We are witnessing Joe Biden in full.
After a half-century in the glare of national attention, there are few surprises in the Biden profile and personality. But only now, in the eighth month of a presidency that years ago seemed implausible, are we seeing the full picture, not in fragments but all at once.
For decades, small shards of the Biden persona were visible, the sort of tiny elements that move in a kaleidoscope. But the White House changes people – it is both a convex and concave lens – and it changes our perspective. The presidency is America’s great viewfinder, offering the public a fresh focus even as it has the capacity to cloud the vision of the occupant.
But it also offers the sort of peripheral vision that allows us to see the president as the sum of the many parts we once saw separately:
There is, for example, Biden the underestimated, a New Castle County councilman with no personal or political money taking on a mastodon of the Senate, winning funding only after having a tantrum at the second-floor elevator of the Democratic National Committee headquarters after party leaders dismissed his chances of defeating Sen. J. Caleb Boggs. Biden beat the Republican incumbent by 3,163 votes.
There is Biden the overestimated, reaching for glory, planning a 1988 presidential campaign that gathered the finest minds and strategists of the Democratic world, assembled in the devout conviction that the Delawarean was the voice and vision of the new generation of Americans. He dropped out of the race five months before the Iowa caucuses, the self-inflicted victim of plagiarizing a speech from British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock.
There is Biden the minimizer, possessed of the capacity most recently to tell Americans that there was little risk of domestic terrorism by withdrawing the last cadre of military personnel from Afghanistan.
There is Biden the exaggerator, stumbling through a rambling, disjointed series of Rosh Hashana remarks suggesting he visited Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue after the 2018 murder of 11 Jews at prayer. The White House later explained that the statement from the president – whose commitment to inclusion and revulsion of hatred is clear even if his syntax is not – was referring to a telephone call, about nine months later, with Rabbi Jeffrey Myers.
There is Biden the taciturn, the first presidential contender in American history to cut short his debate remarks at an awkward interlude by channeling Calvin Coolidge and taking safe harbor in the notion his time had expired.
There is Biden the loquacious, the political figure channeling Bill Clinton with rhetoric that flows like Niagara Falls, but burying the listener in an onslaught of commentary that, mysteriously, has no apparent origin and, sadly, no apparent end.
There is Biden the celebrator of life, the man who seems most comfortable behind Ray-Ban aviator-style sunglasses while cruising through Chesapeake beach towns in a 1967 Corvette.
There is Biden the mourner, the man broken by the death of his first wife and daughter shortly after he won the 1972 Senate race and, then, by the death of his son, Beau, of a brain tumor in 2015.
There is Biden the lawmaker who goes the extra mile, the Judiciary Committee chairman who surprised Supreme Court nominee David Souter, at the time regarded as a conservative with views at odds with Biden’s, by meeting him in the committee chambers the day before the confirmation hearings and comforting the New Hampshire jurist, urging him to relax because no one who would be in the room would know more about the law than the nominee himself.
There is Biden the lawmaker who cuts corners, the Judiciary Committee chairman who failed in fiery confirmation hearings a year later to call witnesses who would have supported Anita Hill’s charges that Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas had sexually harassed her, prompting Biden to say two years ago, “Hill did not get treated well. I take responsibility.”
There is Biden the conformer, voting as chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee in 2002 to authorize the use of military force in Iraq, a view he later obscured by saying that he opposed the invasion from “the moment it began,” eventually prompting his campaign to acknowledge that “Vice President Biden misspoke by saying that he declared his opposition to the war immediately.”
There is Biden the dissenter, the principal figure in Barack Obama’s circle who opposed the raid that killed al-Qaida leader Osama bin Laden, having “weighed in against the raid,” Obama wrote in his memoir, and urging caution, saying, according to the Obama memoir, “Don’t go.”
There is Biden the realist, the man who twice recognized his presidential aspirations were going nowhere and withdrew – and the politician who, in 2008, calculated that his best opportunity for relevance as a 65-year-old was to accept the vice-presidential nomination from a man who had just turned 47 and seemed the living portrait of the new America.
There is Biden the dreamer, the romantic who quotes Irish poetry and believes there is a time (quoting Seamus Heaney) when “hope and history rhyme”; who grows weepy at stories of moral uplift; who ingested the 1950s view of the United States as a nation of unbounded possibility and unrestrained valor; and who peppers his remarks with interjections such as “We’re Americans,” his ever-ready and ever-applicable shorthand for America’s values and virtues.
And there is Biden the simple and Biden the complex, Biden the intuitive and Biden the introspective, Biden the shallow and Biden the deep, Biden the impatient and Biden the player of the long game, Biden the president with high approval ratings and Biden the chief executive with declining ratings, Biden the calculator and Biden the courageous. They coexist in one man, sometimes at the same time, providing the country with Wordsworth’s characterization (“A man he seems of cheerful yesterdays/And confident tomorrows”) and Oscar Wilde’s conviction (“The curves of your lips rewrite history”), along with the sad, compliant wisdom of Shakespeare (“What fate imposes, men must needs abide”).
All these things coexist, accumulating in 78 years of life. Some recent presidents sought a staff that looked like America. Though white, and old, and part of the political class, the 46th president actually may be a portrait of America in 2021. Joe Biden in full: for better, and for worse.
David M. Shribman is the former executive editor of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. Follow him on Twitter at ShribmanPG.