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Joe Biden’s Virtual Triumph

His speech capped off a convention that highlighted his empathy and humanity—and Donald Trump’s colossal failings.
August 21, 2020
Joe Biden’s Virtual Triumph
WILMINGTON, DELAWARE - AUGUST 20: Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden delivers his acceptance speech on the fourth night of the Democratic National Convention from the Chase Center on August 20, 2020 in Wilmington, Delaware. The convention, which was once expected to draw 50,000 people to Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is now taking place virtually due to the coronavirus pandemic. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

On Thursday night, Joe Biden had to accomplish what no one else could do for him: complete his transition from avuncular alternative to Donald Trump into the empathetic and commanding president Americans want.

Only that remained. Beginning on Monday evening, his party had turned what could have been a mind-numbing infomercial into a persuasive call to rescue America from chaos and meanness. In the process, they confirmed that the focus and economy of campaigning during a pandemic has served Biden well.

Gone were the long boring speeches, the delegates in silly hats, the noisy dissenters pursued by reporters desperate for excitement. In their absence, the party’s message emerged unalloyed: America needs this man.

Monday established the theme. Instead of feeling exploitative or contrived—which they easily could have—the videos of diverse and ordinary people beset by our converging social crises composed a telling indictment of a solipsistic president and his supine party. Imagine Trump’s GOP inviting George Floyd’s brother to recite the names of other victims before requesting a moment of silence. Biden’s party did.

Equally absorbing was the young woman who indicted Trump for her father’s death from COVID-19: “My dad was a healthy 65-year-old. His only pre-existing condition was trusting Donald Trump. And for that, he paid with his life.” In a president, she reminded us, callousness kills.

A related theme underscored Biden’s humanity for an electorate drained by Trump’s singular self-absorption. Typical were personal remembrances of his kindness and concern from fellow Amtrak commuters—reminding us that for decades Joe Biden, family man, commuted from D.C. to Delaware to be with his kids.

Then came Biden the unifier. John Kasich and Bernie Sanders, political opposites, delivered a cross-ideological appeal for Biden as the trusted leader we need in hard and fractious times. The progressives who objected to including Kasich, a conservative Republican with a conscience, missed the point: To defeat Trump, Biden needs the support of disaffected Republicans and voters weary of polarization or wary of the Democratic left.

Here Kasich did his job: “I’m sure there are Republicans and independents who couldn’t imagine crossing over to support a Democrat; they fear Joe may turn sharp left and leave them behind. I don’t believe that, because I know the measure of the man—reasonable, faithful, respectful. And you know, no one pushes Joe around.”

In turn, Sanders gave Biden the fervent endorsement he denied Hillary Clinton. After acknowledging their differences on healthcare, Sanders emphasized areas of agreement crucial to progressives before invoking the moral imperatives of the moment:

And to heal the soul of our nation, Joe Biden will end the hate and division Trump has created. He will stop the demonization of immigrants, the coddling of white nationalists, the racist dog-whistling, the religious bigotry, and the ugly attacks on women. . . . The future of our democracy is at stake. . . . We must come together, defeat Donald Trump, and elect Joe Biden. . . . My friends, the price of failure is just too great to imagine.

Monday’s final speaker is, when she cares to be, America’s most effective mass communicator—capable of rousing a packed convention hall to near-evangelical fervor. But Michelle Obama proved equally persuasive speaking from her living room.

She began by ruing the signal failure of Trump’s presidency: “Whenever we look to this White House for some leadership or consolation or any semblance of steadiness, what we get instead is chaos, division, and a total and utter lack of empathy.” Then she held out the promise of a different leader:

I know Joe. He is a profoundly decent man, guided by faith. He was a terrific vice president. He knows what it takes to rescue an economy, beat back a pandemic, and lead our country. And he listens. He will tell the truth and trust science. He will make smart plans and manage a good team. And he will govern as someone who’s lived a life that the rest of us can recognize.

With lethal elegance, she proceeded to distill “the cold hard truth”:

Donald Trump is the wrong president for our country. He has had more than enough time to prove that he can do the job, but he is clearly in over his head. He cannot meet this moment. He simply cannot be who we need him to be for us. It is what it is.

With that last mordant sentence—repeating verbatim Trump’s dismissal of lives needlessly lost to COVID-19—still resonating, the former first lady went in for the kill:

So if you take one thing from my words tonight, it is this: if you think things cannot possibly get worse, trust me, they can; and they will if we don’t make a change in this election. If we have any hope of ending this chaos, we have got to vote for Joe Biden like our lives depend on it.

Her elixir of fear and hope permeated the next three nights. It’s up to us, the narrative went: We can choose renewal and resolve, decency and compassion—or the destructive nihilism of a man incapable of better.

On Tuesday night, Democrats turned to issues on this knife-edge of good and ill.

Exploiting the GOP’s efforts to repeal Obamacare with nothing to replace it, the party featured vulnerable Americans who depend on it to avert personal tragedy and financial ruin. The father of a Parkland victim spoke of Biden’s commitment to end our enthrallment to the gun lobby. John Kerry pilloried Trump as a dangerous incompetent who kowtows to dictators and jeopardizes our national security and global standing. Bill Clinton laid into Trump’s chaotic mishandling of the pandemic: “At a time like this, the Oval Office should be a command center. Instead, it’s a storm center.” And a diverse selection of presenters called for combating racism in law enforcement.

Strategically, the convention continued its outreach to disenchanted Republicans. Colin Powell delivered a strong endorsement of Biden, and Cindy McCain narrated a video memorializing the friendship between Biden and her late husband—an echo of the more civilized political mores which Trump has trampled.

But the most affecting video, perhaps, depicted the relationship between Joe and Jill Biden—who, as a young woman, became mother to two boys after Biden’s first wife and daughter died in a car wreck. This refreshing preview of a first couple we can actually admire served to introduce Tuesday evening’s final speaker.

Jill Biden proved an interesting complement to Michelle Obama. Despite her warmth, there is something about Obama which arouses awe. Biden evokes what she clearly is—the caring and capable teacher and mom.

Appropriately, Obama was on the attack. As a potential first lady, Biden kept it personal. Her account of the familial experience in surmounting grief also served as an extended metaphor for a country confronting COVID-19:

You know, motherhood came to me in a way I never expected. I fell in love with a man and two little boys standing in the wreckage of unthinkable loss, mourning a wife and mother, a daughter and sister.

I never imagined, at the age of 26, I would be asking myself, how do you make a broken family whole? Still, Joe always told the boys, “Mommy sent Jill to us.” And how could I argue with her? And so we figured it out together. . . .

We found that love holds a family together. Love makes us flexible and resilient. It allows us to become more than ourselves, together, and though it can’t protect us from the sorrows of life, it gives us refuge, a home. How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole: with love and understanding and small acts of kindness. . . .

After our son Beau died of cancer, I wondered if I would ever smile or feel joy again. It was summer, but there was no more warmth left for me. Four days after Beau’s funeral, I watched Joe shave and put on his suit. I saw him steel himself in the mirror, take a breath, put his shoulders back, and walk out into a world empty of our son. He went back to work. That’s just who he is. . . .

The burdens we carry are heavy and we need someone with strong shoulders. I know that if we entrust this nation to Joe, he will do for your family what he did for ours: Bring us together and make us whole. Carry us forward in our time of need. Keep the promise of America for all of us.

As spousal testament, matchless.

Wednesday’s program was, again, a well-conceived meld of targeted messaging. Videos dramatized the plight of Dreamers, the engagement of women in the scrum of politics, and Biden’s sponsorship of the Violence Against Women Act. Gabrielle Giffords personified the toll of gun violence; Elizabeth Warren spoke of childcare as part of our national infrastructure. But the evening hinged on the final speakers—Barack Obama and Kamala Harris.

This was a different Obama. He delivered a stark warning about our future in the plainest terms, mercifully stripped of post-presidential niceties, suffused with barely suppressed anger and anguish at how relentlessly his successor had defiled his office and degraded our democracy. What made it so riveting was that our visceral relief in seeing him unshackled exposed the dire exigencies of a national reckoning Obama knows we cannot escape.

Consider his damning verdict on Trump:

I did hope, for the sake of our country, that Donald Trump might show some interest in taking the job seriously; that he might come to feel the weight of the office and discover some reverence for the democracy that had been placed in his care.

But he never did. For close to four years now, he’s shown no interest in putting in the work; no interest in finding common ground; no interest in using the awesome power of his office to help anyone but himself and his friends; no interest in treating the presidency as anything but one more reality show that he can use to get the attention he craves.

Donald Trump hasn’t grown into the job because he can’t.

The task of saving American democracy from Trump’s suffocating pathologies, Obama enjoined, falls on us:

Well here’s the point: this president and those in power—those who benefit from keeping things the way they are—they are counting on your cynicism. They know they can’t win you over with their policies. So they’re hoping to make it as hard as possible for you to vote, and to convince you that your vote doesn’t matter. That’s how they win. . . .

We can’t let that happen. Do not let them take away your power. Do not let them take away your democracy.

Never before has an American president felt compelled to say of a successor, as Obama did in concluding, “This administration has shown it will tear our democracy down if that’s what it takes to win.”

Such was the moment that nothing Harris said could match it. But by dissecting Trump from his rarefied platform, Obama relieved Harris of the running mate’s principal role—attacker.

This was a service to Harris, and Biden. Harris displayed a commanding presence and gracefully embraced her historic role, personal and symbolic.

But despite her star power, Harris is better known to the public for her prosecutorial talents than for the warmth she displays in private. On Wednesday evening that changed: She spoke with palpable feeling of her mother, husband, sister, and extended family, and their centrality to her sense of self. This may serve to mute the expected insinuations by Trump and his misogynist enablers she is a nasty and calculating vessel of the left, devoid of principal or feeling.

In short, Harris gave Biden what he needed—she justified his choice.

All that remained which mattered was that which mattered most: the speech on which the convention’s ultimate success or failure rested, Biden’s own—the fateful culmination of a half-century in politics filled with triumph and tragedy, self-inflicted wounds and preternatural resilience, a vertiginous amalgam of highs and lows which, for many, too often reflected a humanity too unnervingly human.

This was especially true on Thursday night, when he began speaking under the pressure of what is becoming Donald Trump’s central message: that, at 77, Biden is a senescent has-been unable to sustain a coherent train of thought. Knowing this, one watched him with a hyper-alertness for any moment, perhaps negligible in anyone else, which would feed Trumps merciless depiction.

While steady and sober, his opening moments did not dispel all doubt. Then, as moments passed, one began seeing him as he is: a mature and seasoned man. There is too much anger in this country, he said, too much division, too much fear. We are better than that, he told us—and we knew that, unlike our president, so is he. “This is not a partisan moment,” Biden insisted. “This must be an American moment.”

He spoke of decency, inclusiveness, compassion—those simple but important graces not granted Donald Trump. He spoke of tackling the pandemic—and one believed him. He promised to tackle climate change, revive the economy, expand educational opportunity, provide child- and elder-care, reform our immigration system, and combat the scourge of racism.

He spoke directly to the families who have lost a child, sibling or parent—and one knew that his feelings matched the words. He spoke of patriotism steeped in pride and hope, not fear and exclusion, and one knew it could be so.

As he looked in the camera, his voice gaining force, one realized that Joe Biden was giving the speech of his life. He was running as himself, a regular guy who had willed himself to leadership without losing his essential decency. He was not simply making a liar of Donald Trump—he was shaming him. Though he had been in politics for decades, he was telling us that experience—and the chance to use it for good—had made this good man the right man for hard times.

“So,” he said, “the question for us is simple: Are we ready?

“I believe we are.

“We must be.”

If we are, Biden told us in word and manner, so is he.

Richard North Patterson

Richard North Patterson is a lawyer, political commentator and best-selling novelist. He is a former chairman of Common Cause and a member of the Council on Foreign Relations.