The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

It was Jill Biden’s night at the convention, but the most stirring moments came earlier

Former second lady Jill Biden virtually addressed the audience on the second day of the Democratic National Convention on Aug. 18. (Video: The Washington Post)

Mostly, one wanted Jill Biden to sit down. To settle into a chair, to relax and tell her story.

Instead, she was on the move, with hands chopping the air and arms outstretched as if she was trying to wrap them around some unwieldy task.

Still, the second night of the virtual Democratic convention belonged to Dr. Biden. The title is important. It refers to her doctorate in education, but it’s also a reminder that she is a woman with her own hard-earned accomplishments, a woman with expertise. She is an educator who plans to continue educating even if she is in the White House.

Biden began her speech walking down a hallway at Brandywine High School in Wilmington, Del. She turned into a classroom as she was describing the familiar sights and sounds of the school day that have disappeared because of the coronavirus pandemic.

Wearing an emerald green coat dress, she stood amid rows of empty desks. She kept talking. She remained standing. She was the hard-working teacher at the front of a classroom educating us on Joe.

“When I taught English here at Brandywine High School, I would spend my summer preparing for the school year about to start — filled with anticipation. But this quiet is heavy. You can hear the anxiety that echoes down empty hallways,” Biden said. “There’s no scent of new notebooks or freshly waxed floors. The rooms are dark as the bright young faces that should fill them are now confined to boxes on a computer screen.”

Biden sketched out the story of her life with her husband, former vice president Joe Biden. She talked of building a family with Joe after the death of his first wife and daughter. And she connected the story of fighting through that tragedy with what it means to pull the nation out of its heart-wrenching circumstances.

“How do you make a broken family whole? The same way you make a nation whole. With love and understanding — and with small acts of kindness. With bravery. With unwavering faith,” Biden said. “You show up for each other, in big ways and small ones, again and again. It’s what so many of you are doing right now. For your loved ones. For complete strangers. For your communities.”

Jill Biden’s full Democratic convention speech, annotated

Her message was brief. Let Joe Biden rebuild the American family in the same way that he rebuilt his own. It was a message that explained emotions with examples but was not itself stippled with them.

“The burdens we carry are heavy, and we need someone with strong shoulders,” Biden said. “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.”

Did Jill Biden reveal something that most voters don’t know about Joe? For a man who has been in public life for 50 years, there’s little that remains private. When the former vice president entered the room — or at least the frame — to offer a hug and to sing her praises, it was as though a gust of raw emotion had blown through. The teacher delivered the lesson about the healing nature of love. The former vice president brought it to life.

So many people were charged with selling the glories of Joe Biden. The Democrats brought out two former presidents, a couple of Kennedys and one Sen. Charles E. Schumer pumping his fists from Brooklyn with the Statue of Liberty glowing in the background.

But ultimately, the most compelling message of the evening may well have been delivered by Jacquelyn Brittany. The elevator operator encountered the former vice president when he paid a visit to the editorial board at the New York Times. They took a selfie. The photo ricocheted across social media. And in her short speech putting his name into nomination, she simply said, “Joe Biden has room in his heart for more than just himself.”

That’s not all it takes to lead, but it was a reminder that so much of what gets attached to politics is just extra. Unnecessary.

The security guard blurted ‘I love you’ to Joe Biden in an elevator. One viral video later, she nominated him for president.

Instead of a roll call held in a packed convention center with delegates costumed in red, white and blue regalia — a kind of patriotic drag — this virtual convention offered a road trip view of America. As each state, each territory and the District of Columbia cast its votes, viewers got little snapshots of the country, its magnificent scenery and its motley array of citizens — in all of their eccentric, earnest, grass-roots glory.

As the votes came in, there were odes to the 19th Amendment in Tennessee, a remembrance of Matthew Shepard in Wyoming, a demand for action on climate change from California and, of course, all the symbolism of the Amtrak station in Wilmington that saw Joe Biden come and go as he commuted from Washington back home to his family.

On the second night of the DNC on Aug. 18, former vice president Joe Biden celebrated his formal nomination as the Democratic presidential nominee. (Video: The Washington Post)

The delegates did their darnedest to gin up the kind of overly caffeinated enthusiasm that defines the traditional roll call. But it was wholly unnecessary. The electricity was in the sweeping view of the American patchwork. Politicians love to give meandering speeches talking about how democracy is all about the people, but then they proceed to ignore the will of the people — their needs and their fears. This roll call was intimate. Without the costumes and the posturing, the people were revealed. America was at work.

Joe Biden officially becomes the Democratic Party’s nominee on convention’s second night

Once Biden was officially the nominee, he said his thanks into the camera. His family scurried in with a pop of confetti and bouquets of balloons of the sort one might find at the local supermarket.

It was a far cry from the usual fanfare. But it was all that was needed. Anything else would have been extra.