PITTSBUGH – I drove over the Alleghenies from Washington to my western Pennsylvania hometown Monday night to see Joe Biden’s final rally of the campaign, in a parking lot next to the Steelers’ football stadium, Heinz Field.
In the simplest sense, I wanted to lay eyes on him again, in real-time and as up-close and in-person and I could get. Even inspiring TV ads, and he has had plenty, can’t do that. I also wanted a better sense of the whys and wherefores of his campaign directly from him: Was he making sense and the sale – enough to win this week and, if he does, to handle the monumental task of healing the country and moving us forward?
The event was a “drive-in,” surely one of the worst legacies of the pandemic. But I managed, mask on and socially distanced, to get out of my car to a spot as close as possible to the raised podium in the lot, next to the media camera stand. (A Pittsburgh guy I knew was handling the event logistics.)
The last time I saw Biden face-to-face, in pre-coronavirus days, was at the University of Pennsylvania in 2018, where he lectured to a seminar I taught. I was struck by how he finally was looking his age, which at the time was 75. He’d lived a life full of shocking setbacks, including the death of his first wife, and of two of his children. I wondered to myself whether he would be able to handle the unimaginable stress of a grueling run.
Well, he was and he has. At 77 (he’ll turn 78 on Nov. 20), he jogged onto the stage Monday night in an overcoat and gloves. He remains runner-trim, not quite gaunt. It was cold and windy and the podium was not heated, but he was energized and focused in a way that I hadn’t seen in covering him for decades. He seemed to be invigorated by the thought that he was ready to meet the moment that history was presenting to him. His white hair is thinner than ever, but snowy eyebrows add a touch of the patriarchal.
Two years on the campaign trail and rounds of combat with Donald Trump have allowed Biden and his advisers to shape and sandpaper a stump speech he delivered flawlessly, and passionately. There was nothing rote or halting about it. Not a glitch. He read from a teleprompter but wove in riffs seamlessly. A politician famed for his flubs and loquaciousness was stark and pointed.
There is nothing wrong with honing a stump speech. That is what a campaign is supposed to be about. The feedback loop was made harder by the distance COVID put between the crowd and the candidate, but Biden has managed it. Trump, by contrast, has maundered and wandered at his super-spreaders.
Hundreds of cars in the parking lot honked when Biden said something uplifting; drivers didn’t have an automotive noise that would amount to booing when Biden mentioned Trump. If they were actually booing, I couldn’t hear it.
His takedown of Trump was near-Biblical: Trump as the swollen gland of public sins: greed, ignorance, selfishness, laziness, self-idolatry and wanton disregard for human life. The former vice president did not mention lust and infidelity, but he didn’t need to.
The political meat of it was Joe as old-school, card-carrying union working stiff – a message aimed directly at Trump voters in the outer reaches of Allegheny County (Pittsburgh), surrounding counties in Western Pennsylvania and throughout the “industrial” Midwest of the country. Most of them are men. Most of them are white. Many are Catholic. They are no longer “hard hats” in the main, but they are hard-hatted in their thinking: suspicious of the federal government, of elites of all kinds, of minorities they regard as freeloaders or worse, and anyone who gives off a whiff of the “uppity,” regardless of race or gender.
Most will remain Trump voters. But the reason Biden launched his campaign in Pittsburgh more than a year ago and why he finished it here last night was to reclaim at least enough of those voters to win the state, and the nation.
His pitch? As freight train whistles sounded on the tracks along the Monongahela River, Biden sang a golden folk oldie of traditional Democrats that stretches back to the days of Franklin Delano Roosevelt, who always put Pittsburgh on the early-days launch schedule of his campaigns. It was as if the conservative “Reagan Revolution” had never happened.
Biden promised to be the most pro-union president ever. He would decree that all items bought by the federal government would be made in the United States. Health care would be a right, but you could keep the insurance you get from your job. He would tax the rich, but not the working man, to pay for better education, health care and green jobs that would revive industry. He would put a new tax on oil (not natural gas from fracking) and ban fracking, a key industry in Pennsylvania, only on federal lands, mostly out West.
The bigger picture message was familial. Biden would be the stern but kind father, called in to settle the vicious feud within the American nation. He would “heal and act.” He would favor science over suspicion, unity over division, love over hate and, above all, truth over lies. He would fulfil his own mother’s injunction that “enough is enough is enough,” and pay homage to his own father – a “Pennsylvania guy” from over in Scranton, who sometimes struggled to keep a job, but who the son saw as a decent man who had run into hard luck. He had, after all, kept the “Jr.” in his own name, long after the old man had died.
He would be true to the end, he promised. And with that, Joe Biden, embraced by his family, left the stage in the parking lot to fly home and await his fate.