Joe Biden And The Disappearing America
Joe Biden’s presidential campaign sometimes seems like a promise to restore us to the Obama years. But what’s been lost? And when did we have it?
“Joe Biden looks like the photograph of a great statesman in his youth,” opens the first profile of him, back in 1970, one that carries a bunch of gnarly old quotes about women and race relations. “You know the kind of old, brown snapshot Life magazine digs up? You look at it, and you can’t quite believe how wild-haired and scrawny the great man was in his dashing 20s. But there he is 30 years ago, smiling today’s smile, as he stands stiffly amid a flock of his sisters on the otherwise deserted beach.”
Even before Delaware elected him to the Senate at 29, Biden inspired a kind of future-present nostalgia. He’s never quite in the right time. He wasn’t really post-Watergate; he isn’t a boomer; he missed the protest era; he was married when kids were protesting Vietnam; he wore sport coats. But here he is again, smiling the smile of 50 years ago.
“I know, now I’m the old guy — I get it,” he said the other night, up in Concord, New Hampshire, under fluorescents at the local IBEW union hall. This was probably not news to the crowd, who’d filed in through two doors, one for people in T-shirts with stuff like “I’m sticking with my UNION” on the back, and one for a smaller group of guys in blue blazers. Biden is trim, but can sound older at 76, like a sanded-down version of how you might remember him. By this point in the evening, though, he’d really turned it on, long off whatever had been prepared, pacing the stage and yelling into the mic.
“They asked me then,” he said, “whether I had the ability and the judgment to be a senator when I was 29. It was a legitimate question! It's a legitimate question to ask me whether or not I have the stamina to be president of the United States.”
“Well, I’m the only guy who knows how it works,” he shouted to laughs and applause. “I’ve been there!”
He kept pushing through tangents and builds and a riff about America being an idea, right up to the roaring close: a line from John F. Kennedy’s moon speech, but not the one you know — instead, the one that “then and now” meant the most to him. Biden yelled above the rolling applause, “He used the line, ‘We refuse to postpone’ — I refuse to postpone any longer the ability of this country to lead the world!”
And then he took questions.
A Biden Q&A is an exercise in five-, six-, eight-minute odysseys that sometimes answer the question and sometimes do not. Across two New Hampshire events in one day, he touched on Japan’s declining birth rate; Abenomics; Roe v. Wade; an old Chinese saying; the futile math of working and paying for childcare; single-parenthood; an ad he ran in 1978; universal pre-K; the Violence Against Women Act; how women know the men who respect them and the ones who don’t; military deaths in Iraq and Afghanistan; medical response times; Agent Orange; PTSD; expanded funding for the Department of Veterans Affairs; that Kim Jung Un “blew his uncle’s brains out”; this hokey setup about what’s inside the secret box of American ingenuity; our American distaste for orthodoxy; the continuing American immigrant story of optimism, determination, commitment, and absolute resilience; “The Henry Kissinger of Asia”; his interaction with an electrical worker in St. Croix; societal detachment; high school kids breaking up over text; the “good and decent” Mitt Romney; China’s one-child policy; and what the Chinese government is doing to the Uighurs.
The night before he almost died from a brain aneurysm in 1988, Biden answered college students’ questions for almost five hours — two and a half hours on the upfront, then another hour and a half after his aide cut the audience mics, then another 40 minutes standing next to the aide, who held Biden’s coat — so 29 minutes in Concord isn’t the half of it. Still, they said more than once: last one. His staff ended up playing music to make sure he actually stopped talking.
But not before he answered a question from a young woman who identified herself as “an ACLU voter.” Would he commit to reducing the federal prison population by half? He would not. That, he said, was the irrational approach. Biden defended the 1994 crime bill — the massive bipartisan law that’s now a source of bipartisan scorn — that placed thousands of cops on the streets, put an assault weapons ban on the books, authorized 60 new death penalty–eligible crimes, applied big money toward the prosecution of sex crimes, and vastly expanded the US prison population through new sentencing guidelines. We’d been conditioned to think of the bill as a bad one, he said.
Still, in his view, there are plenty of laws putting people in jail that shouldn’t even be on the books. And, Biden added, we’ve gotta fund legal aid. “You make a really good point, kiddo.”
In the back, behind a big mixing board, one sound tech turned to the other and mouthed, “Kiddo?”
“Please tell Joe he has to run,” said Jill Biden, introducing her husband this spring in Philadelphia. That’s what people kept telling her last year at events, in the grocery store, on the streets.
From the stage — Biden’s big campaign launch — she likely had a complete view of two white press tents, rather than the peach steps of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, which Rocky Balboa ran up in dismal old 1976, and a series of tourists and joggers ran up while she spoke on a bright spring afternoon. “They miss his kindness,” she said.
She has said her husband decided to run for president on the day of George H.W. Bush’s funeral. “Maybe being there with former presidents?” she told Vogue when asked why. “Maybe just seeing the decorum of it, the respect, the dignity afforded the former president? So I think...maybe...what it used to be, what it used to feel like, when there was decency in politics.” Biden’s campaign for president aims to defeat Donald Trump and, in doing so, end the surreal chaos of national politics, restoring something that’s been lost. Biden’s (albeit self-selecting) crowds often cheer at his hopes for a more functional government of coequal branches. He talks a fair amount about the dangers of an overly powerful president (Trump, yes, but an overly powerful president in the abstract, as well), the coarseness of politics, his abilities as a negotiator, and the importance of never compromising on rights, but being able to give a little on X and Y to get something done.
On the trail, he references “Barack,” “Barack and I,” “we.” Obama’s voice from years ago narrated the first video from his campaign, the campaign which recently tweeted a photo of friendship bracelets reading “JOE” and “BARACK.” Before Biden’s events, the soundtrack leans on Motown and Motown-adjacent songs that either were on Obama campaign playlists or feel like they were: “Hold On, I’m Coming,” “Signed, Sealed, Delivered,” the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There).” As one woman in New Hampshire put it, “I think all of us really miss the dignity and honor that you and President Obama brought to office”; above the immediate applause, a “YESSS” rang out. It’s as though Obama, who has not endorsed Biden and seems unlikely to do so, is just out of sight, the woman behind the veil in some Greek play.
But Joe Biden came long before Barack Obama, and he reminds you of that time, in word and vibe. He likes to hearken back to The Time When Washington Worked, when Republican men and Democratic men could run their mouths on the trail about each other, then come together in the United States Senate, mano a mano between the 40-yard lines of American political consensus.
His career can conjure up a particular kind of 1950s-through-1980s, Reagan-Democrat landscape, like the establishing neighborhood shots in a John Hughes movie. This would be the time of the Polish Festival, a suburb populated by the children or grandchildren of a Little Italy, the late afternoons of the Righteous Brothers and “Old Time Rock & Roll,” when magazines were practically catalogs for cigarette ads, when old people in photographs still looked very old, in thick glasses and slicked-back hair and pale blue pants, when the Jaycees honored bright young men, when the local Elks celebrated their 85th anniversary and the principal speaker was America’s youngest senator, when a young lawmaker would eat lunch with the cafeteria’s servers, when men still wrote newspaper columns about which young Irish Catholic politician might best the others.
That warm landscape coexists with a brutal one. The Elks, after all, didn’t let in black members until the early ’70s. Boston school official Louise Day Hicks had become a national figure by then, crusading against busing children to integrate schools. Hicks argued filling 70,000 vacant desks in white schools would create an “unfair advantage” for black children; she worked to block a privately funded effort by black parents to enroll their children in different schools, and told the city’s cardinal she would leave the Catholic Church if he protested her role in the whole thing. “The important thing is that I'm not bigoted,” Hicks once said. When Martin Luther King Jr. tried to force Chicago’s mayor into fair housing laws in 1968, people threw baseball-sized rocks at King, beat up nuns, and yelled stuff like, “Kill him!”
When Biden entered the Senate in 1973, there were no women (the only one had lost reelection in 1972), and one black senator (who would lose reelection in 1978). Biden staked out a liberal career with two heterodoxies: opposition to public funding for abortion, and opposition to busing, which he argued violated the rule of common sense. “We can finally debate the issue,” Biden told the Philadelphia Inquirer in 1975. “If it isn’t yet a respectable liberal position, it is no longer a racist one.” (In a surreal photo on the same page, Mickey Mouse watches Japanese Emperor Hirohito sign the guest book at Disneyland.)
Biden’s tributes to the functional past sometimes careen into dark places. This past week at a fundraiser on the Upper East Side, in one of those hotels with glossy floors, he imitated one segregationist senator (James O. Eastland) and called another (Herman Talmadge) “one of the meanest guys [he] ever knew.” Well, guess what? “At least there was some civility,” Biden said. “We got things done. We didn’t agree on much of anything. We got things done. We got it finished. But today, you look at the other side and you’re the enemy. Not the opposition — the enemy. We don't talk to each other anymore.” At what outer limit of civility, you can end up wondering, does the opposition become the enemy, particularly in retelling? Herman Talmadge literally wrote a little book called You and Segregation.
The next night, he told donors in Maryland that he and the late Teddy Kennedy hated what Eastland and Talmadge stood for, but beat them on the ideas, within the realities of the system.
“We can turn all this around,” Biden said. “If Teddy were here, in the United States Senate, what he’d be talking about is equity, honesty, the way in which we deal with people, treating everyone the same way.”
Despite his appeals to a higher idea of opponents rather than enemies, Biden’s effect is moral, personal, more about the spirit of the thing than any big idea.
For this reason, he can grate if you find him in some place you don’t want him, like leading the polls for the Democratic nomination, or when you disagree with him. But the personal can also collapse the space between Biden and the listener, so that his stories are your stories, activating the brain’s reflex to compare and remember, placing you and him both within the long arc of an American family’s ups and downs; for all the complications of the past, he retains an imperishable warmth, too.
He calls his wife just to tell her he loves her. He says the baby crying can come back into the room. He recognizes that an older woman is sitting on the wood floor, as he did in Berlin, New Hampshire, and makes sure she gets a chair. “What a gentleman,” another woman sighed, as the chair’s recipient whispered something in his ear. The crowd chuckled, and Biden said, “We’ve got a secret going on.” (The secret: Someone who usually votes Republican had come along.)
The scene diverged. He stepped toward the assembled media and said, “I want the press to know: She pulled me close.” The room laughed; people outside it did not. Biden tells teen boys they have one job (keeping the guys away from their sister), and references the future of a “beautiful” young girl sitting over there. He grasps voters' shoulders tightly and points a finger in the face of a woman asking a question.
The divide in reactions might be generational, or maybe it’s dispositional. When a grandfatherly hand rests upon one’s shoulder, the words “you’re as bright as you are beautiful” can produce the urge to pitch oneself off a steep cliff. “These men radiate physicality and friendly exuberance, like messy Labradors — and who wants to seem uptight to a Labrador?” Katy Waldman wrote this spring. “Biden’s charisma, for those who see it as such, depends on him being slightly naughty, and then on us discerning his good (or at least harmless) intentions and giving him a pass.”
Biden might actually argue something similar about politics. He spent 36 years in the Senate, a place where, possibly by necessity of proximity and time, men sometimes look past each other’s very human flaws and forgive each other for their ideological crusades, while the rest of us recoil and live with their decisions.
In his 2007 book, Promises to Keep, Biden writes at length about Hubert Humphrey, another longtime senator of more modest means, one who also never got rich off the Senate and people regarded as a good friend, one who ran for president countless times and had to settle for vice president. Humphrey is often remembered as the stiff who defended the Vietnam War and lost to Richard Nixon in 1968. But, for decades, he pushed whites in the Democratic Party to embrace the cause of civil rights; in the early ’60s, Humphrey played a key role in making Lyndon Johnson’s civil rights bills law. He believed in the Big Government Liberalism of FDR.
Biden’s memory of him, though, tells you something about how Biden believes decency and ideology can coexist. Humphrey had advised young Joe Biden to adopt a cause — the cause of housing — and asked if he had ideas. Yes, Biden did. He wanted to tear down the high-rise public housing projects that big cities built in the mid-century. Biden had run in 1972 on smaller public housing efforts that would be more integrated into communities.
“Whoa, whoa, no, no, no, Joe,” Humphrey told him. “You can’t just start over. … You know if you acknowledge that the public housing program is not working, Joe, they’ll eat us alive. They’ll rip it apart.”
Biden disagreed. He had come up when a lot of people living in the United States were a generation or two removed from the small farm, the mine, the tenement, the ship over from Europe, and were now, permanently, on the other side via the GI Bill or the social safety net. That success had not exponentially extended into the future. The ’70s were a mess of stagnation and decline, the death of manufacturing and bitter fights over de facto segregation. “I am going to fight for something — for a different kind of philosophy — a different kind of leadership in the United States Senate — a leadership that recognizes that the American myth is dying,” Biden said in his ’72 speech accepting the Democratic nomination for Senate. “Things are not getting better.”
Humphrey told him of the old battles, how hard it was to get here.
“His idea of who he was was formed in that fight,” Biden writes, and it is easy to imagine the same for Biden. The world of Democratic politics he entered into was about holding on, cutting against what then looked like decaying big government programs, and pushing for liberalism but without the deficits and slowdowns and getting your ass kicked by Republicans.
A few years after Biden’s arrival in Washington, cancer killed Humphrey.
“It was like he didn’t want to leave the chamber,” Biden writes of Humphrey’s last days. “He’d stay on the floor late into the night, and he and his friend Senator Barry Goldwater would talk about things they’d accomplished together and separately in the Senate.”
Goldwater’s 1964 libertarian presidential campaign launched the Reagan Revolution of the 1980s. His coalition stitched together intense racial backlash, shared anti-communism, and a growing skepticism that big government programs could solve societal ills. Humphrey stood up at the 1964 Democratic convention and denounced Goldwater’s platform, which implicitly denounced Humphrey’s.
“On the Senate floor one day, Barry Goldwater walked across the aisle and enveloped Hubert Humphrey,” Biden writes. “Goldwater was so big and Humphrey so frail that Humphrey almost disappeared. The two men stood for a long moment, locked in a hug, and I could see that both men were crying.”
If you read Biden’s books — well-written though they are — he seems to slightly misunderstand the role he plays in American life, or have aspirations for a different one.
Promise Me, Dad, the book about his son Beau’s death from brain cancer at age 46, contains long passages about Ukraine and the rise of ISIS. There’s a big soliloquy about criminal justice policy abruptly wedged between a difficult passage about cancer and his moving visit to the home of Chinese immigrants whose son was just killed. Promises to Keep, published 10 years before, exhaustively details the breakup of Yugoslavia and Biden’s many trips to Afghanistan and Iraq.
If America likes Biden, his resonance has little to do with his efforts to be a Great Statesman, and even less to do with criminal justice. Instead, he occupies a role about loyalty, and another one that no one would pick for themselves — one about loss, and what happens after the end of something.
Promise Me, Dad, the 2017 book, is a moving read about things not normally discussed — people don’t often talk about the process of dying. He describes funerals and visits to people who’ve lost children and parents, the precise path he walked through Walter Reed Army Medical Center in the final days of Beau Biden’s life, his son’s memory loss, holding family meetings in which everyone playacted a role for Beau’s benefit, the morning he sang to him an old Elton John song enjoyed by the boys when they were little, his vivid dream of his son running again. He believes his family has a public duty to show people you can continue on after the most staggering of tragedies.
“I have found over the years,” Biden writes, “that although it brought back my own vivid memories of sad times, my presence almost always brought some solace to people who have suffered sudden and unexpected loss. Not because I am possessed of any special power, but because my story precedes me.” His career began with a stunning victory, and then, only weeks later, the death of his first wife and daughter in a car accident, leaving Biden a widower at 30 with two boys, ages 3 and 4. In one of his first appearances in Delaware after the accident in 1972, about a year after he’d started his first Senate campaign, he began to cry and, as the local paper put it, “most of the audience, men and women and teenagers, began to cry openly, some putting their heads in their hands.”
And maybe because it all comes back around to the personal, he can still make a room go silent. In Concord earlier this month, before the big finish, he’d started off quite stiffly, reading off teleprompters through weak speakers to a crowd that had already waited on linoleum through three introductions and the pledge of allegiance. But then, in little fragments, Biden drifted off script. He mentioned the idea of another Trump term, and people said “No” — but not a hearty, fun “No!” more like a gentle, involuntary “nooo.” He rattled off the white nationalist shootings and treatment of migrants and moral injustices of the current era. He told stories you’ve heard a thousand times before — about the long hallways parents walk down to tell children bad news, and the day his father told him he could not pay for school. Somehow, this can put you in the parking lot 60 years ago with Biden, or in the house over here. “They’re sitting at the table, today,” he said. “They’re talking about, ‘Who’s gonna tell him we don’t have the money to go back to school? Who’s going to tell him? What are we gonna do? What are we gonna do?’”
“How can you have dignity without health insurance?” he went on, then shifted slightly. He began talking about the people who have insurance, but whose husband or child or friend has a terminal illness, and the insurer tells them they’ve run out of primary coverage. When Biden says the word “terminal,” your mind cannot help but move on in silence to the next beat, and there he meets you. “I don’t know how— I don’t know how Jill and I would’ve done it,” he said, “when our son was lying in bed for a year, knowing — not for the whole year — knowing he had stage 4 glioblastoma. What do you do?”
Some of us obsess over disappearing places and moods. If you live long enough in one place, you will read about this all the time — a restaurant closing, the last holdout, a reminder of the way the neighborhood was or when the city was vibrant, or when so-and-so was still alive, an era that’s ended, even if it was a nasty time. We live in an endless parade of throwback uniforms, reboots, and ancestry sites that many people would not have needed in 1960. There’s something American about it, really; many of the greatest, most American authors of the 20th century — writers like Grace Paley, Saul Bellow, James Baldwin, and Toni Morrison — balanced seeing inside and being outside someone else’s platonic America, preserving a distinct but now fading voice, connecting two times at once.
If you spend enough time reading the old clips about Biden, and his books, you will find such places. The pool Biden lifeguarded at in 1962 is still open; they’ve renamed it the Joseph R. Biden Jr. Aquatic Center. Years and years ago, when Nixon resigned and Gerald Ford became president, Biden finally got his mother to visit Washington, a trip which she delightfully recounted to the Scranton paper. After all the business on Capitol Hill, Joey took her to an Italian restaurant. “The food was good, but not as good as at Preno's in Scranton,” she said. “It can't be beaten." Italian immigrants founded the restaurant in 1923, when you had to slip alcohol in paper cups. JFK campaigned there! “Does anyone know if Preno's still exists?” someone asked on a message board almost 20 years ago. “It seemed, at least at that time years ago, it was run by two women that were frozen in time from 40 years before that...They were great and the food was wonderful.” Preno’s had closed, a casualty of redevelopment.
Biden offers one himself, in his 2017 book. Each year, since he and Jill began dating in the ’70s, the family has gone to Nantucket for Thanksgiving, repeating again the same traditions, right down to a family photo in front of a saltbox house with a sign that read “Forever Wild.” These photos captured the passage of time and the family’s growing numbers. In 2014, they arrived to find yellow police tape on the lot; the tide had destroyed everything but the foundation. Back home, he writes, “I kept seeing the little ‘Forever Wild’ house, undermined by the powerful indifference of nature and the inevitability of time, no longer able to hold its ground.”
The candidate has promised, first and foremost, to beat Donald Trump — to win. It’s a promise to right the old wrong, to unwind the clock. Time will begin anew. And yet, if Biden catches you at the right moment, it’s like you can see every bad hospital hallway you’ve walked down, the kitchen in a house that no longer stands, that old place by the beach. For a second, it’s almost like you can go places that just aren’t there anymore. ●