It was the summer of 1962. The Berlin Wall was new and mostly graffiti-free. Cuban exiles in Miami anxiously awaited the repatriation of their friends and relatives who were captured a year prior when their bedraggled brigade washed ashore at the Bay of Pigs without the hoped for air cover. And Joseph Robinette Biden, Jr. began his first shift as a lifeguard at an integrated public swimming pool in Wilmington, Delaware.
Integrated was a bit of a misnomer. There was something about swimming pools that heightened the racism of mid-century Americans. In many parts of the country, not just the South, public pools were strictly segregated. When they were officially integrated, white flight immediately ensued. So in reality, young 19-year-old Biden was serving as a lifeguard for a predominantly Black constituency.
As you’d expect, this was a formative experience. Wilmington’s neighborhoods were segregated. Biden didn’t grow up with Black friends on his street. He didn’t pal around with Black friends at the University of Delaware. It took him a beat to adjust and learn to interact. But Biden didn’t run away. He kept returning. And learning. When he first ran for public office as a racial progressive after the 1968 Wilmington riots and National Guard occupation, which resulted in curfews for the Black community, but not white areas, guys Biden met at the pool helped with his campaign.
On November 7, 1972, exactly 48 years before CNN would declare him President-Elect, Biden won an extremely tight Senate race. Support from Black voters made the difference. Then a few weeks later, the event that forever changed his life. The death in a car crash of his wife and infant daughter, serious injuries to his two young sons. As he tells it, Biden wanted to quit. Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield encouraged him to wait and see. Biden pushed forward, the single dad taking the train home each night to see his boys. Eventually, he’d meet Jill, get married, have a daughter with her.
Senator Biden embarked on an eventful political journey. He opposed mandatory busing. He collaborated with segregationist colleagues. In two of the most consequential Supreme Court confirmation battles of the century, he defeated Robert Bork and got Clarence Thomas approved. Biden voted against the good Iraq war and for the bad one. He passed the now-controversial 1994 Crime Bill, but also the Violence Against Women Act. For two generations, if something important happened in the Senate, Biden was at least nearby, if not front and center.
Senators don’t often become president. Having a voting record is a liability. In the last hundred-plus years, only JFK and Barack Obama have made the leap directly from the Capitol to the White House. Obama was in the Senate for about a minute before running for president, and JFK was a cipher. To say he wasn’t the most involved senator is an understatement.
Influential senators cut deals. They piss people off. Too much baggage. They say 100 senators look in the mirror and see a president. Usually 100 senators are wrong. In 1987, Joe Biden was one of those deluded 100. Before the first 1988 primary vote, he was already out. A victim of a plagiarism scandal. Biden often says this saved his life. In early 1988, when a more successful candidate would have been out campaigning, Biden suffered a severe brain aneurysm.
He clearly wasn’t destined to be the nominee that year. But absent the plagiarism and aneurysm, Biden also lacked a coherent message. He was trapped somewhere between the ghosts of Bobby Kennedy past and Bill Clinton future, trying to inspire but not having much of consequence to say. Less liberal than the candidates Democrats were nominating in the 80s, but not southern like the nominees that bookended them, Jimmy Carter and Clinton.
If you’d asked 100 pundits if Biden would run for president again, 106 of them would have said no. Twenty years passed. The list of candidates who have attempted a presidential campaign a full generation apart is short. And not distinguished. In the 2008 cycle where Hillary Clinton was the anointed and Obama the ascendant, Biden was the afterthought.
He withdrew after failing to register a pulse in Iowa. If you’d asked 100 pundits if Biden would run for president again, 106 of them would have wondered why you were bothering to ask. Despite politically incorrect (to be kind) comments about Obama’s candidacy, the young senator chose Uncle Joe and his aviators to be his wingman. Say what you will, Biden was a good campaigner, solid debater, and very effective Veep.
In office he visibly had his boss’s back. Biden at times was able to successfully negotiate with Mitch McConnell and John Boehner. He looked like he enjoyed the job. This is no small thing. Normally that job kinda sucks. If another presidential run was in the cards, Biden kept quiet about it. He dreamed of having a Biden in the Oval Office, but it was his son Beau who would carry the torch. Then tragedy returned. Cancer claimed his son’s life.
While Biden recovered from the loss, Hillary circled the wagons, lined up the donors, hired the pros, and closed whatever path he might have had to the nomination. It was already Clinton v. Sanders, and despite his bromance with the president, Obama made it clear he didn’t think it was Joe’s time to run. End of the road. Even if Hillary were to lose, it’s not like Biden could still run in 2020. Too old. Too out of step with the rapidly leftward moving party. Plus he’d tried twice and was still waiting to win his first delegate.
For all of his foibles and stumbles, Biden was always an excellent weather vane. That sounds bad, but it’s useful. And unlike Lindsey Graham, he’s a principled one. Sometimes that meant stop. Like with busing. Sometimes taking action first, like when he got ahead of Obama in supporting gay marriage. The first seemed like a betrayal of his Black supporters, the second a heedless risk. In both cases, Biden knew where the country was, or would be very shortly.
The Trump Presidency caused every politician in the country to re-evaluate. For most Republicans, it was bend and yield or face extinction. Democrats raced to see who could put the 2016 Bernie platform in a younger, more demographically correct package. The largest field in presidential history began assembling. If we take his word, Biden was catalyzed by Charlottesville. Both the need to run, and the justification for doing so. He’d be the anti-Trump. More as his human opposite than a complete policy departure.
Empath v. Psychopath. Or at least narcissist.
Honestly, this didn’t seem like a platform. When Biden finally announced his candidacy in April 2019, it was well ahead of the primaries, but after most of his competitors. His energy wasn’t the best. Trump is good at highlighting his opponents’ deficiencies, and Sleepy Joe fit. I watched his first few public appearances and shuddered a bit. When you’re well into your seventies a few years can make a big difference, and Biden had slowed noticeably from the final couple Obama years.
The 2008 edition was quick on his feet in debates. Not anymore. At one point he talked about making sure Black parents had record players for their kids. While they’re making a bit of a resurgence as a trendy audio novelty, it was another example of Biden’s time being long in the past. Despite the struggles, his poll numbers held up. Democratic voters consistently said he was the most likely to beat Trump, and beating Trump was their top priority.
Still, I wondered if they’d actually seen or heard him lately. Then the votes began. Since the modern nomination era began in 1972, no Democrat became the nominee without at least finishing second in Iowa or New Hampshire. Biden finished fourth and fifth respectively. Mike Bloomberg and his bottomless wallet tore into Joe’s national poll numbers. Never an even adequate fund-raiser, Biden’s campaign was also broke. Super Tuesday loomed, assuming he would even survive Nevada and South Carolina.
No eventual nominee in either party has ever been as buried as Biden was on the morning after New Hampshire. Given his shaky performance and terrible track record as a presidential candidate, he was done. For months, the campaign claimed South Carolina would serve as a firewall no matter what happened early. Now he was starting to slip behind Bernie in polls there. Bloomberg and Pete Buttigieg looked like more credible centrists. Even Amy Klobuchar bested Biden in New Hampshire.
Sanders crushed the field in Nevada. While Biden was second, he finished closer to sixth than first. Then the same Black community that made him as a politician in the first place saved his career. Why? Why did Jim Clyburn stick his neck out and endorse a seemingly feeble Biden? Why did African American voters over the age of 40 or so prefer him by 50 points over any competitor?
Because Joe Biden showed up. Over and over and over again. For generations. His record wasn’t perfect. Not close. He wasn’t on his game. Not close. But no remaining candidate had the same deep ties. Buttigieg was introducing himself to Black South Carolinians for the first time. Joe was family. Elizabeth Warren and Sanders were foreigners. As the old saying goes, most of life is just showing up.
Game. Set. Match. The centrists dropped out and endorsed Biden almost instantly once the results were in. Seeing what happened when Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and John Kasich played an extended game of GOP Chicken in 2016, Buttigieg, Bloomberg, and Klobuchar decided stopping Sanders in order to stop Trump was more important than hanging on to a limited chance. A virtual sweep on Super Tuesday took Biden from dead to front-runner in 10 days. Then the country shut down, Bernie dropped out and endorsed him, and voila!
It happened so fast and Covid took so much attention that we forget all of this even happened this year. Biden was right. Not Trump was the high card all along.
In his victory speech Saturday, Biden talked as Obama once did of the arc of history eventually bending towards justice. It’s a great thought. I hope it’s true. It also bends in on itself. The grandchildren of those Cuban exiles, often still in the Miami area, punished Biden for the administration he belonged to easing restrictions and opening economic opportunities for the communist government of Fidel Castro’s brother. They agreed with Trump that Biden would allow the socialism their grandparents escaped to take over in America. Florida was lost.
But the grandchildren of the Black teens Biden was at the pool with turned out in higher numbers for him than Hillary Clinton. And it was enough to win Wisconsin, Michigan, and Pennsylvania. More than fifty years after he first ran for office, more than thirty after his first attempt at the presidency, the longest march in American political history will finally seat Biden behind the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. And if there’s one thing Joe Biden is, it’s that. Resolute.