What’s inside the blue bag on front porches all over America this morning.
Our Better Angels — Charles P. Pierce.
Wisdom and goodness to the vile seem vile.
—King Lear, Act IV, Scene 2
At the moment, we have a president*.
In a few months, it appears, we will have a president.
The asterisk is dead. May god have mercy on its soul.
I stayed up until 5 a.m. on Friday morning, just long enough for Joe Biden to pass El Caudillo Del Mar-a-Lago in the remarkable state of Georgia, and he did so with votes from Clayton County, the late John Lewis’ old congressional district. I was asleep when Pennsylvania finally flipped after the sun came up. I did what every true American patriot has done all week—curse the Electoral College for murdering sleep—and realized that I’m going to be working against muscle memory every time I type the word “president” for quite some time. I apologize to President-Elect Biden in advance in case I occasionally drop the asterisk out of habit, until I get used to the idea that this president* and his awful family and his terrible administration* are vapor.
Joe Biden has come through a lot of history, and not unscathed, either. I applied to be one of his speechwriters in 1976, fresh out of college. (I didn’t get the gig, which is why he hasn’t built his library already.) Since then, he’s run for president three times. In 1988, he was sunk by a plagiarism scandal brought to light by operatives in the employ of Michael Dukakis. (When Mike Dukakis oppo’s you out of a race, it’s like losing a fistfight with Plato.) In 2008—Twenty years later!—he was swept aside by the phenomenon of Barack Obama, of whom he memorably once said,
“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
And this is why campaign aides jump out of windows.
Obama, of course, held no grudges and, by picking Biden as a running mate, revived his career as cool Uncle Joe, one of the more remarkable charisma transfusions in the history of American politics. There is no question that Biden was transformed by the vice presidency, making him the first vice president to be elevated rather than minimized by that office, at least without the president’s having died. The gaffe-ridden friend of the Delaware financial-services industry slipped on the aviators, unleashed his killer smile, and found his way back to being the decent guy, friend of the Amtrak commuters, damn fine Dad, that everybody who really knew him always said he was. The guy who choked so badly during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings was sent to wrangle votes for a stimulus deal and the Affordable Care Act, and generally was one of the great wingmen any president ever had.
So, when he announced he was running for president again—32 years later!—and when he said he was doing so to recapture the soul of America, people bought it. Even when he barely crawled through the primary processes in Iowa and New Hampshire, he clung to that message—that we are somehow better than the president* we had elected in 2016, that the better angels of our nature were not taking a few years off. The message found an audience as soon as the primary electorate became less Caucasian, especially in South Carolina, where Congressman Jim Clyburn pointed the way. At which point, the country’s simple desire for cool and blessed normality asserted itself. I freely admit that I underestimated the political salience of that simple truth.
Events then conspired to intensify that desire. The pandemic hit in the middle of the year and the economy cratered as a result. The most intense racial upheaval since the 1960s struck with the murder of George Floyd. Biden stayed resolutely on message—that, basically, we have it in us to make it all OK. There was a brilliant jiu-jitsu element to that message. It insulated Biden from being firmly tagged with any rioting and looting that went on. It absorbed every episode of angry lunacy emanating from the White House as validation of its basic raison d’être. We can survive even the president* that we have inflicted upon ourselves, the message was. There is no crisis that Americans cannot overcome, not even each other. In all honesty, the truth of that message is still very much up in air; one thing that the 2020 election has proven is that the 2016 election wasn’t anywhere near the outlier that a lot of people wanted it to be. But, simply as a reason to vote for someone, it was both extraordinarily powerful and just barely enough.
SICINIUS: What is the city but the people?
CITIZENS: True, the people are the city.
BRUTUS: By the consent of all, we were establish’d the people’s magistrates.
—Shakespeare, Coriolanus, Act I, Scene 1.
Citizens of the following cities saved the American republic: Milwaukee, Detroit, Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Atlanta, Las Vegas, and (possibly) Phoenix.
Remember these names: Stacey Abrams of Georgia, Ben Wikler of Wisconsin, Jane Fleming Kleeb of Nebraska. They saved the American Republic.
Black voters saved the American republic.
Women voters saved the American republic.
Over 70 million American citizens saved the American republic.
The late Congressman Elijah Cummings left behind the question for us all to answer:
When we’re dancing with the angels, the question will be asked: “In , what did we do to make sure we kept our democracy intact?” Did we stand on the sidelines and say nothing?
Joe Biden is the 46th President of the United States.
Kamala Harris is the 49th Vice President of the United States.
At the moment, another verse from Seamus Heaney, whom Biden used as a kind of unofficial speechwriter throughout this long, weird year, seems appropriate to the occasion, to the election of a president-elect for whom fatherhood has been both glory and deep, unhealed wound, something that touched a country desperate for the kind of solace that Joe Biden brought home from Washington every night on the Acela to his bereaved sons back in Wilmington.
By God, the old man could handle a spade.
Just like his old man.
My grandfather cut more turf in a day
Than any other man on Toner’s bog.
Once I carried him milk in a bottle
Corked sloppily with paper. He straightened up
To drink it, then fell to right away
Nicking and slicing neatly, heaving sods
Over his shoulder, going down and down
For the good turf. Digging.
Doonesbury — Shearing the sheep.