The Unchanging Joe Biden

By Matt HansonFebruary 10, 2020

The Unchanging Joe Biden
RICHARD BEN CRAMER’S epic tale of the 1988 presidential campaign, What It Takes, is a classic of political reporting that didn’t seem promising upon publication. It didn’t look at its politician-subjects with a godlike point of view and it isn’t told from a radically subjective New Journalist perspective, either. Instead, it achieved something quite different: an uncanny way of overhearing the inner lives of its characters. A politician is often required to carry so much symbolic significance and to stay consistently on message that their personal experience of campaigning, which is often harder to navigate than it might seem, gets lost amid the hurly-burly of electioneering.

Cramer spent years digging into the biographical nitty-gritty of the candidates more than most political reporters, and he came up with a deft, sure-footed, and unexpectedly engrossing chronicle of the all-too-human struggles taking place behind all the pomp and circumstance. What It Takes offered a forensic examination of the raw human facts of the candidates’ lives, offering portraits of how candidates see themselves in private, minutely observed narratives of how they acquired their houses, reputations, or war wounds.

We meet the grimly noble Bob Dole, a diffident but decent George H. W. “Poppy” Bush who is overwhelmed by the ruthlessness of his own party, the competent but underwhelming Michael Dukakis, fecklessly idealistic Richard Gephardt, blundering egghead Gary Hart, and the manically charismatic Joe Biden emerge as fully alive as the characters in a great novel. But Joe Biden is probably the most colorful and dynamic character in the book, even if at times he sounds a little nutty.

Now that Biden has competing in the primaries again no less than 32 years after these events, his role in What It Takes seems due for a reassessment. What we see in these pages casts a light on what Biden was like when he was a much younger man, new to presidential campaigning, and suggests something crucial about his style of campaigning that never changed. 

When we first meet Biden, he’s wandering awestruck through an elegant but dilapidated Delaware house that isn’t his — not yet. Biden’s the kind of guy who senses opportunities everywhere and never fails to pursue them, whether they actually come to fruition or not. Stories of his perpetual wheeling and dealing, hyping up his latest enthusiasm to whoever crosses his path, are presented as a sort of in-joke within his campaign staff. He takes people out for drives late at night to see places where there could be some potential for a pay day, and even if they appreciate his enthusiasm it often wears them out. It’s not that Biden’s greedy or egomaniacal, he’s just caught up in the kind of excitement that comes with knowing what you want and having a sense of how to get it. No one doubts his sincerity or exuberance; if anything, those are the wellsprings of his preternatural energy.

Cramer’s portrait of Biden depicts a man in perpetual motion, who is all about the urgency of “making moves” — the italics being necessary to convey that pretty much everything Biden ever says is in italics. Emphatic language isn’t necessarily a surprising quality for a politician to have, but his incessant go-getting starts to make more sense when it ends up paying off in the end. Reagan-era Biden seems to run on well-honed instinct. As Cramer puts it, “[H]e can see it all in his head”: how to run for office, how to win, how to get into law school, how to keep from failing out, how to get the girl of his dreams. Ever since Biden was a little kid growing up in Pennsylvania he was a scrapper, known for never backing down, never shy about taking a daredevil bet.

Biden isn’t arrogant; he doesn’t have a chip on his shoulder. But he is definitely someone who holds himself to a strict personal standard. No matter the situation, he is always going to push himself to live up to his ideals — as he always tells his sons, “[Y]ou’re a Biden.” When a problem arises, such as a stutter that is evidently hard to shake, he just powers through it, even if it takes years for him to sound out every word, syllable by painful syllable. This is one of the reasons why he is constantly talking. It isn’t just the Irish penchant for the gift of the gab (though that’s undoubtedly part of it too); it’s the understandable reaction when the linguistic floodgates are suddenly opened. No wonder that he never shuts up, and besides, everyone has marveled his whole life at what a great talker he is. In a sense, Biden’s been campaigning in one way or another since the day he was born.

While plenty of tales of Biden’s derring-do abound, there’s an important question that gets overlooked. We aren’t told exactly where the roots of Biden’s political philosophy really lie. The charisma is fun, but it raises the question of what it’s all leading to. It’s important that we know what initially shaped his politics. He’s certainly a committed Democrat, but one senses that it would be hard for him to sit still long enough to explain all the reasons why. Biden isn’t a narcissist, any more than most politicians are, but his political philosophy isn’t as sharply defined as some of the others who appear in the book, like the cautious Poppy Bush or the ultra-frugal Michael Dukakis. This might be why he got unintentionally caught up in the plagiarism scandal that ended up sinking his chance for the nomination in 1988.

After seeing a video of British politician Neil Kinnock giving a speech in his failed campaign against Margaret Thatcher, eloquently pointing out that he was the first of his family to not work in a coal mine and to get to go to college, Biden instantly felt that Kinnock was speaking his language. Again, he could see it all in his head. Biden started eagerly quoting Kinnock in his lengthy speeches on the campaign trail, citing the underdog values that resonated to Biden’s very bones from having grown up in a coal town, even if his dad sold cars for a living instead of toiling away in a mineshaft. But when Biden really gets going at one point when the cameras are rolling, he starts reciting Kinnock’s speech almost verbatim, which eventually catches up with him. It’s not that Biden consciously wanted to steal from someone auspicious and get away with it. It’s more that he forgot to separate his version of a story that he related to deeply and that felt as real as his own. But plagiarism is still a problem, even if it comes from the best intentions.

What Biden was always masterful at, above all of his evident wit and charm, was his ability to connect: “Joe was taking the speech inside, letting himself feel it. That’s how the ‘connect’ happened: on game day, Joe stopped planning his moves, and just did, by feeling, by the spring of the field beneath his feet, the sound of the crowd, and the words, singing in his head. … And when he felt it — he could make them feel it … he could make them feel him.” Biden can give speeches for hours, day after day, holding the audience in rapt attention, and then answer voters’ questions spontaneously until the wee hours of the morning. He gets so wrapped up in it that at one point in the book he doesn’t have any idea that the intense pain in his head is actually an aneurysm that almost kills him mid-campaign.

This year’s Biden seems a bit different now, more sedate. After decades in the Senate, several failed runs for the Democratic presidential nomination, and eight years in the White House, Biden now has the CV of an elder statesman rather than that of a barn-storming young man in a hurry. Running on instinct, gabbing his way into the voter’s trust (his campaign staff used to semi-jokingly quote the song “to know him is to love him” around the office), and playing out all the moves in his head has worked out quite well for him. Biden’s already gone about as far as anyone from his background could imagine, and now his best-ever shot at the presidency is on the horizon, attainable yet still distant. 

But there are plenty of doubts swarming around his potential candidacy. For one, exactly how chummy is he with the members of the overtly hostile GOP, and does he really believe that the party who steadily hurled all manner of vile invective at the president he proudly served for eight years are going to want to suddenly drop the aggression and want to work with him in good faith? Will he be forever chasing the mirage of the vital center? One of the crucial turning points in Biden’s narrative arc in What It Takes is when he has to put his campaign on hold and lead the effort to stop the ultra-conservative Reagan appointee Robert Bork from getting on the Supreme Court. Biden crams with legal experts for hours about Bork’s extensive judicial record, until he finds a particularly thorny decision Bork once made that he knows will play well in front of the cameras. Bork ultimately loses in the court of public opinion, Biden is magnificent during the hearing, and the day is saved.

Biden’s high-profile challenge of Bork is eerily reminiscent of the recent brawl over Brett Kavanaugh, where the Democrats found themselves Congressionally outmatched over a nominee who had more personal baggage than Bork and who comported himself abysmally during the hearing but got what he wanted anyway. One of the leitmotifs of Cramer’s sweeping narrative is how the old guard GOP, represented by Bush’s and Dole’s respect for norms of civility and decorum, are slowly and steadily undermined by the more ruthless elements within the party such as the sleazy Lee Atwater. Political comity hasn’t exactly flowered over the ensuing years, which is indeed largely because of the conscious planning of the next generation of right-wingers, who were emerging on the scene during the Reagan ’80s and whose power and influence over party messaging really took off in the mid-’90s. 

As What It Takes vividly demonstrates, a large part of Biden’s appeal is his ability to connect with an audience, to make them “feel it.” Very useful trait for a politician to have. But they have to be ready to feel it first. You just can’t work a crowd that has already decided to hate your guts, that sees you as the enemy, and Biden’s critics aren’t necessarily only coming from the right. His touchy-feely, gaffe-prone, kooky uncle qualities seem more worrying than charming these days, even if his Washington experience is undeniable.

Biden’s strengths and weaknesses are pretty much the same thing: his personality. He’s had more or less the same style since the ’80s, he’s just older now. It’s worth remembering that he’s been, until recently, relatively scandal-free, which is pretty remarkable for such a long career in Washington, since at least his gaffes are usually verbal slip-ups (reminiscent of the red-faced stutterer he once was) rather than due to outright venality. But Biden’s eccentricity and earnestness can easily work against him, especially for an extremely cynical public conditioned to assume the worst of everyone in office. And to make matters worse, there’s simply too much at stake right now to risk losing the presidency to Trump for another four years.

In some ways Biden seems like the safest bet, but to others he represents a total capitulation. If he can thread this particular needle and satisfy two very different constituents within his own party is the test of a lifetime. To make matters worse, it remains to be seen as to whether or not anyone can.

At one point in What It Takes, Biden optimistically talks about an upcoming race where he is very much the underdog by saying that he can feel “the tingle.” That time, long ago, he ended up winning by a landslide. But that was in Delaware, where all he had to do was run up and down the state shaking hands, energetically talking to people, making them feel it. That’s not nothing, but it’s also not running on the national stage with the stakes about as high as they could conceivably be. Does Biden feel “the tingle” now? Is he sure? Would he bet the future of the country on it? Would you?


Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse. He lives in New Orleans.

LARB Contributor

Matt Hanson is a contributing editor at The Arts Fuse. His work has appeared in The American Interest, The Baffler, the Guardian, The Millions, The New Yorker, The Smart Set, and elsewhere. He was born and raised in Massachusetts, and now lives in New Orleans.


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