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The Speech Joe Biden Has Been Preparing For His Entire Life

2020-08-20 07:00:12

WILMINGTON, Del. — Over his near half-century in public life, Joseph R. Biden Jr. has made many speeches: good speeches, bad speeches, campaign kickoff speeches and concession speeches, speeches without proper attribution to original sources, speeches so impossibly Biden that no one could ever accuse him of lifting anything.

“No one ever doubts that I mean what I say,” Mr. Biden, 77, is fond of telling audiences. “The problem is, I sometimes say all that I mean.”

What he means to say on Thursday, as he accepts the Democratic presidential nomination in the most important — and likely most surreal — address of his career, has been something of a work in progress for several decades, since he charged onto the national stage as a 29-year-old senator-elect and sparked his first presidential speculation soon after.

And so, friends said, some elements of his preparation process were to be expected. There would be consultations with a coterie of family members and his longest-serving advisers, including his sister Valerie Biden Owens; his wife, Jill Biden; and his chief strategist, Mike Donilon. He would cycle through multiple drafts, reflecting a longstanding habit of tinkering until the end, often by hand.

Mr. Biden and his team have also conferred with close friends and others he admires about themes and narrative arcs. Jon Meacham, the presidential historian, has been among those contributing to the process. (The title of a recent book by Mr. Meacham, “The Soul of America,” has been echoed by Mr. Biden throughout his presidential bid, including in his campaign slogan.)

But other parts of the task this week were less familiar. Namely: planning to deliver remarks with virtually no audience — distressing for a politician who has long fed off the energy of a crowd — with his top supporters left to uncork miniature bottles of confetti (supplied by the Biden team for solo watch parties) amid a pandemic that has claimed more than 170,000 American lives.

Mr. Biden’s speech, those close to him say, will be fashioned accordingly to meet the moment: more sober than jubilant, more restrained than swaggering, in his most ambitious effort yet to offer the American people a vision of steady leadership and national unity in the face of extraordinary crises.

“The times dictate a different type of speech,” said former Gov. Terry McAuliffe, Democrat of Virginia and a close ally of Mr. Biden’s. “This is a different speech, this is a different time, than probably any other time going back to the days of F.D.R. when we were dealing with a world war and we were dealing with a Depression. This is a very serious speech.”

Asked how long Mr. Biden had been preparing for his Thursday appearance, Mr. McAuliffe replied, “for his entire life.”

“I would expect him to follow the same process he’s used for years,” said Senator Chris Coons, Democrat of Delaware and a close Biden ally who said they spoke on Sunday. “You ask outside advisers. Message, pollsters, political advisers — they give you sort of framing. Then you go away, and you take a crack at it. Then you share it with the folks who know you — I mean, literally his sister — with your sister, with your spouse, with your closest political advisers. They give you some input. Then you go and think about it some more. And then you give your speech.”

While every prominent political figure becomes a practiced public speaker through sheer force of repetition, the act is, for Mr. Biden, almost definitional. Negotiating a stutter since his youth, Mr. Biden carved out a national reputation built in large measure on the power, preponderance and more-than-occasional precariousness of his words.

His belief in his own skills as an orator — his ability to persuade, to move, to own the room — has been a through-line of his public arc, often leading him to seek his own counsel despite any guidance he might absorb from advisers.

One former Senate speechwriter recalled Mr. Biden describing their working relationship like this: “I’m going to compare you to a golf coach,” Mr. Biden told the aide. “If you try to change my swing, we’re not going to get along.”

Matt Teper, a top Biden speechwriter during his vice presidency, suggested Mr. Biden’s attention to detail could border on the obsessive. “You have an engaged principal,” he said. “You’ve also got someone who, on a word level, is caring about things that sometimes you’re like, ‘well, let’s leave the commas to me.’ But by and large, his engagement makes things better.’”

“They’re very difficult,” said former Senator Ted Kaufman, a longtime Biden friend and former chief of staff who briefly succeeded him in the Senate, in an interview this spring about Mr. Biden’s eulogy-writing process. “It takes a lot out of him emotionally, but also just physically. It is real — it isn’t like he sits down and does it on the back of an envelope or something like that. He really concentrates on these eulogies. He spends time on them. It takes out of whatever else he’s doing.”

Former Biden speechwriters have said that Mr. Biden was more engaged, and easier to work with, on eulogies than on virtually any other kind of speech.

But the skills he has developed when he is at his best as a eulogist — an ability to communicate empathy and a sense of hope to people confronting unfathomable loss — may be important preparation for a nominating speech Mr. Biden makes to a grieving nation confronting an uncertain future.

“He’s going to show people that he’s going to connect with real people,” said Representative Debbie Dingell, Democrat of Michigan. “That he understands that they’re scared.”

Mr. Biden entered convention week fresh off the search for a vice-presidential contender. While he selected Senator Kamala Harris of California, he had extensive conversations with a list of candidates representing a diverse range of personal and political backgrounds, and a number of Democrats said they expected that process to have also informed his thinking about how to address the nation.

“I’m sure it did,” said Representative Lisa Blunt Rochester, Democrat of Delaware and a co-chair of Mr. Biden’s vice-presidential search committee. “Their personal stories, I think, are representative of America. I think all of that will feed into the remarks that he gives. But ultimately I think he’s going to really focus on the resilience of our country and the future direction we’re going to go in.”

Though Mr. Biden and his party have never encountered a convention quite like this, he has been something of a regular through the years for the in-person affairs.

Since at least as far back as 1980, he has addressed Democratic National Conventions, accompanied occasionally by presidential rumblings.

While some television networks cut away during his speech that year, according to an account in The News Journal of Wilmington, his local supporters never lost faith.

From their perch on the convention floor, delegates from Delaware held a banner hinting at a future that would have to wait a bit longer than they had hoped back then: “Biden in ’84.”

Kitty Bennett contributed research.


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