe. On the Fourth of July in the town of Independence, he took off, running through the parade like a dingo with somebody’s newborn. As hard as it might be to believe that anything in this realm could not be bullshit, it’s simply true that this isn’t.
His own loss is staggering in its scale and cruelty: Neilia, his wife, and Naomi, his infant daughter, killed in a car crash. Beau, his oldest son, who survived that crash with his brother, Hunter, killed decades later by brain cancer. And it’s as though in that loss he’s gained access to an otherwise imperceptible wavelength on which he communicates in this way, with the eyes and the hands.
“I don’t know how to describe it, but sometimes some people would walk up with a lot of emotion in their face, and without even hearing their story, he could connect with them,” John Flynn, who served as Biden’s senior adviser in the White House, said. “He would know it was either one thing or another, and he would just know how to approach them and to get them to gently open up if they wanted to. And if they didn’t want to, he just said, ‘Hey, I’m with you, and I’m there for you. I feel your pain.’ ”
Chris Coons was an intern for Biden in the Senate and is now a United States senator from Delaware himself. He told me about Loretta Wootten, a former colleague who in January went into a coma after a car crash that killed her husband. “I went to visit Loretta when she regained consciousness, and she looks at me, and she says, ‘Does Joe know I’m here?’ That’s her first sentence. I said, ‘I don’t know. I mean, he’s running for president.’ And, she says, ‘I just would love to hear from him.’ The next time I see him, I say, ‘Do you remember Loretta Wootten?’ and he smiles and he says, ‘Of course.’ I said, ‘Well, Loretta’s husband was just killed in a car accident, and she’s in recovery.’ And he gets this look, and he turned to someone and said, ‘Get me a piece of paper.’ And he writes out this page-long, heartfelt message to her, hands it to me, and says, ‘Please get this to her.’ When I delivered that to her, she wept with joy.”
I have witnessed this kind of connection at nearly all of the countless events I’ve attended in a half-dozen states in the six months since Biden announced his campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination. If he ever does sleep, surely Joe Biden dreams as he proselytizes, of an unbroken America, its ideals and reputation restored, where everybody is folks and folks have everything they need and maybe some of what they want, where the field is just even enough that nobody is ashamed of their own place on it, and where the president isn’t an idiot but where you can easily deal with the idiots by kicking the shit out of them out back in a parking lot or something. Crucially, in this dream, Joe Biden is the president.
THE PITCH GOES like this: Joe Biden ought to be the nominee because he’s electable, a meaningless concept if recent history is any guide, and presidential, that wonderful word—the thing Donald Trump could never be even though he literally is president—despite the fact that Biden, who appears by almost any measure to be a good man, a man whose lone sin in life is ego (and does that even count anymore?), has spent a half-century grasping for this position and watching it slip through his fingers.
To anyone paying attention—the army of political professionals more wired to observe shortcomings than are those likely to actually vote for him or for anyone else— it looks, unmistakably, like it’s happening again. His vulnerabilities are close to the surface. There’s the basic fact of his oldness and the concerns, explicit or implicit, about his ability to stay agile and alive for four more years. This was true of Biden, who is 76, even more than it was true of Bernie Sanders, who is the oldest candidate at 78, up until Sanders had a heart attack while campaigning in Nevada earlier this month. (It’s not true at all of Elizabeth Warren, who is 70 but seems a decade younger. And it’s not exactly true of Trump, who is 73 and really just seems crazy, not old.)
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October 28–November 10, 2019