Such supernatural appeals sound weird to those of us who are reconciled to life in an irredeemably fallen world, where the sad, secular task of politics is to manage our messes. Yet every US dollar bill proclaims In God We Trust above an image of the temple-like White House portico, and the promise of perfectibility is written into the country’s constitution. Although Osnos has his doubts about Biden’s dazzling regular teeth and his replanted hairline, the cosmetic rejuvenation of this good, comfortingly ordinary man is just one more proof of America’s enviable capacity for making a fresh start.
Throughout the book, friends and critics refer to the ways Biden’s character has been affected by tragedy. It is seen as an experience that has helped him to connect with people, not with the charm or pizzazz of Bill Clinton or Obama, but in a way that is far less glamorous, although arguably just as likeable. “Biden’s association with pain and violence puts him outside the usual bounds of retail politics,” Osnos says. Voters come over to him to talk about the hardships of life. Osnos describes the approach of this “gut politician” as one of “unapologetic pragmatism”.
While the book is a timely and stylish work at a key juncture in US history, the speed at which it was published sometimes shows. It is short – arguably too short at 170 pages – and includes some errors. (The Rose Garden speech cited at the top of this review occurred in 2015, not in the autumn of 2016 as stated.) Nonetheless, Osnos’s fluid style, access to Biden, and insightful analysis makes it a worthwhile and eminently readable portrait of a man who may become the 46th president of the United States.
Osnos’s slim volume, spun out of two New Yorker profiles, is a good primer on the man who could soon be president. Yet it falls foul of the perils of access journalism, failing to ask any tough questions of Biden or his surrogates. Osnos doesn’t talk to any Republicans or conservatives about Biden, nor Anita Hill, whom Biden famously sidelined during Supreme Court confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. Nor Lucy Flores, the young politician whom he allegedly touched inappropriately at a rally in Nevada. (He has denied this.)
What might be possible in America after 220,000 have died from coronavirus is very different from a year ago. Biden has changed with the circumstances. That includes knowing when to keep his mouth shut. Biden has kept a pretty threadbare campaign schedule — and not just because of social distancing. The strategy has been to make this a referendum on Donald Trump; the president must be given enough rope to hang himself. “The more he [Trump] talks, the better off I am,” Biden told Osnos. The more you think about that quip, the more interesting it is. After a career of world-beating prolixity, Biden may finally have learnt the value of silence.
Osnos has written a fast-paced biography that draws on extensive interviews with his subject, as well as with Obama and a host of Democratic party heavyweights. In pursuit of brevity it races through the many personal dramas of a tumultuous life and deals only perfunctorily with Biden’s surviving son, Hunter, whose personal life has been the challenger’s greatest weakness – the target painted on his back by the Trump campaign... This book suggests Biden has the capacity for self-reinvention. The next two weeks will determine whether he, and America, will have that opportunity.