Sunday, November 29, 2020

Shape shifter

The truth is that, until he became the place holder who could perhaps evict Donald Trump, I'd never put any thought into Joe Biden. He had been just another white, establishment politician who had been around forever, with no particular accomplishments. Balancing the presidential ticket for the Black guy with a funny name didn't exactly seem an accomplishment. Occasionally there'd be rumors he was on the side of the angels about something: opposing prolonging the war in Afghanistan or supporting gay marriage. He seemed quite possibly a nice, decent person with a lot of experience in government. But despite spending several months working to be sure he got elected, I didn't have much of a sense of the guy.

So I spent a pleasant afternoon trying to fill in some of the gaps in my picture of the President-elect by reading New Yorker staff writer Evan Osnos's little book, Joe Biden: The Life, the Run, and What Matters Now. Because I read the book in audio version, I can't offer quotes, but here are some impressions.

• The young Biden was kind of an ambitious twit. This may have been because he was overcompensating for having grown up with a stutter and then managed to find a perch among other pols with far greater privilege than he'd been raised with. The guy is really not a natural born patrician, and that's rare in the upper reaches of politics. And he didn't seem to much acquire the entitled habits of his surroundings.

• His early family tragedy -- the accident that killed his wife and daughter and left him an unprepared single parent -- evoked sympathy and decency from his Senate peers. Somehow I can't imagine that happening today; maybe I'm wrong. This experience wraps the Senate in a warm nostalgic glow for him, not probably a fantasy he'll be able to preserve now he's in office.

• He apparently believes in democratic political give and take. That is, people with differing views should be able to find compromises that enable government to function for everyone. His politics is less about ideology or interests than about pragmatism. This is an era in which most of us feel the urgent need for something more drastic -- can he satisfy a sustainable majority adequately while offering something less?

• He eventually decided to learn something about something -- and that turned out to be "foreign policy." Can't say his history there is impressive. Since U.S. foreign policy has been and continues to be the arena of establishing, preserving, and managing inescapable decline of empire, this is not a happy expertise. I always suspected that Obama brought an unstated realism to the limits of U.S. power, even if he couldn't admit it publicly. I don't know whether Biden also does, for all his "foreign policy" experience.

• If there's a theme to the Biden story, it's that he's reinvented himself again and again to meet the circumstances in which he found himself. That's easy to say -- but of how many of us is that true? I think it may be quite rare. It's easy to get stuck. My guess is he'll be both better as President -- and worse -- than we expect. At least we won't have to be in a state of chronic rage and terror -- I hope.
The Osnos book is short, graceful, and thoughtful. Recommended. 

1 comment:

Bonnie said...

My concern is the current Republican 'machine' at work every where. I pray Mr. Biden is able to bring some peace to our country and hopefully get a handle on the virus of which so much depends on us.