Throughout his entire political career, stretching from Richard Nixon to Donald Trump, Joe Biden has been searching for his voice and for words that were authentically his own.
Thursday night, flanked by American flags in an empty hall in Delaware, Biden found those elusive words. He delivered a memorable speech that defined who he is in his eighth decade on earth, how he views America as it teeters on the brink, and the way in which he intends to wage the most important presidential campaign of his lifetime.
The convention’s biographical videos—with their inevitable emphasis on a life of loss and a personal triumph over stuttering—failed to fully convey Biden’s long quest to be himself in politics. It is a journey that shapes everything in Biden’s headlong race to save America from Donald Trump.
Coming of age in the 1960s as an ambitious young man with Irish Catholic roots, Biden inevitably was shaped by the Kennedys. In the Senate and on the campaign trail during his ill-fated 1987 bid for the presidency, Biden kept struggling to find rhetoric and poses that were Kennedy-esque. As recounted by the late Richard Ben Cramer in his enduring portrait of the candidate What It Takes, Biden stumbled into plagiarism because he depended too heavily on his campaign consultants to provide the magic words to forge a connection with voters.
The words really didn’t matter when Biden made his second bid for the White House in 2008. He neither possessed the soaring eloquence of Barack Obama nor the cracks-in-the-glass-ceiling power of Hillary Clinton. Biden was just another six-term Senate committee chairman used to bloviating during Capitol Hill hearings.
The 2019 Joe Biden, who was seemingly headed toward political oblivion as he played to small crowds last year in Iowa and New Hampshire, was an authentic political figure. But nothing about Biden, during what appeared to be his last-hurrah moment, was compelling. His rambling town meetings (where you could always find parking) were filled with riffs featuring long dead Senate colleagues, sentences with predicates stretching into a different zip code, and such comically outdated words as “malarkey.”
But then the miracle happened in the South Carolina primary, fueled by Jim Clyburn’s last-minute endorsement and the realization by Black voters in particular that the Democrats couldn’t afford a long, debilitating primary struggle. Suddenly, Biden was the nominee of a united, rather than fractious, Democratic Party.
But the words still weren’t there. Granted, it was unimaginably difficult for Biden to forge a connection with anyone while a pandemic confined him to his home in Wilmington. While leading Democrats pressed Biden to resume a semblance of a normal campaign, Trump (projecting as usual) unleashed a barrage of vicious and unjustified attacks on Biden’s mental acuity.
All of this raised the stakes for the strangest convention acceptance speech since Franklin Roosevelt broke tradition in 1932 by flying to Chicago to accept the nomination in person. That was the speech—and Biden glancingly referred to it Thursday night—in which FDR declared, “I pledge a new deal for the American people.... This is more than a political campaign. It is a call to arms.”
If Biden’s acceptance speech could be boiled down to a single thought, implicit in his rhetoric, it would be: “I will be damned if the light of American democracy will be extinguished on my watch.”
Biden’s address, with few false notes or overreaching efforts at eloquences, can be seen as a tribute to the art of speechwriting.
There was a single image, taken from the words of civil rights pioneer Ella Baker, which framed the entire speech: “Give people light and they will find the way.” Biden used the word “light” 11 times in his crisp 24-minute address.
Biden also made effective use of one of the oldest tropes in a speechwriter’s quiver: “I see a different America.” Back in 1876, famed orator Robert Ingersoll declared, “I see a world where thrones have crumbled.... I see a world without a single slave.”*
There was an obviously conscious evocation of Obama’s 2004 convention speech when Biden declared, “America isn’t just a collection of clashing interests, of red states or blue states. We are so much bigger than that.” And Biden upheld the Kennedy tradition of quoting a poet, choosing the Irish bard Seamus Heaney over Aeschylus.
But for all the tradition embedded in his oratory, Biden reached into his own tear-stained life for one of the most moving moments in the speech—a moment of empathy for those families that have absorbed personal losses from Covid-19. The father of the late Beau Biden put it like this: “Look, I understand. I understand how hard it is to have any hope right now. On this summer night, let me take a moment to speak to those of you who have lost the most.”
Aside from the debates (a prospect that should be worrying Trump and his circle of sycophants), Biden will not have another audience this size until Election Day. But echoes from the convention speech will be heard in Biden’s TV ads and many of his more routine campaign moments. An acceptance speech, in short, is the template for the entire fall campaign.
The pandemic makes it hard for Biden to offer dramatic follow-ups. Prudence argues against a Harry Truman-esque Amtrak tour, a Bill Clinton-like bus caravan through swing states, or even a traditional campaign plane. But Biden may have stumbled into the proper folksy campaign mode with Thursday night’s celebratory fireworks display in a Wilmington parking lot.
What Biden and the Democrats proved with this successful convention is their campaign competence in matters large and small. There were no dramatic surprises or high-risk moments like Clint Eastwood and his chair at the 2012 Republican Convention. Judging from everything so far, this will be a steady-as-she-goes campaign until November 3.
Whatever the polls eventually show after the Trump convention and its unjustified triumphalism next week, the Democratic Convention has to be judged a roaring success. For, more than anything, what Joe Biden achieved was to present himself as a commanding, yet comforting, president who would rescue America at its darkest hour since World War II.
* A previous version of this article misattributed a quote by Robert Ingersoll.