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America’s Unlikely Savior

After nearly a half-century in politics, President-elect Joe Biden found his voice when the country needed it most.

Erin Schaff/The New York Times/Redux

Sisyphus finally got the boulder up the hill. And Joe Biden—48 years after he was elected to the Senate and 33 years after he launched his first race for the White House—is president-elect.

His belated triumph, which came when the networks in rapid succession called Pennsylvania for the Democrats, was achieved in true Biden fashion—after days of anguish and potential disappointment. But the election was more than a vindication of persistence or even a partial rejection of the bilious, boodling, brain-dead regime of Donald J. Trump.

Playing against type, the logorrhea-prone Biden ran a disciplined campaign, beginning with his stunning comeback in the South Carolina primary, after he finished fourth in the Iowa caucuses and fifth in New Hampshire. No candidate in the era of the primaries has ever roared back from oblivion as Biden did in South Carolina, thanks to overwhelming Black support that extended from Representative Jim Clyburn to churchgoing women in small towns throughout the state.

At 77, the oldest presidential nominee in history, Biden then had to confront a pandemic that preyed on older Americans. Had he been stricken with Covid-19, Trump and his GOP mouthpieces would have turned the virus into a parable of Democratic weakness. But never wavering in his determination to put safety and science first, Biden endured ridicule from Trump and nervous concern from Democrats as he spent the spring campaigning from his Wilmington basement. And, contrary to glib forecasts, Biden rose in the polls. For the rest of the campaign—from a virtual Democratic convention to parking-lot rallies—Biden offered a dramatic contrast to the self-indulgent superspreader in chief.

More than anything, Biden found his voice for the 2020 campaign. Yes, this is a political cliché. But, in Biden’s case, it was true. The former vice president, whose life has been defined by suffering and empathy, turned this campaign into a referendum on character. It pitted his own character—and that of the United States throughout its history—against the hatemongering of the Trump years. The results were not as unequivocal as Democrats had hoped, but Biden’s Midwestern strategy did carry him to the promised land of 270 electoral votes.

Biden began his campaign in April 2019 with a three-minute announcement video filled with footage from the torch-bearing, white supremacist march in Charlottesville, Virginia. Biden, looking straight at the camera, declared, “If we give Donald Trump eight years in the White House, he will forever and fundamentally alter the character of this nation … and I cannot stand by and watch that happen.”

Last month, in a Gettysburg speech that served as a coda to his campaign, Biden again invoked Charlottesville and offered an alternative vision of the nation’s future: “We must seek not to build walls, but bridges. We must seek not to clench our fists, but to open our arms. We must seek not to tear each other apart, but to come together.”

Biden has spent so much of his career searching for the magic words to connect with voters. The most enduring portrait of Biden still remains the chapters on the Delaware senator’s abortive 1987 presidential race in Richard Ben Cramer’s classic, What It Takes. Describing the formation of that first campaign, Cramer wrote, “Hey, without message, Biden’s not going to run; he’s said that a hundred times, he’s got to have a message!” So Biden turned to his stable of high-priced political consultants for a message—and the sad result was a plagiarism scandal over words they borrowed from British Labor Party leader Neil Kinnock and Robert Kennedy.

When Biden tried again for the White House in 2007, the torrent of words was unquestionably his own, but the message was little more than “I am Joe Biden, the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.” A few days before the Iowa caucuses, where Biden was to finish an embarrassing fifth, the candidate’s sister, Valerie Biden Owens, asked me at a Des Moines restaurant, “Why doesn’t Joe get more attention from the media? He’s done so much in the Senate.” I was left trying to explain how hard it was for any normal senator to stand out in a presidential race dominated by superstar candidates such as Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton.

Obama, of course, rescued Biden from the fate of so many ambitious, long-serving senators: dreaming of the might-have-beens from his failed presidential campaigns. Biden—whose appeal as a VP candidate was his foreign policy expertise rather than his electoral track record—was the odd-couple counterpart to Obama. Long-winded and emotional in contrast to Obama’s succinct detachment, Biden thrived in the White House, in part because of his commitment to the old-fashioned political virtue of unshakable loyalty.

Biden, who in popular culture became the aviator-sunglasses-wearing Uncle Joe of the twenty-first century, also recognized his limitations. The death of his 46-year-old son, Beau, from a brain tumor in 2015 prevented Biden from running in 2016 as a Happy Warrior. But even if the grief-stricken Biden had decided to enter the race, he would have been squeezed in the primaries between Hillary Clinton’s historic candidacy and Bernie Sanders’s dramatic challenge from the left.

Fate was saving Biden for one final mission as the avatar of decency in the most important election since the Civil War. A small event on Election Day captured who Biden is as a person and a political leader. After speaking at a union hall in his original hometown of Scranton, Pennsylvania, Biden was approached by a man named Jim Gilbooley, who asked him to telephone a passionate supporter, Sarah Corbett, who was dying of cancer. Biden didn’t know Gilbooley or Corbett, but there was no doubt in anyone’s mind that the next president of the United States would make that call.

That’s Joe Biden, a man whose old-time values shimmer in the age of Donald Trump.

It was telling that Trump and the Republicans never figured out how to run against Biden—portraying him as the out-of-touch “Sleepy Joe,” an advance man for a socialist revolution, and as the hidden power behind a globe-girdling criminal conspiracy. None of the charges made sense (despite some ill-considered career moves by Biden’s surviving son, Hunter), but taken together they were as incoherent and contradictory as a Trump election briefing.

In little more than 10 weeks, Biden will take office facing the gravest set of crises of any new president since Franklin Roosevelt in 1933. It was Oliver Wendell Holmes, then in his nineties, who said of FDR, “A second-class intellect, but a first-class temperament.”

Biden, who has always been sensitive about his IQ, might bristle at the first half of that assessment. But never has a first-class temperament mattered more than in Joseph R. Biden becoming the president who will bind up the nation’s wounds after the Trumpian reign of terror and error.