IS it time to be magnanimous as Joe Biden’s political career draws to a close? He could still do passably well in other places but the chances of becoming front-runner again after his Iowa and New Hampshire debacles seem increasingly remote. Nor does it seem likely the old black ops crew that sidelined Bernie Sanders for Hillary Clinton in 2016 can pull off the same ploy again. It’s not even about the primaries really. Joe Biden has changed. Yes, he has grown older but there’s more to it than that. He seems out of his element on the hustings, no longer cheerful and very often angry. He talks about the past – his past – and comes across as resentful of all the new preoccupations foisted on the Democratic contenders day after day, week after week. He just wants to talk about emotions, loss and his own ill-defined ability to make everything right again. Enough with the details already, his mood emphatically says. He even struggles to read scripted vision statements with conviction. Prior to Iowa, Benjamin Wallace-Wells for The New Yorker penned one of those campaign trail features that insider journalists in the US do so well – filled with human bric-à-brac and private moments. Wallace-Wells obviously admires Biden but, intended or not, his piece is almost touchingly sad.
Is Scranton’s most famous son really “the most gothic figure in American politics … haunted by death,” as the Irish columnist Fintan O’Toole recently wrote in the New York Review of Books? Based on what he has seen, Wallace-Wells seems to think so. Biden’s loss of his first wife Neilia and daughter Naomi in a 1972 car accident – a crash that also injured his sons Beau and Hunter – was horrific enough to have destroyed less wilful men. It took courage to carry on. The death of his very capable son, Beau – on a certain path toward national office himself when diagnosed with a brain tumour in 2010 (dying in 2015) – was another heavy blow. The story of Hunter also trails off morbidly but into a saddening ellipsis of a different kind. “Fredo – well, Fredo …” as Vito Corleone started to explain.
Biden’s critics are inclined to argue that however deserving of respect he is for bearing crosses this crushing, his years-long habit of mentioning – and mischaracterising – the accident that killed his wife and daughter cheapened the story and its teller. The truck-driver who hit the family’s station wagon that day at an intersection – Curtis Dunn – was not drunk, as Biden claimed on at least two occasions. Was this grotesque mendacity for a pity dividend or was it the delusional embellishment of a wannabe Great Man enlarging his own suffering for biography’s sake? Neither Theodore Roosevelt nor John F. Kennedy – both of whom lost two family members in less prominent years – ever spoke of them in public and certainly not on the stump.
My reading of Biden as a man is that he was indeed affected, even traumatised, by the tragedy of 1972. That sort of pain changes and afflicts. Watching a son die over the course of five years would also have been nightmarish to endure. Where I take my leave from more indulgent defenders is the point at which fight-back became fuel and justification for narcissism and entitlement. The insulting arrogance to even mildly querulous citizens seen occasionally in this campaign is not new. Biden has always been breathtakingly pompous about his own power, embroidered intellect and rank. He has been disparaging people for decades. All of these ‘I’m special but you’re not’ instincts coalesced to produce the handsy ring-leader at all those awkward photo-ops with girls, women and humiliated subordinate males made famous by YouTube. I even wonder whether Biden’s political decline didn’t actually begin when this cache of body-rubbing, hair-sniffing and tween-kissing videos went viral. He is no molester, though if he was a Republican he would have been run out of contention years ago. He was a good Vice-President in the sense that he was happy at second fiddle – provided everybody accepted that once he left Barack Obama’s presence, he was first fiddle pro tempore.
Lachrymosity is bad enough in the privileged but it should be considered verboten to biographers and even second-rate thumbnail sketch artists like me. Unlike Roosevelt and Kennedy, reporters tend to see personal tragedy as ennobling when publicised – a least for fellow travellers. You won’t come across humane accounts of Donald Trump’s loss of a brother by Wallace-Wells or O’Toole and you certainly won’t see them inventory the toll taken on the President’s family by despicable lies – which Joe Biden, for one, was happy to retail for three years. President Trump has only shown emotion once since he was elected. It was last week when he addressed a Prayer Breakfast after being acquitted by the Senate. He spoke of what his family had been put through by people he rightly described as evil. Biden lost Beau but at least he didn’t have to endure a son of tender years hear tell of prostitutes urinating on his father’s bed. An alleged Catholic, he could have called enough on that but didn’t. He had the seniority and the authority. Challenged by cynics about how serious his faith could be as a pro-abortion Democrat who ‘married’ two White House staffers as Vice-President in 2016, he threatened to “shove my rosary beads down their throat.” I hope he keeps hold of them instead to contemplate the Mysteries; none of which – not even one of the Sorrowful – is how he failed to become President.