Picture, for a moment, this scene: You’re sitting at Joe Biden’s table, and he’s in the midst of an all-consuming transition into the role of president of the United States, but he breaks free of all that for the moment to share a memory from 1972, his earliest days on the campaign trail.
In this anecdote, he walks into an old country store in southern Delaware and finds himself in front of a circle of farmers. Biden works his way around the group, a young and still relatively obscure politician asking field-wise older men to look him over as Democratic candidate for the U.S. Senate. One of them is leaning his chair back against an unlit fireplace, his Farm Bureau hat pulled down over his eyes. When Biden reaches him, the farmer looks up and asks—and here the present-day Biden, immersed in the storytelling, affects a southern Delaware drawl—“Why should I look you over, boy?”
“Because I’m just like you,” the Biden in the story answers.
The farmer nudges up his hat with a finger, lowers the chair to the floor and replies: “Boy, if you ain’t any smarter than me, you don’t deserve to be a U.S. senator.”
He’s probably recounted that story a few hundred times, but Biden still laughs after the telling.
To be clear: No one is actually sitting with Biden at his kitchen table when he recounts this little gem. He tells the story over the phone, in the interstices of all the critical bullet-pointed pieces of business he has to cover, the sundry conversations with foreign leaders and cabinet decisions to be made—and anyway, there’s a pandemic going on, so in-person interactions are mostly out of the question.
But even so, Delawareans will understand this: It felt that way. The prototypically self-deprecating story comes unbidden, an extended jazz solo of layered-on details he tells in his regular-Joe style, his voice gravelly and a little weary, as if he’s about to push back his chair and head off to bed. The entire conversation has an out-of-time feeling, as if he is the one relaxing alongside the potbelly stove.
He picks up the thread. “All kidding aside,” he says, “I’ve learned a lot of lessons, and I know sometimes I’m viewed as being too straight, and it gets me in trouble sometimes, but you know, that’s the Delaware way. And I think it’s what the American people, including Delawareans, want. They’re tired of the bitterness.”
Let’s set aside the thorny question of what Americans collectively want at this fraught moment in history, and instead consider Biden himself. Delawareans will hear him refer to “straight talk” and “the Delaware way” and nod knowingly, recalling their own moment running into him in the bank in Greenville or after Saturday Mass at St. Joe’s, or over a milkshake at the Charcoal Pit: There’s that uncanny and unexpected familiarity, a palpable sense of connection. Like you’re sitting in his kitchen—even now that he’s the president.
“In Delaware,” he says, “I’m Joe. I mean, for real. It’s not some gimmick. I’m Joe.”
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