Joe Biden ran for president this past year and even after giving hundreds of speeches, sitting for countless interviews and participating in more than a dozen televised debates, no one really noticed. He finished at the bottom of the pack in Iowa and dropped out. Half the country had no idea who he was or that he’d even been in the race at all.
Tonight, finally, people noticed. For 30 minutes in prime time, with tens of millions of viewers watching on broadcast and cable television, Biden had the chance to introduce himself, to tell his story and to explain why he’s in politics and why he wants to help lead this country – exposure he’d never before had in a political career that has spanned four decades. And boy did he take advantage of it.
His performance was mesmerizing, easily the strongest and most forceful vice presidential acceptance speech of the television era.
He was introduced by his son Beau, the first-term attorney general of Delaware and a National Guardsmen who will soon be deployed to Iraq, who told America about the horrific car wreck in December 1972 that killed his mother and his baby sister – and how his grief-stricken father, Joe Biden, was willing to give up his promising political career to keep what remained of his family together. After calling him his hero, Beau called his father to the stage and the two shared an embrace that could have made the coldest cynic teary-eyed. Through it all, viewers saw shots of Biden’s wife, Jill, on the verge of crying herself as she watched her husband and her adopted son share their moment in the sun.
And then there was the speech itself. Strictly from a political standpoint, Biden touched all the bases: He introduced his family, spoke reverently of his mother (who watched from the balcony in obvious delight), heaped praise on Bill and Hillary Clinton (both longtime Biden fans who repeatedly stood and cheered during his speech), told Barack Obama’s story and framed it as the realization of the American dream, acknowledged John McCain’s admirable character while tearing into him as the embodiment of “more of the same,” and then – with a command and authority that few other Democrats can plausibly project – he dove into national security, detailing one hot-button issue after another on which “John McCain was wrong, and Barack Obama was right.”
But the words alone didn’t make Biden’s speech. You can picture someone else – the utterly competent and respectable Jack Reed of Rhode Island, for instance – delivering essentially the same speech, minus the specific personal references. What separates Biden from most politicians is the power of his oratory. He doesn’t read his words. He feels them, and he uses his enunciation of every single syllable of every single word of every single sentence to make sure that his audience takes notice and feels them too. The combined power of his delivery, his biography and simply the way he carried himself – the working-class everyman from hard-luck Scranton – makes him irresistible. But only if people are paying attention.
That’s what is so interesting about Biden – that all of his qualities and all of his potential have been so clear and so obvious for decades, but only to those who have watched him closely. And for just about all of that time, it seemed they’d go for naught – that he’d never get the moment he got tonight, the chance to show an attentive national audience who he is and what he can do.
It’s all because of what happened in 1987, when he first set out to run for the presidency as a 44-year old senator. It was supposed to be his time. The Democratic front-runner, Gary Hart, had imploded, and the biggest names in the party – like Mario Cuomo and Bill Bradley – had refused to run. But Biden had no hesitation, and that spring and summer he began making noise, walking into room after room in which no one had ever heard of him – and walking out with dozens of new supporters.
But then it all came crashing down, when he took the words of a British politician and used them as his own in a debate. Never mind that he’d used the same words dozens of times before with attribution; his sloppiness opened the floodgates, and within weeks the press was exploring every instance of exaggeration and embellishment in his past. He dropped out and his national political career seemed over. All of that talent – to waste.
That’s what makes this moment so amazing. After ’87, it seemed like it would never happen to Biden. He did his time in political purgatory and finally ran again this past year. But he was an old man and a Senate lifer – yesterday’s news – struggling for headlines in a field dominated by Obama and Hillary Clinton. He was still the same powerful speaker he’d always been, but no one noticed. He was two decades too late. And when he dropped out after Iowa, that seemed to be it. No way, no how the Democratic nominee – whether Obama or Clinton – would put him on the ticket. He was too long-winded, too unpredictable, too much of a loose cannon. He’d have to live out his life as a senator from Delaware, a familiar face to “Meet the Press” junkies and a respected foreign policy voice to Washington insiders. Not a bad lot, to be sure – but not nearly what he could have been.
But then, amazingly, Obama chose him. And suddenly Biden had the chance he’d been denied for years, the one he seemed on a collision course with when his world was turned upside-down in 1987 – the opportunity to communicate with his fellow countrymen, unfiltered and uninterrupted.
Now a mass audience knows what a relative few have known for years: Joe Biden is made for this.