Frank Bruni: With the speech of his life, Joe Biden becomes the man for this moment

Democratic presidential candidate former Vice President Joe Biden speaks during the fourth day of the Democratic National Convention, Thursday, Aug. 20, 2020, at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del. (AP Photo/Andrew Harnik)

Let’s be honest. One of the big questions attending Joe Biden’s big speech at the Democratic National Convention was whether he still had enough gas and enough grip to get to the end of it without losing velocity or swerving this way and that.

He did. He absolutely did. Is he in the fleetest, shiniest, nimblest form of his very long career? No. And Donald Trump — no Ferrari himself — is constantly trying to exploit that.

But as I watched Biden, 77, on Thursday night, I kept thinking that there’s another way to look at all the miles on his odometer and the unusually long road that he traveled to his party’s presidential nomination, which he first sought, disastrously, more than three decades ago.

He’s a paragon of stamina and stubborn optimism for a country that desperately needs one. In a period of great pain, he’s a crucial lesson in perseverance.

“I understand it’s hard to have any hope now,” he said, fusing his own story, one of extraordinary loss and extraordinary endurance, with America’s. “On this summer night, let me take a moment to speak to those of you who have lost the most.”

He told them: “I know the deep black hole that opens up in your chest — that you feel your whole being is sucked into it. I know how mean and cruel and unfair life can be sometimes.” And, he said, “The best way through pain and loss and grief is to find purpose.”

It was a forceful speech, above all because it was a direct one, not ornamented with oratorical curlicues but animated by his messy experience in this unpredictable world. It had enormous credibility because it had enormous heart — and because it came from someone who, emotionally, has suffered mightily and come out the other side.

That central fact about him was the theme of a biographical video that played just before the speech began. “Once again, Joe faced the unimaginable,” the video’s unseen narrator said at one point, suggesting that “unimaginable” was Biden’s normal. It’s our normal these days, too.

I’m not an everything-happens-for-a-reason type. But I do think that our political leaders are the distinct products of their moments, and that’s true of Biden, who waited so long for his. They tell us something about ourselves that we’re longing to hear, they point us toward virtues that we’ve lost touch with or they do both. Biden does both.

Look at America right now. My God. We’re hurting like we seldom hurt. We’re quarreling like we seldom quarrel. We’re exceptional in our death count, in our divisions. It’s easy to feel hopeless. It’s hard to press forward.

Biden’s life is a parable of pressing forward. He did that after his young wife and daughter were killed in a car accident. He did it after two brain aneurysms. He did it after two previous, humiliatingly unsuccessful campaigns for the Democratic nomination. He did it some six months ago, after a fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses and a fifth-place finish in the New Hampshire primary cast his latest and surely last presidential campaign as yet another moribund one.

He turned things around but, even so, seemed to be his party’s underwhelming default option, its compromise choice. From the vantage point of the coronavirus pandemic, everything suddenly looks different. He suddenly looks different. He looks like a perfectly tailored message to the country.

“America’s history tells us that it has been in our darkest moments that we’ve made our greatest progress,” he said. “That we’ve found the light. And in this dark moment, I believe we are poised to make great progress again. That we can find the light once more.”

Biden also provides a second, related message whose importance has risen exponentially since Trump moved into the White House. It’s about humility — about the possibility of getting where you want to go not by beating your own chest but by opening your arms wide to others.

I found myself riveted on Wednesday night by another Biden video, one that showed President Barack Obama awarding him the Presidential Medal of Freedom. As Obama did this, Biden grew so overwhelmed and uncharacteristically bashful that he stepped away from Obama and turned his back to both the audience and the camera, so that he effectively disappeared from the frame.

I can’t in my wildest dreams imagine Trump having that reaction. He’d shove everyone else aside. He’d consider the accolade his due. He’d complain out loud — or later that day in a tweet — that it was too long in coming.

In its way, that video defined the convention, which often directed attention away from Biden and toward the country that he aspires to lead. Sure, there were testimonials and montages about his many fine qualities. But there was as much focus on what Americans are enduring and what they deserve.

They kept popping up to tell us. Biden gladly and graciously ceded the spotlight, an incredibly smart decision in the context of the current president. He was making clear that he wouldn’t rule as some self-obsessed despot whose personal melodramas sucked the energy out of everyone and everything else. He wouldn’t rule at all. He’d govern. It’s a different, humbler thing.

And the compliments lavished on Biden across all four nights weren’t the sort reserved for superheroes. They were the kind applied to the best of so-called ordinary folk. We kept hearing that he was good. Decent. Sensible. Honest.

And that was what he conveyed in his speech. He promised a return to normalcy. A return to kindness. He promised to protect us.

And he promised, at least implicitly, to be an example to us. When he brought up President Franklin Delano Roosevelt, he did it in a telling way. He didn’t just recall that Roosevelt “pledged a New Deal in a time of massive unemployment, uncertainty and fear.” He also reminded us that “Stricken by disease, stricken by a virus, FDR insisted that he would recover and prevail and he believed America could as well. And he did. And so can we.”

In other words, personal fortitude is bound together with national fortitude. Our leader’s arc is our own. Biden was saying that toughness and faith go a long way, toward a brighter day. And he was telling us that he could show us that path.

Frank Bruni (CREDIT: Earl Wilson/The New York Times)

Frank Bruni is an Op-Ed columnist for The New York Times.