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Joe Biden Finally Got the Timing Right

Joe Biden tells funny stories at funerals and sad ones at campaign stops.

He has been running for president long enough to lose the 1988 Democratic primary as a hard-charging 40-something pushing generational change — and to win the 2020 primary as the white-haired statesman who has steered through sorrow, who can still sniff it out in any room and close in like a pang-seeking missile for the stricken.

“He asked if I was OK and gave me a hug,” a cane-shuffling Iowa man, Brian Peters, said last winter, blinking away tears after pledging his support to Mr. Biden on a characteristically misty post-event rope line. “I told him that I would be.”

Maybe it had to happen this way, friends say, if it was going to happen at all: After nearly a half-century of public life defined most viscerally by the forced commingling of politics and personal loss, the tint of the moment at last matches Mr. Biden’s own story: shadowed by despair, sustained by faith — in himself; in God; in the human capacity for resilience, founded or not.

“We all are an accumulation of our life’s experiences,” said Joe Riley, a friend of Mr. Biden’s and the former longtime mayor of Charleston, S.C.

And Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.’s experiences have delivered him here. He has at last captured the Democratic presidential nomination, earning the chance to face President Trump because he is, admirers say, all the things that the incumbent is not: empathetic, dependable, decent.

“Character is on the ballot,” Mr. Biden said in his convention address Thursday evening, inside a quiet hall in Wilmington, Del. “Compassion is on the ballot.”

There is some irony, Democrats concede, in the idea that Mr. Biden prevailed because voters found him comforting and familiar. Through his years in presidential politics, his longevity has generally served to remind his skeptics of all they believe he has gotten wrong: He voted to authorize the use of military force in Iraq and came to regret it. He presided over the committee that subjected Anita Hill to demeaning and invasive questioning in the Supreme Court confirmation hearings for now-Justice Clarence Thomas. He helped craft tough-on-crime legislation that many criminal justice experts now associate with mass incarceration.

In this primary campaign, Mr. Biden, 77, could often appear almost willfully out of step with the times, telling debate viewers to keep their record players on at night for children’s educational purposes and warmly remembering his relationships with segregationist senators.

He won anyway, stepping to the lectern on Thursday having reached the precipice of a prize he has chased for more than three decades and talked about since grade school.

Yet like many flashes of triumph in his long career, this one is not as he imagined it, the would-be jubilation laced with an abiding gravity.

His speech skewed sober, befitting the national mood. He did not have a large crowd to cheer him through it in person, in deference to the pandemic that has overwhelmed the country he hopes to lead. He did not have Beau Biden, his son and political heir, who died in 2015 while pleading with his father not to withdraw from the public arena. A video tribute to him played instead.

“Beau should be the one running,” Mr. Biden said in January, choking up in a television interview.

But then, the “should” constructions have never much cooperated in Mr. Biden’s arc, where the bitter and the sweet tend to find each other in metronomic succession.

His underdog Senate victory in 1972, as a relentless 29-year-old who did not know better, came a month before the car crash that killed his wife and daughter and injured his two sons, the trauma that forever enshrined him as an avatar of bereavement in the public consciousness.

His debacle of a first presidential bid, for the 1988 Democratic nomination, collapsed just as he was carrying off one of his signature congressional achievements: helping to engineer the defeat of a deeply conservative Supreme Court nominee, Judge Robert H. Bork.

Then an aneurysm nearly killed him.

The signal promotion of Mr. Biden’s career to date — his elevation to the vice presidency — came after another campaign flameout in 2008. And his eight years as President Barack Obama’s chief lieutenant ended with Mr. Biden a tragic figure once more, burying Beau and deciding against another run in 2016.

Long fluent in the emotional force of foreboding Irish poetry and proverb, Mr. Biden has been known to lean on an axiom borrowed from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, his former Senate colleague: “I don’t think there’s any point in being Irish if you don’t know that the world is going to break your heart eventually.”

So it has gone, on some level, in each chapter of Mr. Biden’s biography: the boy with the stutter; the young man in a hurry; the senator with a binder of old eulogies in his office, a brimful accounting of his grief.

In one of them, for his father in 2002, he offered up this working definition of a Biden man: “a dreamer burdened with reality, a sensitive spirit layered in stoicism.”

That sounds about right, people close to him say, for better or worse. He has nurtured his White House dreams and, in his penchant for exaggeration, occasionally strained to recast reality. He has laid bare his sensitivity — he is a hugger and a crier, a walking purveyor of vulnerability — and been left to suffer his losses stoically at times, maintaining a public profile through private anguish.

“He has inordinate strength,” said Carol Balick, a longtime family friend whose husband hired Mr. Biden as a young lawyer. “He doesn’t carry a mythology about himself.”

But he does have his stories, repeated and refashioned through the years with a homespun sweep calibrated to his audiences.

He was raised in Scranton, Pa., the sort of white working-class hub that became part of his political coalition, and in Delaware — the son of a car-salesman father and a strong-willed mother who encouraged Mr. Biden through his speech difficulties, telling him he was just so bright that he couldn’t get the thoughts out fast enough.

While his renderings of his youth can feel culled from a Norman Rockwell, with Mass on Sundays and penny candy for a neighborhood snack, the Bidens slogged through financial hardships severe enough that they were forced at one point to move in with his mother’s parents.

More distinguished as an athlete than a student, Mr. Biden edged into adulthood amid the swirl of 1960s activism but found himself at a clear remove from it. He has at once described civil rights as the animating cause of his interest in public service and overstated his own participation in the struggle, compelling advisers years later to gently remind him that if he did not actually “march,” he should probably stop telling voters that he did.

In fact, Mr. Biden’s most consequential encounter around this time happened poolside in the Bahamas, by his account, during a spring break trip in 1964, his junior year at the University of Delaware.

“I’ve got the blonde,” Mr. Biden told a friend, zipping toward a stranger, Neilia Hunter, and her suntanning companion.

Mr. Biden and Ms. Hunter had dinner that night. They were married two years later.

And this, Mr. Biden has suggested, is what most informed his throwback bearing in this period of national upheaval. He was growing up fast: a family, a burgeoning legal career, a run for county council soon enough.

“I was married, I was in law school,” he told reporters once, explaining his psychic distance from the antiwar fervor of his contemporaries. “I wore sport coats. I was not part of that. I’m serious!”

He was. And he did not lack for ambition. Even in his 20s, Mr. Biden was a plotter, a grinder, a wear-you-down talker.

If he could seem, at times, like an older man in a young man’s body, his next job would only amplify the effect. With his audacious, successful 1972 challenge to the incumbent senator, J. Caleb Boggs, Mr. Biden saw his future snapping into place. He was a senator-elect before turning 30. He had a wife and three children already.

And then the crash.

Those who knew him then recall those early Senate days as a kind of rolling thunderstorm, breaking occasionally but never clearing in full.

“Even after it got better — where after four, five, six months you’d go and things would seem kind of normal — then one day it was right back in the beginning,” said Ted Kaufman, a longtime friend and aide who briefly succeeded Mr. Biden in the Senate. “He’d come into work, and he was clearly hurting. But he came, and he did it.”

Mr. Biden likes to talk about the people who rescued him in these years: the senators who looked after him, cementing his lifelong reverence for the chamber, and the woman — Jill Jacobs, for a time — who rebuilt his family.

“She put us back together,” Mr. Biden said in a video presentation during the convention this week. “She gave me back my life. She gave us back a family.”

As Mr. Biden’s Senate tenure swelled, rumblings about a White House run became something of a quadrennial tradition.

His first campaign, like this one, was premised as much on his personal integrity as any signature policy push.

His second — two decades later, by which time Mr. Biden had spent more earthly years in the Senate than outside of it — centered on experience and judgment, drawing on his grounding in foreign affairs and his talent for “God-love-ya” glad-handing.

That both failed is a matter of political shortcomings, yes, but also of timing.

This Joe Biden, the one who won the 2020 primary, is still known best for all he has lost. He is still liable to misstate, misstep, mishandle. And he is still often at his strongest offstage, deploying long hugs and finger-guns among the well-wishers.

If the pandemic crystallized Mr. Biden’s rationale for the nomination, even after he had effectively claimed it, it also reinforced his longstanding case against Mr. Trump as a national emergency unto himself.

Often, his supporters’ argument has seemed this simple: You need a good man to defeat a bad man.

Barbara Boxer, a former Democratic senator from California, turned a phone interview over to her spouse as she worked to summarize her former colleague’s appeal. “My husband said, ‘In a word, he’s a mensch,’” Ms. Boxer reported. “You should say her husband leaned over and said, ‘He’s a mensch.’ But it’s true.”

In recent weeks, friends say Mr. Biden has approached his convention spotlight with a solemnity reflecting the nation’s distress. He has said this is not about ego and never was. He has said he could die happy without ever hearing “Hail to the Chief” play for him.

He has also thought he would be president before — if never this deep into a campaign — only to meet a reversal of fortunes.

“He’s been pretty reserved,” Representative James Clyburn, the South Carolina Democrat whose endorsement helped revive Mr. Biden’s once-floundering bid, said of the candidate’s present outlook.

And why would a polling lead change that? Why would the presidency?

“That’s what losing will do for you,” Mr. Clyburn reasoned.

That is what Joe Biden understands.

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