The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion Biden’s campaign might start a lot like how ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid’ ends

Former vice president Joe Biden in Boston on April 18. (Brian Snyder/Reuters)

In 1969, Joe Biden was a young lawyer in a big hurry, busy at home with the first of four children and busy at work on the first of his many political campaigns. But I’ll bet he found time to see the top-grossing movie of the year, “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.”

In which case, he might remember how it ends. Butch and Sundance, a pair of lovable bank robbers played by Paul Newman and Robert Redford in one of history’s great film bromances, are holed up at the edge of a South American town square. What seems like the entire Bolivian army quietly takes up positions outside as the fellows discuss their unlikely plan to shoot their way free and flee to Australia.

As they steel themselves to burst from their shelter, Newman asks whether their most dogged pursuer is outside. Redford says no, and Newman sighs with relief. “For a moment there, I thought we were in trouble,” he says — a final line for the ages.

Fifty years later, Biden must know how many rhetorical rifles await his decision to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, and how much trouble they pose. A man who began his career as a Republican too liberal for his changing party is now too conservative for a new generation of Democrats. Through months of wrestling with the ifs and hows of a campaign, the former vice president and longtime senator has seemed stuck between ambition and dread. One pushes him forward, into the race; the other holds him back.

Biden’s problem is that he comes from the sloppy world of pragmatic politics and imperfect human beings. It’s a world where people strike compromises (he has struck plenty) and make occasional mistakes (he has made a bunch). Ahead of an official announcement, he has tried to explain his 1970s opposition to court-ordered busing in a way that protects him from charges of racial insensivity, and he has apologized for his shaky leadership of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the confirmation of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. He promised to rein in his patting, stroking and shoulder-squeezing of women. Unless the public is in a forgiving mood, however, compromises and mistakes are just so much ammunition in today’s campaigns.

And the public is not in a forgiving mood. Not Democrats, anyway. Leading Republicans appear ready to forgive anything, provided the offender is President Trump.

I wonder whether Biden heard the news about Kate Smith the other day. Though she died in 1986, the once-beloved singer with the booming contralto was hauled before the court of proper opinion and shamed for having recorded songs with racist lyrics back when such songs were common. In short order, Smith’s iconic rendition of “God Bless America” was banned by the New York Yankees, and her statue was removed from the Philadelphia arena where the Flyers play hockey.

Biden can expect no gentler treatment of his own frailties and anachronisms. And frankly, nothing about his two previous presidential campaigns — in 1988 and 2008 — sparks confidence that he will be deft in his own defense.

The idea of President Biden has always been more compelling to him than to the voting public. His plan for finally winning the nomination is but another anachronism. As described in Politico, it calls for a display of muscular support from large donors and old-line party insiders such as the firefighters union. But inside connections have proved to be of vanishing value in the age of social media. The Internet cuts out such intermediaries between candidates and voters. Just ask Trump.

The one fact in Biden’s favor is that he leads in many nationwide polls. Even that, though, can be a negative, because it means that all the other Democrats in the race — and there are close to 20 of them — must get past him to win the nomination. Progressive purists such as Sens. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.) and Elizabeth Warren (Mass.) will be motivated to attack Biden’s centrist record. New-generation candidates such as South Bend, Ind., Mayor Pete Buttigieg and former representative Beto O’Rourke (Tex.) will have incentives to raise questions about Biden’s age and baggage. The impressive number of female candidates are sure to ask whether Biden is a bit blind to #MeToo mores.

Back in the pack, candidates can work their way up gradually. Front-runners must take on the entire field from the moment they enter the race. Thus, history is littered with the failed campaigns of candidates whose robust early poll numbers proved soft as quicksand.

In the movie, we don’t see Butch and Sundance shot to pieces. Director George Roy Hill elected to freeze the frame in their last moment of glory. Biden’s long wait to plunge into this campaign might be his version of that decision — a pause to savor his record before it’s savaged, to measure his reputation before it is torn down.

Read more from David Von Drehle’s archive.

Read more:

Jennifer Rubin: Joe Biden gets ready to take the plunge

E.J. Dionne Jr.: A Biden run would be good for the country. It could be hell for Biden.

Elizabeth Bruenig: Is Joe Biden worth it?

Karen Tumulty: Joe Biden’s rustiness is showing