The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Joe Biden accepts Democratic presidential nomination, with a call for optimism at a time of fear

Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden concluded the 2020 Democratic National Convention on Aug. 21. Here’s what you missed from the fourth and final night. (Video: The Washington Post, Photo: Toni L. Sandys/The Washington Post)
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WILMINGTON, Del. — Joe Biden accepted the Democratic presidential nomination Thursday night with a call to optimism at a time of national fear, concluding an unusual four days of virtual pageantry in which Democrats portrayed their struggle against President Trump as a battle against a dark force with American democracy hanging in the balance.

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In a 25-minute speech, the former vice president channeled concern over multiple, simultaneous crises facing the country while urging the American people to choose what he called “a path of hope and light.”

“The current president has cloaked America in darkness for much too long. Too much anger, too much fear, too much division,” Biden said. “Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I’ll be an ally of the light, not the darkness.”

He gave the remarks from an austere ballroom set with American flags but absent a crowd, due to health concerns driven by the coronavirus pandemic. The only accompaniment came from cars gathered outside, drive-in style, honking in lieu of applauding.

In the silence, he outlined his solutions to the pain of those struggling without a job or fearful of losing one. Looking at the camera and offering an attempt at solace, he directly addressed those left behind by the deaths of more than 170,000 Americans from covid-19. His voice rose while speaking about Trump and the response to the global pandemic.

“He keeps waiting for a miracle,” Biden said, never uttering Trump’s name. “Well, I have news for him: No miracle is coming.”

Biden also spoke directly to young people, who have been slow to warm to his candidacy. He noted their protests for racial justice and civil rights, their advocacy of gun control and their desire to see the nation deal with the crisis of climate change.

“I hear their voices and if you listen, you can hear them, too,” Biden said.

Biden showed a flash of anger when he turned to foreign policy and recent reports that Russia had placed bounties on American troops in Afghanistan, saying that in his presidency, “America will not turn a blind eye to Russian bounties on American soldiers.”

After emerging atop the most crowded presidential primary in recent history, the former two-term vice president and six-term U.S. senator from Delaware claimed the nomination on his third try, accepting it 12,126 days after he launched his first presidential campaign, in 1987.

Over five decades, Biden has traveled to almost every Democratic convention, often speaking but never as the headliner on the final night. This time, with the convention rendered virtual by the pandemic, he spoke from his hometown, inside a nearly empty ballroom just five miles from his house.

“In this dark moment, I believe we're poised to make great progress again,” Biden said.

“Are you ready? I believe we are,” Biden said as he closed his speech by quoting a favorite Irish poet, Seamus Heaney. “This is our moment to ‘make hope and history rhyme.’”

The speech followed an evening focused on Biden’s biography, with well-produced videos about his long Senate career, the life of his late son, Beau, and clips from his four granddaughters and two living children.

The Biden campaign is bracing for a brutal 10 weeks that are expected to be sharply divisive, with Trump already having spent months mocking Biden and criticizing his positions and his family. Republicans will take the national stage for their convention starting Monday, with four nights to showcase a competing vision for the nation.

Trump tweeted criticism during Biden’s address, and hours earlier, he held an event near Biden’s childhood home in Scranton, Pa., where he claimed that Biden had “abandoned” Pennsylvania. Biden was only 10 when his father, in search of a steady job, moved the family to Delaware, a wrenching decision that Biden often cites as he commiserates with the choices facing middle-class workers.

“He left,” Trump said of Biden. “He abandoned Pennsylvania. He abandoned Scranton. He was here for a short period of time, and he didn't even know it.”

During the rally, the president painted a dark picture of what would happen if he lost the election.

“If you want a vision of your life under [a] Biden presidency, think of the smoldering ruins in Minneapolis, the violent anarchy of Portland, the bloodstained sidewalks of Chicago,” Trump said from a building products company in Old Forge, Pa. “And imagine the mayhem coming to your town and every single town in America.”

Sen. Kamala D. Harris (D-Calif.), who made history Wednesday night by becoming the first woman of color to accept the vice-presidential nomination of a major party, appeared at a fundraiser hours before Biden spoke Thursday and presaged Biden’s remarks.

“We are motivated by optimism,” Harris said to the 1,500 participants in the event. “This is not against something. This is a fight for something. Let that be our fuel as we go through these next 75 days.”

The evening also included a lineup of many of Biden’s presidential primary rivals, with seven of them captured reminiscing from their homes about the primary race and their personal interactions with Biden.

Entrepreneur Andrew Yang gave introductory remarks and was among the few speakers who spoke bluntly to disaffected voters.

“If you voted for Trump, or didn't vote at all, back in 2016, I get it,” he said. “Many of us have gotten tired of our leaders seeming far removed from our everyday lives. And we despair that our government will ever rise to the challenges of our time.”

He insisted that voting this year was essential.

Yang and the evening's host, actor and comedian Julia Louis-Dreyfus, also poked fun at Republicans who have repeatedly struggled to pronounce Harris's first name correctly. The two had an extended bit where they repeatedly mispronounced the name of Vice President Pence.

“I cannot wait to see her debate our current vice president, Mika Pints,” Louis-Dreyfus said. “Or is it paints?”

Louis-Dreyfus, who formed a bond with Biden when she played the first female vice president in the hit HBO comedy series “Veep,” repeatedly made jokes at Trump’s expense, a tonal adjustment for a convention that has been largely sober.

At the other end of the emotional spectrum was a young boy, Brayden Harrington, who Biden met in New Hampshire and to whom he offered advice for their shared condition, stuttering. In a halting but courageous address, he recounted how Biden had given him hope, as well as practical strategies.

Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) used his remarks to reflect on his grandfather, who left the Jim Crow South for a union job in Detroit.

“We’ll stand for those who cook, and serve, and clean; who plant and harvest; who pack and always deliver, whose hands are thick with calluses, like my granddad’s who held mine when I was a boy,” he said. “If he was alive, Joe and Kamala, he would be so proud of you — and he’d tell us, take another by the hand, and another, and let’s get to work, this dream ain’t free, you gotta work for it.”

Former South Bend, Ind., mayor Pete Buttigieg, another primary rival, focused on the social changes in the country and Biden's role as an early supporter for same-sex marriage.

“The day I was born, the idea of an out candidate seeking any federal office at all was laughable,” Buttigieg said from the site of his wedding celebration. “Yet earlier this year I campaigned for the presidency, often with my husband Chasten at my side, winning delegates to this very convention.”

While voting rights have been a frequent theme of the three previous Democratic sessions this week, the convention on Thursday included a tribute to John Lewis, the civil rights leader and Georgia congressman who died last month. After his death, Democrats renewed a push to strengthen the Voting Rights Act, which was central to his career but has been watered down by the Supreme Court in recent years.

“People often think that they can’t make a difference like our civil rights icons, but every person in the movement mattered — those who made the sandwiches, swept the church floors, stuffed the envelopes. They, too, changed America,” Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms said. “And so can we.”

“We've cried out for justice, we have gathered in our streets to demand change,” she added. “And now, we must pass on the gift John Lewis sacrificed to give us, we must register and we must vote.”

The final night included performances from the Chicks (formerly the Dixie Chicks), singer John Legend, and rapper Common.

Stephen Curry, the NBA superstar, prerecorded a video of him and his wife, Ayesha, endorsing Biden and discussing his candidacy with their two young daughters.

Two Democratic senators who were on Biden’s list of potential running mates — Tammy Duckworth (Ill.) and Tammy Baldwin (Wis.) — also urged voters to side with Biden, as did former New York mayor Mike Bloomberg.

Bloomberg, the billionaire who plowed more than $1 billion into his short-lived campaign, spoke in exasperated tones about Trump.

“Why the hell would we ever rehire Donald Trump for another four years?” he asked. “Trump says we should vote for him because he's a great businessman. Really?”

Bloomberg has pledged to spend $60 million of his own fortune to help Democrats hold the House of Representatives and has not yet said how much he’ll spend in an effort to defeat Trump.

An emotional climax was a video tribute to Biden’s oldest son, Beau, whom he has described as his inspiration. He died of brain cancer in 2015.

Biden’s four granddaughters also recorded a video in which they revealed they called a family meeting to urge him to run — “Get in the race! Hurry up!” one said — as they also touted his love for ice cream and his inability to go longer than a day without calling them.

Biden's two living children, Hunter and Ashley, provided the introduction to their father by recounting his attributes and often finishing each other's sentences.

“He's been a great father,” Hunter Biden said.

“And we think he'll be a great president,” Ashley Biden said.

Hunter Biden has been a participant in his father’s previous campaigns but has been almost entirely absent from this race.

In recent years he has struggled with substance abuse, had a relationship with his brother's widow, settled a paternity case with an Arkansas woman, and married a California woman he'd met six days earlier. They have since had a child.

He didn't refer to those struggles Thursday, but said his dad has “the strongest shoulder you can ever lean on.”

Hunter Biden's seat on the board of a Ukrainian gas company while his father was vice president became the centerpiece of Trump's impeachment hearings. The president asked the current Ukrainian president to investigate the Bidens, despite no evidence of wrongdoing by either of them.

Trump and his supporters have repeatedly mocked Hunter Biden, frequently mentioning his absence from the campaign trail and selling T-shirts that read, “Where’s Hunter?”

Hunter Biden is central to an ongoing investigation in the Republican-controlled Senate that Democrats have dismissed as politically motivated and without merit.

Sen. Christopher A. Coons (D-Del.), a longtime friend of Biden's who now holds the seat Biden occupied for 36 years, delivered a personal speech Thursday that focused on the Catholic faith that has been a central part of Biden's life, albeit one that he doesn't frequently discuss.

“Joe knows the power of prayer, and I’ve seen him in moments of joy and triumph of loss and despair turned to God for strength,” Coons said. “Joe’s comforted me in my toughest moments, as he has so many others. I’ll never forget how Joe took the time to offer me words of comfort as my father lay in hospice.”

He rooted Biden's faith in the core of the American founding principles, and also in their political beliefs about the need to combat climate change or to fight for civil rights.

“Joe knows that it’s faith that sustains so many ordinary Americans who do extraordinary things,” Coons said. “Nurses who brave infection, firefighters who run into burning buildings, teachers working overtime, especially now they all deserve a servant leader who knows the dignity of work, who sees them, respects them, fights for them.”