US election profile: Joe Biden has waited a lifetime for this moment

He has suffered many setbacks, but the Democratic President-elect now offers voters a return to the pre-Trump era

Some political leaders create their times, others have to wait for their time to come. Joe Biden, the Democratic President-elect, is a perfect example of the latter.

Mr Biden, who is about to turn 78, has just won a job he has been seeking for more than three decades and that no one, except maybe he and his family, thought he would ever attain.

His victory is testimony to a feeling rippling through the American body politic: a sense that something has been lost, something that many people want back. It’s a country that was decent and fair and not marinating in hatred.

Mr Biden remembers that America. He grew up in the glow of the country’s victory in the Second World War in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a small industrial city. It was a time of record economic expansion. Real wages growing. Peace, prosperity, stability.

His own family experienced economic ups and downs. His father had been prosperous but fell on hard times. In the America in which Mr Biden grew up losing a job was tough, but not a catastrophe. There were other jobs to be had. Full-time, 40 hours a week jobs. Although you might have to move to find one. Mr Biden’s father moved the family from Scranton about 200 kilometres south to Claymont, Delaware.

Unlike today, politics was not war by other means in the 1950s, when Mr Biden was in high school. He was a handsome kid and a star wide receiver on the football team as well as president of the senior class at Archmere Academy, a private Catholic school.

Dwight Eisenhower, a Republican, did not try to stop the winds of social change that blew in those glowing post-war years. He did not stand in the way as systems of legal prejudice – especially segregation of African Americans in the South – were finally being torn down. Other forms of social prejudice fell away as well.

Eisenhower was succeeded by John F Kennedy, the first Roman Catholic elected to the presidency. It is difficult to convey now how much prejudice there was then against the idea of a Catholic in the White House. Kennedy’s election would have been just another example of American society’s capacity for generosity to Joe Biden as he started university.

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Biden seemed to fit the Kennedy template. Irish, handsome, charismatic. Like Kennedy he brought youthful vigour into politics.

Then Kennedy was assassinated. Since that horrendous event Democrats have been in a perpetual search for the next John F Kennedy.

Over the next decade Mr Biden became a lawyer, married and started a family. He dipped a toe into local politics. In 1972 he was encouraged to take the plunge and run for the US Senate against the popular Republican incumbent Caleb Boggs. No other Democrat was willing to take the risk. At the age of 29 Mr Biden felt the time was right. He had nothing to lose. He didn’t. His unexpected victory put a spotlight on him. Could he be the next JFK?

Mr Biden seemed to fit the Kennedy template. Irish, handsome, charismatic. Like Kennedy he brought youthful vigour into politics. He was liberal on most social issues and a robust cold warrior in international affairs.

He had also displayed incredible courage in a time of trial. Shortly after he was elected to the Senate, his wife and infant daughter were killed in a car crash, his young sons were severely injured. He fought back his grief, forged a career on Capitol Hill and still found time to get the train home to Delaware every night to put his sons to bed.

From the start of his Senate career, people expected him to run for president.

In 1987, remarried with a new daughter and his sons into adolescence, he announced his candidacy. But the wheels came off his campaign very quickly. It was discovered that a section of Mr Biden’s stump speech plagiarised one given by the UK Labour Party’s then leader, Neil Kinnock. Other examples of plagiarism quickly came to light and Mr Biden stood down.

His young staff were crushed, among them, 24-year-old Sam Lauter, who drove Senator Biden every evening to the station so he could get home to his kids. Today, Mr Lauter runs a successful public affairs consultancy in California. He recalls Mr Biden “was disappointed in himself. He didn’t blame anyone else. He didn’t wander around saying why did this happen to me. He said: this is my screw-up.”

Mr Biden made a realistic assessment of his situation. He was just 44, a three-term senator, chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. Time was on his side.

He threw himself into his Senate work becoming one of Washington’s most influential legislators.

As chair of the Judiciary Committee, he oversaw hearings into two of Ronald Reagan’s appointees to the Supreme Court, Robert Bork and Clarence Thomas. Both men were extremely conservative judges. Mr Biden led the rejection of Bork. The Thomas case was more controversial. Thomas, an African-American, was accused by law professor Anita Hill, also an African-American, of sexual harassment. Mr Biden invited her to testify before the committee, but other women who also had complained of Thomas’s behaviour were not allowed to testify. Many women saw this as hanging Hill out to dry. Thomas was confirmed.

Mr Biden’s other Senate power base was the Foreign Relations Committee. As Yugoslavia disintegrated, he was an early voice among Democrats for arming Bosnia’s Muslim population so they could protect themselves. In 1993, in Belgrade he met Serbian President Slobodan Milosevic, who was arming Bosnia's Serbs and told him, "I think you're a damn war criminal and you should be tried as one.”

He was a pragmatic interventionist and pro-Nato voice during America’s brief period as global hegemon. But he was not a knee-jerk hawk.

“There will be other presidential campaigns, and I'll be there, out front," he told his family and senior staff when he quit the presidential race in 1987.

It would be 20 years and a new millennium before he made another bid. It didn't last long. The field for the 2008 nomination was headed by Hillary Clinton and a charismatic young African-American senator, Barack Obama. The party and America had changed. A white man in his mid-sixties was not what Democratic primary voters wanted, especially one who was seen to have treated Anita Hill so callously and who had voted in favour of the Iraq war. Mr Biden's campaign never caught fire and he dropped out after the Iowa caucuses. The New York Times called his run "the last, great ride of his White House ambitions".

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America seemed to have entered a new epoch in its history, one that didn't value the belief system Joe Biden lives by.

When Mr Obama selected him as his running mate it seemed that Mr Biden's career had maxed out at vice president, "a heartbeat away" from the presidency.
Tragedy continued to stalk him. His older son, Beau, lawyer and decorated veteran of the Iraq War was on a track to rise high in politics, but he died of cancer in 2015. The younger son, Hunter, struggled with addiction issues.
In 2016, Biden considered running, it was a dying wish of his son, Beau, but President Obama dissuaded him. It was Hillary Clinton's time.

And then she lost to Donald Trump. America seemed to have entered a new epoch in its history, one that didn’t value the belief system Joe Biden lives by.

He believes strongly in American-led global alliances. Mr Trump does not. Mr Biden pursues consensual politics. Mr Trump thinks compromise is for losers. Mr Biden thinks that political leaders should be role models for civility. Mr Trump trashes civility every day on Twitter.

But four years of a norm-shattering presidency and one pandemic showed the majority of Democratic voters that “you don’t know what you’ve got ’til it’s gone”. Suddenly the Democrat with values embedded during the golden post-war years was the person Democratic voters wanted.

Mr Biden was forgiven his Anita Hill and Iraq vote transgressions and easily won the nomination. Stories that he made unwanted physical contact with female staffers gained no traction. Uncle Joe was an empathic guy. He was from another era and he was forgiven.

 

The polls showed that not just Democrats but a majority of voters want to go back to that time before President Trump, before politics was scorched earth combat, when civility was expected and consensus was occasionally possible. They want to go back to a time when America led alliances of democracies rather than broke them. This cuts across generations: people like me, a child of victory, and those born after the Golden Age, who can hardly believe such a country ever existed.

Looking back over the decades, Sam Lauter, who is still in touch with Mr Biden, although not as often as he used to be, says: “I’m not a real believer in fate but this is the kind of person we need right now.” Then he chuckles, “Joe was just Biden his time.”

Michael Goldfarb is the host of the FRDH podcast