URBANDALE, Iowa—Really, what Joe Biden looks like is a game show host. The tan, the blindingly white dentures, the “Hey folks.” Give him a long, skinny mic and a little more bouffant up top and he’s Bob Barker. But if Joe was a TV guy, he’d be getting eased off to the golf course right about now. All the zingers have softened to mush.
Urbandale is a Des Moines suburb, prosperous enough to have an OrangeTheory, a Fiat dealership, and an extreme commitment to lawn care, but also home to the Living History Farm Museum, an old-timey place dedicated to keeping the farm spirit alive in an increasingly suburbanized Iowa. The museum is, in fact, an entire old-timey farming town, set on rolling green hills, complete with a “Blacksmith” and a “General Store,” the whole bit. You could film Westerns here. Or campaign ads.
Biden was set up to speak in front of a big, peach-colored barn on Tuesday. The barn doors were open and an American flag was draped down between them in a not subtle way. The crowd was overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, older and white. The Biden campaign staff were all young, fresh-faced clipboard toters in button-up shirts with no sweat stains, despite the summer heat. There is a masterpiece yet to be written about the complex psychology that drives a politically minded and presumably left-oriented 20-something to become a Joe Biden campaign worker, and to demonstrate the creepy positive aggression of a religious cultist while doing so. I am not smart enough to dissect those motivations.
We were all asked to stand and say the Pledge of Allegiance, which is a fucked-up thing to do at a campaign rally, if you ask me. Then a firefighter came out in shades and talked briefly about why he liked Joe Biden. Then Joe himself strolled out, in a navy blue polo shirt and slacks, dentures absolutely gleaming, smile-related wrinkles creasing just right, looking for all the world like a prosperous retiree you might meet at a golf clubhouse in Scottsdale. He immediately began talking about the middle class, which he would continue to do for some time.
You see, labor built the middle class... this election is different... so much is at stake... we’re in a battle for the soul of America... this is Biden’s stump speech, and I have read it so many times in pool reports that I can almost recite it myself. Delivering it should not be a problem for Joe Biden. But it is impossible not to notice that Joe is getting old. Any reporter who doesn’t note this is not telling you the whole truth about what they witness. Biden is not senile, or unable to function, but the signs of the slow creep of cognitive decline are too visible to ignore. He is at the stage of life where law firm partners get graciously sent to the do-nothing office, where grandparents start having their bill-paying decisions discreetly looked over by their adult children. He is on a downhill slope, mentally speaking. This is a description, not a criticism. It is natural. But it is certainly something to consider, when contemplating giving someone a four-year contract for a very demanding job.
Biden has been doing this his entire adult life. He can talk for an hour on these vague and affirming topics without notes. So when he begins to lose track of the beginning of sentences by the end of the sentence, it is concerning. In a bit about his own youth, he referred to when Bobby Kennedy and Martin Luther King Jr. were assassinated as “the ‘70s—the late ‘70s.” Realizing his mistake, he unfurled a slow correction that seemed to meander across at least two decades of the calendar. His mistakes are small, but they add up over the course of a speech.
“That’s why the rest of the world was repaired to us—that’s why we had so much influence.” Eh?
“We have to eliminate the funding gap that exists between minority white and non-white districts.” Eh?
Referring to child development: “Sixty percent of their brainpower is developed by the time they’re in this category,” though what the category was was a mystery to me.
There is a degree of delicacy in parsing Biden’s sharpness, because his inherent folksiness can sometimes pass as mental decline though it is really just a core element of his personal brand. He has an infinite supply of not-really self-deprecating lines about his career and quotations from mom and dad and all the folks in Scranton, PA. When he talks about his moniker, “Middle Class Joe”—one that has stuck with him mostly because he ceaselessly promotes it himself—he says, “It means I’m not sophisticated in the mind of the sophisticates.” Which is not true. He’s a career senator and vice president and is more or less the definition of a sophisticated elite. He does, however, retain a degree of goofiness—a lack of the profundity that more successful politicians have historically been able to conjure. He tells a story, for example, about enlightening a foreign leader who is asking if he can define America.
“Yes I can,” Biden says. “In one word: Possibilities.” Then, he cannot stop himself from adding, a second time, “Possibilities.”
Joe Biden looks, or is able to to act, like he’s still having fun out there. And he still possesses the ability—a natural ability that he’s honed over a lifetime, perhaps bolstered by harvesting some of Barack Obama’s soul-stirring techniques—of painting a picture of a nation that is special, and unified by a grand theme, and destined to return to a set of gracious, common sense values that we once had, but have lost. If you close your eyes and fall into the rhythms of his soothing speech and let go of much of your knowledge of the Marxist framework of history, you can still be inspired. But it is less easy to be inspired when he’s tripping over his words or losing the thread of his arguments. I suspect that Joe himself knows, but is too proud to admit, that time’s dark grasp is wrapping around him more tightly every day.
“My mom used to have an expression,” Biden said at one point. “The greatest gift God gave mankind was the ability to forget.” He didn’t trip up on that one at all.