I watched with detached interest Joe Biden’s CNN town hall the other night. He said nothing new, really, in matters of substance, but two or three things stood out. First, I was moved by Biden’s genuineness. One of the commentators called it his “sincerity,” and that’s apt. Unlike any president I can recall from either party, his words seemed to come from a deep and unwavering conviction that what he was saying reflected what he genuinely meant, believed, felt.
I was kind of stunned by that, although in an abstract sense, I shouldn’t have been. It’s what we should expect from a statesman. It’s just that we’ve been so desperately short of statesmen or stateswomen over the past several decades. A second thing that struck me was that he had really thought about the answers he was giving. There was no sense that he was merely repeating memorized segments of policy statements that had been carefully crafted and vetted. There was some of that, echoes of previous speeches and talking points and so forth; but he lined those segments with off-the-top-of-his-head and topical examples that indicated that he had really thought about these things, that he had the mental alacrity and awareness to draw specifics from the immediate to illustrate or bolster the superstructure of whatever policy was being touted or outlined.
He wasn’t afraid to say “no” to something that he knew was either outside his plans or in contradiction to his policy. “No” never goes down well with the electorate, but he clearly thinks the people can handle it, believes, I suppose, that they would rather be told “no” than be told “maybe” or “we’ll see what happens,” then nothing else is forthcoming.
Joe Biden is notoriously fumble-mouthed, and he has numerous speaking “quirks” that become annoying–he starts a sentence, then interrupts himself when something else occurs to him and never returns to his original rhetorical pathway; he has formed the habit of “outlining” his statements with tag lines like, “That’s one. Two is…” indicating an intellectual organization that he’s studied and committed to memory; he uses the wrong words from time to time, and he mispronounces some words from time to time; but that’s entirely forgivable in the circumstance of live performance, especially by a person fighting a speech impediment and who is trying to stay within the time restrictions that were imposed on him by CNN. There were no abstractions, no “many people say,” no “people tell me,” no “everybody thinks,” attributions. He did attribute much of his backup to generalized science, medical people, anonymous or catalogued financial experts and economists, etc., and that is understandable given the circumstances. And more often than not, he said, “I’d like to talk to you further about this,” or words to that effect, or “I can’t get into the details of that here,” or words to that effect, indicating that rather than being ignorant of the topic at hand, he knew too much about it and in too much detail to go into in that forum.
What I think we saw was a man who was genuine, honest, and direct, but who also was deep and intelligent, experienced and well-informed as well as compassionate and feeling. Like many presidents, he talks more about himself on a personal level than he probably should, but knowing as we do that he has served as an underling to men he very likely believed to be inferior to himself in intellect and even character, that’s entirely forgivable. He also came off as self-deprecating and to some extent humble, at one point wandering in his musing over an answer too close to Anderson Cooper and immediately catching himself and apologizing. “That’s the Irish in me,” he joked. It’s been over four years since we heard a president joke about anything, particularly himself. Obama could do it; so could Clinton; so could Jimmy Carter. Republicans, though, seem to have no sense of humor, particularly about themselves. Irony is a tremendous faculty to own. Republicans have no ironic bone.
My conclusion after this somewhat perfunctory event that very likely altered no one’s mind about anything is that my mind was, in some significant way, changed. I have said since the 2020 primaries that I would support Biden as the only acceptable alternative in the field of Democrats who I thought could beat Trump. It wasn’t that I was “holding my nose” and voting for him, only that I did not feel the zeal and enthusiasm for him that I wanted to feel for a candidate. I couldn’t buy the more dynamic platform planks of the Progressive wing of the party, at least not all of them, not in a wholesale way. I admired the chutzpah and grit of some of those who swam against the current of tradition and public opinion regarding their race, gender, or sexual orientation; but what I thought was needed in 2020 was someone who could present at least a patina of normalcy and dignity to the presidency, some discretion tempered with respect, decency, and who “looked presidential” and acted like a head of state, not distracted by his identity but rather bolstered by it. Biden was that person, the only one, in my view.
Last night I felt something more for him. I was wrong from the start. He is far more than merely an image, a place-holder, and a wedge against Trumpism and right-wing extremism. I sensed that I was looking at a president, a world leader, a national leader who genuinely means what he says, who represents somewhat self-consciously one of the three branches of government and who understands boundaries. I may not like all Biden says, and I may over time form strong disagreements with his actions and policies, and I am certain that I will be critical of his moves and failures to move. But I do believe, especially now, that he comes from a good place and has what he believes to be the best interests of the people at heart. He will serve the office and the country, I think, not himself. He’ll let his reputation and legacy take care of themselves. This is Joe Biden’s moment to do what he always thought he could do, what he wanted to do from the get-go. He may not succeed, but I am utterly convinced it won’t be for want of trying.