It’s been barely more than eight months since Joe Biden’s presidential campaign looked all but done. It’s been five years since the wrenching death of his oldest son derailed his shot to pursue the presidency from the vice-presidential slot—which looked at the time like the best chance he would have. And it’s been a dozen years since his last failed White House run, more than 30 since his first, and close to half a century since a car crash killed his wife and baby daughter weeks after he was elected to the United States Senate—nearly causing him to resign before he had cast a single vote.
The life of Biden, defined by cosmic swings of fortune, crushing personal tragedies and career-saving resurrections, has culminated with this: He is now, at 77 years old, the president-elect.
In any other year, with any outgoing president other than the headline-hogging Donald Trump, this would be a piercing storyline. Even though polls seldom pointed to a different outcome, this victory stands as maybe the most remarkable twist of Biden’s long public arc—at once colossally improbable and profoundly apt.
It’s hard, after all, to imagine a Biden win in 2020 without a combination of two events that no oddsmaker could have predicted, even just a few years back—an outlier of an incumbent utterly committed to blowing up American politics to serve his own interests, and a pandemic that has left the country reeling and uncertain about its own health, economy, moral rudder and even its basic capacity for competence. And it happened that in the collision of those two unique sources of such angst, Biden’s focal qualities—a sense of nearly banal stability, a powerful empathy forged by misfortune—were precisely what the situation at hand seemed to demand.
It is, longtime top Biden aide Tony Blinken told me, an “almost … fated meeting of the man and the moment.”
Politicians long have acknowledged the need for events to align in fortuitous ways to foster bids for higher office. Biden himself long has talked of the power of fate—unusually so in a business more frequently driven by the need to take and claim constant personal credit.
“I have,” Biden said to a reporter from Congressional Quarterly in 1989, “an incredibly high regard for fate.”
He often has described himself as “a great respecter of fate.”
“I’ve come to realize it’s all about fate,” he said a couple years back. “It’s not about anything else. There’s a plan, and there’s fate.”
The ups and downs of the entirety of his existence, judging if only from his own words, imbued Biden with not only that extraordinary empathy but also a keen sense of what can and cannot be controlled, an awareness of some larger force at play—not a nothing-matters sort of fatalism, but a humbled understanding that the line is so thin between the good and the bad and that to be fully human is to know it and go on.
Throughout his career, moments that looked like they were his to seize turned dark, and those that felt so grim proved in the end to be paths to new light. “I have never been able to plan my life,” Biden, a practicing Roman Catholic, told CQ. “Every time my personal life has been how I wanted it, something has intervened.”
In 1972, two weeks before he turned 30, Biden in Delaware was elected to the Senate in a shock, beating a two-term Republican by a few thousand votes in a year in which at the top of the ticket was a reelected Richard Nixon. The next day, he looked at his wife, according to the reporting of the late Richard Ben Cramer in the classic What It Takes. “It’s too perfect,” Biden said. “Can’t be like this,” he said. “Something’s gonna happen.” He was in Washington setting up and hiring staff when a truck full of corncobs plowed into the Chevrolet station wagon in which the rest of his family was picking up a Christmas tree. Biden, not yet sworn in, now a single dad of two grievously hurt young sons, spoke at the memorial service. “We had decided not to have a fourth child because of a fear that something would happen,” he said, according to the coverage in the News Journal of Wilmington. “Things were just too good.” A grief-wracked Biden quoted John Milton: “I wak’d, she fled, and day brought back my night.”
Fifteen years later, remarried to the former Jill Jacobs, the father of a new daughter, by then in his middle 40s, in his third term in D.C. and at the high-profile helm of the Senate Judiciary Committee, Biden was a one-time-only combination of seasoned and still generationally ascendant—teed up to run to be president. “He saw the moves, all the way down the field,” Cramer wrote about Biden at the time. “He knew, at least, how he was going to be.” And it was … not to be: His campaign imploded, snuffed by incidents of plagiarism that threatened to end his highest ambitions if not his career—after which, in early ’88, a pair of aneurysms threatened to end his life, necessitating emergency surgery with upside-down odds. It “reaffirmed what our mom would say,” Biden’s sister told a biographer. “‘You have to be open to the good and the bad that comes to you.’” His dad sent him a comic strip he kept on his desk in which Hagar the Horrible gets struck and charred by lightning. “Why me, God?” Hagar shouts toward the sky. God answers back, “Why not?”
And two decades after that, after Biden had faltered in his second presidential try, he ended up—by luck as much as anything else—being exactly the running mate Barack Obama needed to reassure Americans that a Black up-and-comer from Chicago could draw into his administration experienced Washington hands. Once they won—the dented veteran riding the coattails of the phenom in his 40s—the job endowed Biden a new prominence on the heels of decades in which he had become part of the furniture of the Senate.
But in Obama’s second term, with Biden in line to be considered as his successor, he was hit with another bolt of lightning—Beau Biden, one of the two boys pulled from that crumpled car, whose survival in ’72 in no small way, his father would say, saved him, too, was stricken with brain cancer. Two years later, in May of 2015, at just 46 years old, his first son was gone. “My God, my boy,” Joe Biden wrote. “My beautiful boy.” He couldn’t run. Not for president. Not then. Not in 2016.
“I have said many times, if you ask me, who is the luckiest person I have ever known? I would say Joe Biden. If you ask me, who is the unluckiest I have known? I would say Joe Biden,” Ted Kaufman, his longest-serving aide, once said in an interview for a Senate oral history. “He was unlucky in the confluence of events that ended his campaign, but he was lucky that he was not in the campaign the following February when he went to the doctor with a headache and through emergency surgery avoided dying from a brain aneurysm. He was lucky to have been elected senator at the almost unprecedented age of 29—but then shortly afterwards had his wonderful wife and daughter killed in an auto accident and his two boys put in the hospital. But he was extraordinarily lucky to have convinced Jill Biden to marry him, and then have their daughter Ashley …”
“I’d like nothing better if my son were alive to be the nominee for president,” Biden told Terry Gross on NPR’s “Fresh Air” in the summer of ’17. “He was a hell of a lot better than I was.”
What about the elder Biden? Did he still want to run?
“Look, I don’t want to live in the White House,” Biden said.
And yet …
“I’m a great respecter of fate,” he said again. “My son went to Iraq, volunteered to go, spent a year there, came back as the fittest person in his regiment in the testing they did, 9 percent body fat—and a year later he was dead, glioblastoma. So, look, I understand how it works. My wife was in enormously great shape and a tractor-trailer broadsided her and killed her.”
Gross asked about the aneurysms.
“My mother used to have an expression,” Biden said. “So long as you’re alive, you have an obligation to strive—and you’re not dead till you’ve seen the face of God.”
This past February, at least politically, Biden hadn’t seen the face of God, but he was barely alive—soundly trounced in Iowa, roundly rebuffed in New Hampshire, a distant second in Nevada. Then, on the last day of February, he won in South Carolina. And his luck changed.
And luck matters.
“In politics,” longtime Democratic strategist Bob Shrum told me, “the most important thing you can have is luck. Switch a few tens of thousands of votes in Ohio and John Kerry’s president of the United States. Have an orderly voting process in Florida and Al Gore not only gets elected—he gets inaugurated. Luck really matters.”
For Biden, for these last eight-plus months, his luck has looked like this: Because of the level of the threat Donald Trump posed to this country and its democracy, Democrats on either side of Super Tuesday consolidated their support—Biden’s intraparty foes dropping out and lining up behind him, first Pete Buttigieg, then Amy Klobuchar, then Mike Bloomberg, and ultimately Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren.
Whereas Biden pre-pandemic had been hobbled at times by conspicuously scarce schedules and small crowds, the onset of the scourge scrambled what that meant. Staying home, judicious campaigning, socially distanced convenings—it made him seem no longer comparatively feeble but for the most part prudent about public health.
And while the persistent coronavirus crisis stripped him of the ability to employ his noted tactile, rope-line politicking skills, it elevated arguably his even better asset: In this year of sickness and death, in what already was such a difficult, divisive stretch, Biden’s broadly conciliatory, unassuming air and unfathomably hard-earned facility to feel other people’s pain proved to be not just a vivid point of contrast with his general election opponent but what a good portion of a rattled, wounded, weakened country wanted.
“It’s almost,” as a Buttigieg campaign higher-up put it when we talked a couple months ago, “like the seas have parted for him.”
“Here’s the deal. Anything can happen,” Biden said on CNN in September. “I have seen too much of it in my family.”
And in this odd, unnerving and interminable week, facing the always disruptive Trump along with the prospect of an unsupportive Senate and the certainty of a riven nation—the good with the bad, like his mother always said—Biden won Wisconsin, and he won Michigan, and to clinch he won Pennsylvania, the state in which he was born, a poetic note to this latest turn of fate.
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