MARSHALLTOWN, Iowa — Eager to please, solicitous, emotionally vulnerable: These are elements of the public Joe Biden — simply “Joe” to everyone he meets — that the presidential candidate projects in formal surroundings on the stump.
But this drama critic, attempting to assess the theater inherent in the race for president, also detected a bit of desperation in a man yearning for the validation that has eluded him for so long. At times, Biden reminded me of another man of the road — Arthur Miller’s Willy Loman, who, in “Death of a Salesman,” regales his sons, Biff and Happy, with stories of how well liked he is in the towns on the circuit he travels.
Following Biden around on one of his own recent circuits of Iowa, I observed that the insecurity surfacing in Willy also finds expression in Biden. The way, for instance, Willy summons the idealized memory of his tycoon brother, Ben, in whose shadow he’s lived, has an echo in the portrait Biden paints of the president for whom he served for eight years as vice president. Biden likes to characterize himself as an equal partner in that presidency, which comes across as, well, Willy-like exaggeration. When, for instance, he alludes before Iowa audiences to one of the Obama administration’s signature triumphs, the hunting down and killing of the leader behind Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, he uses phrases such as “Barack and I, we thought we knew the whereabouts of Osama bin Laden . . . ”
Like Willy, too, there is in Biden a propensity to put a son on a pedestal. Rarely does he pass up an opportunity at a rally or a meet-and-greet to extol the virtue of his late son, Beau, a reflex in which Willy also indulges, albeit in a more self-deluding way. Though Willy’s Biff is a ne’er-do-well dreamer, Beau, a decorated Army veteran, was a man of accomplishment. Beau died of brain cancer in 2015, and Biden points out often that his son’s memory is enshrined in the nation of Kosovo, where he served as a legal adviser, with a statue and a highway named for him.
Perhaps, though, the way in which Biden’s inner salesman feels most apparent is simply in a manipulation of some facial muscles. As Willy’s benevolent neighbor, Charley, puts it in a memorable tribute to the central character: “He’s a man way out there in the blue, riding on a smile and a shoeshine.” And if there is any feature that might serve Biden well in that role, it would be his own incandescently toothy smile. On a brightness scale of 1 to 10, it is a 15, and so dazzling that it can appear as if the smile just happens to have a person attached to it.
Over my two days of watching the candidate ply his wares in small towns in the outer orbit of Des Moines — culminating in a funny alpha-male glad-handing competition with former Texas congressman Beto O’Rourke at a baseball game — I got a sense of the pluses and minuses of Biden’s style as a public performer. At 76, he has been running for president on and off for more than 30 years, since he first announced he wanted the job in 1987. Why he wants it now, though, is not always so clear. In his sometimes-muted presentations, in his frequent references to the past and even in his reluctance to directly beseech audiences for their votes, the impression creeps in that he’s yet to key in on a powerfully dramatic rationale for his campaign. Except maybe to hammer home the point that he’s still got “it.”
Before the smile first shows up on a stage during my journey, in the blue-collar stronghold of Waterloo, the Biden campaign engages in all of the garden-variety paraphernalia and throat-clearing exercises of a standard stump visit. The United Auto Workers union hall is festooned with bunting and candidate signs, in red, white and blue. The lighting is hot white for the television cameras. Black drapery is installed behind the podium, as a contrast for the sharper colors of the signage.
There’s a contrived, Frank Capra-esque patriotic vibe at Biden micro-rallies, an attempt at summoning some resurgent American spirit that doesn’t really seem to exist. In Waterloo, a local bank employee sang “America the Beautiful,” and a combat veteran was introduced to lead the Pledge of Allegiance. Then Jill Biden materialized to enumerate the causes her husband was championing. “That’s the America that Joe Biden is fighting for!” she exclaimed, to loud applause.
Biden, tieless in a blue blazer, followed his wife onto the platform and read his speech off a teleprompter, which seemed all wrong. This wasn’t the U.N. General Assembly, for heaven’s sake. The illusion of spontaneity was immediately scuttled, much in the way an actor who walks onstage holding a script diminishes his hold on our imaginations. The whole point of these intimate gatherings is to eliminate the filters between candidate and voter. This did not feel like Biden unleashed.
By virtue of having held high office, though, with all the visibility that provides, Biden has a lighter burden than other candidates vying for the Democratic nomination. An undercurrent of “Folks, you know me” ran through his 25-minute remarks.
“I got to be blunt with you,” he told the UAW gathering, and we all waited to hear what blunt message he was going to impart. “I’m a union guy.”
Okay, that was an anticlimax, and not the last of the lackluster lines he delivered. But his affect sometimes managed to transcend the blandness of his words: There is, as that neon sign of a smile connotes, a kind of eternal sunshine about Biden at a Biden event, even when his talk inevitably turns to — or sometimes begins with — the requisite tribute to Beau. His allusions to his eldest son may also serve a political purpose, generating sympathy as well as demonstrating that he has empathy.
Thinking about it less cynically, though, you cannot come away from a public appearance by Biden and not feel his decency. It is the sense of his reliability, that he’s a person to call on when you need to hear some supportive words. Even if they sound a bit canned.
The next morning, as Biden went through the routine paces of the campaign, you became keenly aware of his intense desire to prove he’s not in any way past his prime. Along the Fourth of July parade route through the residential streets of Independence, for instance, he didn’t merely ride in a convertible and wave. No, he dashed from curb to curb to gab with voters, some of them indifferent to him, others besotted. “You can smell my hair any day!” a woman told him, mid-parade, after she had called out to him. Her name was Cindy Waters, and she was presumably referring to an embarrassing episode earlier this year in which a Democratic office-seeker from Nevada accused Biden of an unsolicited sniff of her tresses.
Waters’s remark provided an intriguing moment of impromptu street theater, a mini-drama suffused with subtextual peril. How would he react to Waters’s cheeky declaration of allegiance? Biden chose the safe response: He simply thanked her, his smile on high beam, and moved on. In his wake, he left a happy woman.
“It’s really important to meet them,” Waters said, still exuberant over the encounter. “That body language, talking to him. It’s exciting for me to be a part of it.”
The workout in Independence provided a concrete opportunity for Biden to convey his vigor. In a dark-blue polo shirt, pressed khaki slacks and running shoes, he looked so trim and athletic he could have passed for a seasoned college football coach. All that was missing was the whistle. “Fitness” is something of an unspoken Biden 2020 mantra. All the physical exertion in Iowa was in service of the image, and some onlookers found it compelling.
“I believe he’s strong and steady, and I can count on that,” said Michelle Ficken, a nurse, who added about this sense of vitality: “That’s a testament to ‘pass the torch’ — well, he can carry the torch!”
Some of that torch-bearing air of vitality had gone out of Biden’s performance by the time he got to Marshalltown later in the afternoon. The morning of bobbing and weaving in the parade seemed to have left him tuckered out. And not even the spirited audience warm-up by his wife could provide much of an adrenaline boost.
Standing at the rostrum at a Best Western inn on South Center Street, he read his speech, rather flatly, off a teleprompter again. It was a medium-size meeting room of a modest hotel just off U.S. Route 30, where the capacity crowd of heartland folk waited to be propelled out of their seats by invigorating rhetoric — or at the very least, by a dose of magnetic, plain-spoken Uncle Joe. Instead, it got a lot of canned campaign-speak from Politician Joe.
“Our children are the kite strings that lift our national ambitions aloft,” Biden read in his pleasant, gravelly Mid-Atlantic accent. It was the kind of purple much better suited to mountains’ majesty.
At one point in the speech, the former vice president did go off script to confide his wife’s admonition to him — that he stay on the script. The strategy may cut down on the verbal gaffes to which Biden is occasionally prone. But it left him defenseless against the pretensions of his speechwriters.
In Waterloo and Marshalltown, Biden concluded with the words of a perennial choice among politicians for inspirational messaging, but the specific quote was odd and not the robust applause line he needs. The words were by John F. Kennedy, and they had to do with JFK’s explanation for why America wanted to continue to explore space. “Because,” Biden said, “we refuse to postpone.”
And then Biden added: “I refuse to postpone!”
The applause was merely polite. It’s a leaden turn of phrase for a moment when you want your audience to soar with you, and an indication that, theatrically speaking, Biden could use something more galvanizing than that marquee smile.
Maybe that’s why the strongest image I was left with was provided not by Joe Biden, but by Jill. In her terse, impassioned advocacy, you could almost hear the voice of Linda Loman, delivering her famous sanctification of Willy: “Attention must finally be paid to such a person.”