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Biden’s life story is well told in ‘Frontline’ documentary

It’s easy to think of Joe Biden as boring. The story of his life is not boring. It’s full of drama, tragedy, ambition, liberalism and a long, slow climb up the slippery pole to his lifelong ambition, the presidency.

Former Vice President Joe Biden raises a fist as he delivers remarks on Election Night in Wilmington, Delaware.
Former Vice President Joe Biden raises a fist as he delivers remarks on Election Night in Wilmington, Delaware.
REUTERS/Mike Segar

It’s easy to think of Joe Biden as boring. He’s old, he talks too much and does so in long, meandering sometimes-grammatically-challenged sentences. He relies on meaningless verbal tics, like starting new sentences with “here’s the thing,” or “here’s the deal.”

The story of his life is not boring. It’s full of drama, tragedy, ambition, liberalism and a long, slow climb up the slippery pole to his lifelong ambition, the presidency of the United States, which, barring unforeseen developments, he will achieve tomorrow.

The tale is told, quite well, according to me, in a Frontline documentary that airs tonight (Tuesday) at 9 p.m. on KTCA-Channel 2 in the Twin Cities and other PBS stations.

Biden was not my first choice, nor one of my top three choices, in the huge 2020 Democratic field. In the end, he won the nomination, based substantially on the belief that he might be the likeliest one to defeat the now-thoroughly-disgraced doubly-impeached incumbent. And Biden did, soundly and clearly to anyone who inhabits the world of facts and reality, defeat Donald Trump. We’ll never know whether one of the other contenders could have done so. But Biden is the one who did.

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He’s been around forever. A working-class kid, who had to overcome a stutter (and still sometimes struggles with it), Biden first ran for office in 1970, for a seat on the county board of New Castle County, Delaware. He was 27 on Election Day. That’s now, amazingly, more than half a century ago. The film includes a young man, who stutters, who talks movingly about Biden as an inspiration.

Biden won that first race and soon, audaciously, launched a bid for a U.S. Senate nomination, which no one else wanted because the Republican incumbent was considered unbeatable. But Biden, without money or any statewide reputation, starting more than 20 points behind, running against the Vietnam War and for civil rights, outhustled the incumbent and won.

You have to be 30 to serve in the Senate, and Biden was only 29 on Election Day, but turned 30 before his term started. Also before his term started, as you surely know, his wife and 1-year-old daughter were killed in an auto accident. Biden considered resigning his Senate seat before he was even sworn in, according to the Frontline film. Instead, he persevered.

He decided not to move to Washington, but to commute, by train, from Wilmington, so he could be home for dinner with his surviving children.

He ran for president, the first time, in 1988. It was a longshot bid that is remembered for Biden getting caught plagiarizing parts of a speech.

In 2007, in the early stages of another Biden shot at the Democratic nomination, when a fresh face in presidential politics became the big story, Biden committed another famous gaffe, when he said of Barack Obama, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Biden later apologized. This was not plagiarism, and I suspect if he had not included the word “clean,” it wouldn’t have been as much of a problem. Biden’s hopes for the 2008 nomination ended quickly. But his relationship with Obama soon developed in such a positive direction that Obama ended up asking him to join the 2008 ticket as his running mate, which led to his vice presidency. The film makes clear that Biden didn’t want to be vice president and had to be talked into it by many in his inner circle, including his wife, Jill, and his 90-year-old mom, who apparently told him that if he could help the first African-American president get elected, he had to do it.

He was a good running mate and a good vice president and, as African-American political analyst Bakari Sellers comments in the film, Biden’s loyal service to the ticket and the Obama presidency, and the obvious trust that developed between them, helped overcome for Biden some of the things he had said and bills he had sponsored that had previously blocked Biden from getting the kind of African-American political support he needed if he was ever going to get another shot at the top job.

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It worked. And, the film suggests that Obama got a lot of benefit, when racially charged matters arose, from having, in Biden, a partner who had dealt with race matters for decades and was not himself black.

The film implies, but doesn’t state as an established fact, that Biden might well have sought the 2016 presidential nomination, but he was still devastated by the loss of his eldest son, former Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden, who died of cancer in 2015. Instead, Donald Trump was elected and, if you watch the film, you won’t know whether to laugh or cry, at the look and expressions on Biden’s face, to which the camera zooms in, as he watches Trump take the oath of office.

Antony Blinken, an Obama aide whom Biden has chosen to be his secretary of state, says in the film that Biden was horrified by Trump’s performance as president. He recall’s being with Biden around the time of Trump’s remarks after the Charlottesville riots in 2017 — when Trump famously included neo-Nazis and racists in his comment that “there were very fine people on both sides” of the violence. “That was the tipping point,” for Biden, Blinken says in the film.

According to Blinken and other commentators, Biden, feeling that perhaps if he had run for president in 2016 he might have prevented Trump from becoming president, decided to take one more shot in 2020 to keep Trump from a second term.

The film refreshes the fairly recent tale of how Biden, who was expected to be the dominant Democrat in the 2020 nomination contest, stumbled badly in the early caucuses and primaries, then was saved by South Carolina’s primary, where African-American voters, and specifically U.S. Rep. James Clyburn, came out strongly for him and gave him the Super Tuesday wins he needed to get back into the contest. After that he became the candidate to beat, then the candidate who couldn’t be stopped.

His choice of Sen. Kamala Harris, who had sought the nomination and been rough on Biden in some of the debates, and who would break enormous barriers as both the first black and first female, as his running mate, is portrayed by “Frontline” as both brave and smart.

The film suggests that, in a campaign against Donald Trump, Biden, a product of the working class and a man who had suffered terrible losses and tragedies, may have been the perfect foil for Trump, and perhaps, we’ll never know, the one best-positioned to defeat him.

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The film’s coverage of the campaign and Biden’s victory is very brief. That will be a different film. This one leaves us with the pandemic still raging, race matters at a boiling point in the aftermath of recent events, setting Biden up for, as Washington Post journalist Dan Balz says in the closing moments of the film, challenges that “will test everything Joe Biden has learned after almost 50 years in public office.”

Again, the film airs on KTCA Channel 2 and other PBS stations at 9 p.m. Minnesota time tonight, the day before Biden is inaugurated.  I got a lot out of it, and maybe you would too.