Vice President Joe Biden’s frank and emotional interview with Stephen Colbert last night made me wonder how American history would be different if presidential primaries hadn’t taken hold, and party conventions still picked nominees in the Internet Age. The loud, sometimes angry speeches that once characterized political conventions (those barn-burners from William Jennings Bryan’s “Cross of Gold” speech to Barry Goldwater’s defense of “extremism in the pursuit of liberty”) would surely be out of fashion today at any rate. Booming voices and waving arms don’t play well on the cellphones on which many would follow the latest developments at deadlocked conventions.
But one can easily imagine delegates tuning in to Colbert’s “Late Show” and tearing up at the vice president’s remembrances of his son Beau, who died of cancer this spring, as well as the death of his first wife and his daughter in a car accident more than 40 years ago. “No one owes you anything,” he said of his determination to not to be overtaken by grief. “You've got to get up. And I feel like I was letting down Beau, letting down my parents, letting down my family if I didn’t just get up.” While talking about his son and the rest of his family, Biden repeatedly interrupted himself to acknowledge how many other people (including people “in this audience,” he said, looking past the camera to those in the television studio) worked through tragedy and continued to make a difference for their families and for larger society.
Biden, deliberately or not (you get the benefit of the doubt when you’re not an active candidate), also reminded viewers of Hillary Clinton’s reputation for being too controlled, and too cautious, as a candidate for president. “Why in God’s name would you want the job,” he asked, without naming names, “if you couldn’t say what you believe?” He added, “If you can’t state why you want the job, there are a lot more lucrative opportunities.”
By the end of the interview, Biden’s combination of openness and empathy had Colbert practically begging the vice president to seek a promotion—a notable contrast to the talk-show host’s snarkily generous comment to Jeb Bush on Tuesday that there was a “non-zero chance” he’d vote for the former Florida governor.
If we were a few days from a Democratic convention with no presumptive nominee, Biden’s interview with Colbert could have struck the perfect note for delegates looking for an “authentic” candidate—someone they could be proud to support, win or lose.
Unfortunately for Biden, presidential nominees are now chosen over several months of debates, caucuses and primaries, and nonstop media coverage that prizes the new and unexpected. If he ran for president, Biden would not be able to keep having quiet and powerful conversations like the one he had with Colbert. Repetition would cheapen his tribute to his son, and voters can take only so much contemplation about the purpose of life before they get distracted by attack ads and boasts about “making America great again.”
For better or worse, our long campaign season rewards candidates who know how to package themselves and are adept at changing their message to suit whatever headlines are bubbling up at the moment. Joe Biden, perhaps to his credit, has not proven that he has the right stuff to win.