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Can Biden’s Center Hold? | The New Yorker


“Welcome to my mom’s house,” Joe Biden called from the bottom of the stairs, an instant before his sweep of white hair rose into view.

The former Vice-President of the United States and the Democratic nominee for President reached the second floor of a cottage at the foot of his property in Greenville, Delaware, a wooded, well-to-do suburb of Wilmington. He wore a trim blue dress shirt, sleeves rolled to the elbows, a pen tucked between the buttons, and a bright-white N95 mask. It was ninety-nine days to the election. The death toll from the coronavirus pandemic was approaching a hundred and fifty thousand, three times as many lives as America lost in Vietnam; the economy had crumbled faster than at any other time in the nation’s history; in Portland, Oregon, federal agents in unmarked uniforms were tear-gassing protesters, whom Donald Trump called “sick and deranged Anarchists & Agitators.” On Twitter that day, Trump warned that the demonstrators would “destroy our American cities, and worse, if Sleepy Joe Biden, the puppet of the Left, ever won. Markets would crash and cities would burn.”

The man who stands between Americans and four more years of Trump lives with his wife, Jill, on four sloping acres that overlook a small lake. These days, the Biden place feels as solemn and secluded as an abbey. To avoid contagion, Biden’s advisers had put me in a carriage house, a hundred yards from the house where the family lives. The cottage, styled in Celtic themes (green shutters, a thistle pattern on the throw pillows), doubles as a command post for the Secret Service, and large men with holstered guns stalked in and out. Biden settled into an armchair across the room from me and splayed his hands, a socially distanced salute. “The docs keep it really tight,” he explained.

Later that afternoon, the Bidens were due on Capitol Hill, to pay their respects to the recently deceased John Lewis, of Georgia, a civil-rights icon who endured a fractured skull at the hands of state troopers in Selma, Alabama, before rising to the House of Representatives and becoming known as the “conscience of Congress.” It would be a rare excursion. Since the Covid shutdown began, in March, Biden had circulated mostly between his back porch, where he convened fund-raisers on Zoom, a gym upstairs, and the basement rec room, where he sat for TV interviews in front of a bookcase and a folded flag. The campaign apparatus had scattered into the homes of some twenty-three hundred employees. Biden seemed pleased to have company. Before I could ask a question, he explained the origins of the cottage. When his father, Joe, Sr., fell ill, in 2002, Biden renovated the basement of the main house and moved his parents in. “God love him, he lasted for about six months,” he said. “I thought my mom would stay.” She had other ideas. (Biden’s mother, the former Jean Finnegan, plays a formidable role in his recounting of family history. In grammar school, he recalls, a nun mocked him for stuttering, and his mother, a devout Catholic, told her, “If you ever speak to my son like that again, I’ll come back and rip that bonnet off your head.”)

After Jean became a widow, Biden said, she offered him a proposition: “She said, ‘Joey, if you build me a house, I’ll move in here.’ I said, ‘Honey, I don’t have the money to build you a house.’ She said, ‘I know you don’t.’ She said, ‘But I talked to your brothers and sister. Sell my house and build me an apartment.’ ” For years, Biden, who relied on his government salary, was among the least prosperous members of the United States Senate. (In the two years after he left the Vice-Presidency, the Bidens earned more than fifteen million dollars, from speeches, teaching, and book deals.) Biden renovated an old garage and his mother moved in. “I’d walk in and she’d be in that chair downstairs, facing the fireplace, watching television,” he said. “There’d always be a caregiver on the stool, and she’d be hearing her confession.”

Joe Biden has been a “public man,” as he puts it—holding office, giving interviews, dispensing anecdotes—for five decades. I last interviewed him, mostly about foreign affairs, in 2014, when he was in the White House and Donald Trump was hosting Season 14 of “The Apprentice.” Biden is seventy-seven years old, and he looks thinner than he did six years ago, but not markedly so. His verbiage is as meandering as ever. James Comey, the former F.B.I. director, once wrote that the typical Biden conversation originated in “Direction A” before “heading in Direction Z.” (In December, Biden’s campaign released a doctor’s summary of his medical records, which pronounced him a “healthy, vigorous” man of his age.)

The implications of age, in one form or another, hover over the Presidential race. Trump took office as the oldest President in history; he is now seventy-four. To deflect questions about his mental acuity, he and his allies present Biden as senile, a theme that dominates right-wing TV and Twitter. Biden sees little of it; he doesn’t look at social media. If there is something big, his staff will include a tweet in the morning roundup of news that he reads on his phone. But, he said, “I don’t look at a lot of the comments. I spend the time trying to focus on the trouble people are in right now.”

By the end of August, ten weeks before the election, Biden led Trump by an average of at least eight percentage points. But no earthly inhabitant expected an ordinary end to the campaign. Some polls showed the race tightening, and Trump and the G.O.P. held a persistent advantage in perceptions of their handling of the economy. “I feel good about where we are,” Biden said. “But I know that it’s going to get really, really ugly.” As Trump disputed the legitimacy of mail-in voting, his Postmaster General was brazenly cutting service in ways that could prevent ballots from being counted. Trump’s campaign was trying to deter Black voters, running commercials claiming that, as one put it, Biden had “destroyed millions of Black lives”; Republican operatives were helping Kanye West, the pro-Trump hip-hop star, get on the ballot in multiple states. Meanwhile, U.S. intelligence warned that, as in 2016, Russians were working to damage Trump’s opponent, this time with phone recordings edited to support the canard that Biden had used the Vice-Presidency to help his son Hunter make money in Ukraine.

For a front-runner, Biden was hardly sanguine. “I am worried about them screwing around with the election outcome,” he said. “When the hell have you heard a President say, ‘I’m not sure I’ll accept the outcome’?”

The trials of 2020 have dismantled some of the most basic stories we Americans tell ourselves. The world’s richest, most powerful country has botched even rudimentary responses to the pandemic—finding masks, making tests—and some agencies have proved to be so antiquated and starved of resources that they’ve used fax machines to share data. The White House offered policies that read like mock Kafka; even as people were advised against dining out, it was proposing a corporate tax break on business meals. On Fox News in April, Jared Kushner, the President’s son-in-law and one of the leaders of the coronavirus response, declared the Administration’s effort “a great success story.” Since then, at least a hundred and ten thousand more people have died. And, in the midst of the pandemic, the death of George Floyd under a policeman’s knee opened a second epochal turn in American history—a reckoning with the entrenched hierarchy of power, which Isabel Wilkerson, in her new book, “Caste,” calls “the wordless usher in a darkened theater, flashlight cast down in the aisles, guiding us to our assigned seats.”

“Don’t feel like talking? Fine. Maybe it’s time you had a little chat with my partner.”
Cartoon by Matthew Diffee

Biden believes that Trump’s failures of leadership, particularly in the pandemic, have become clear even to steadfast Republican advocates. “Everybody knows, even people supporting him: This is all about his self-interest. It’s all about him,” he told me. “It has had profound impacts on people’s ability to live their life.” Still, it might not suffice to change voters’ minds. When Biden characterizes Trump’s supporters, they are not duped or culpable or deplorable. “They think that they will be materially better off if he’s President,” he said. “He has gotten through, I think, to some degree—to about forty per cent—saying, ‘The Democrats are socialists. They’re here to take away everything you have.’ ”

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