Joe Biden’s Faith in America

It made sense to begin with Kamala Harris. The joyful celebrations across the country through the day had been in Joe Biden’s name but in the spirit that Harris had been appointed to the ticket to embody: of young people in cities, of many different races, who had a feeling for the future. Harris, who will soon become the first woman, first Black person, and first South Asian person to hold the office of Vice-President, took the stage on Saturday night wearing a white suit, perhaps a nod to Hillary Clinton but also to the legacy of the suffragettes. She quoted the late congressman and civil-rights hero John Lewis, who wrote, shortly before his death, “Democracy is not a state. It is an act.” Harris said that what Lewis had meant “was that America’s democracy is not guaranteed. It is only as strong as our willingness to fight for it, to guard it and never take it for granted. And protecting our democracy takes struggle. It takes sacrifice. But there is joy in it.”

There was joy in Harris. She smiled wide and let her shoulders heave to breathe in the atmosphere. She was speaking before some few hundred people and their cars in a waterfront lot in Delaware—it wasn’t Grant Park, and it wasn’t Washington, or Philadelphia, where thousands of people were out in the streets in happy throngs. But if the setting was a little sterile, it also had the effect of drawing the eye toward the people onstage. Harris spoke of Biden and what will soon be the First Family intimately. He “loves with abandon,” she said, mentioning his wife, Jill Biden, his son Hunter, his daughter Ashley, and his deceased son Beau. “What a testament it is to Joe’s character that he had the audacity to break one of the most substantial barriers that exist in our country and select a woman as Vice-President.” The cars honked; the confetti was readied; Springsteen boomed through the speakers. The President-elect, masked, took the stage at a trot. He said, “Let this grim era of demonization in America begin to end—here and now.”

There was a lot of talk about eras in Wilmington on Saturday night—of endings and beginnings. Joe Biden is an old man. There’s no getting around it, despite his soft suits and his tan face and his bright teeth and his intent, vital wife—despite all the attentive wrapping. He turns seventy-eight this month, nearly a third as old as the United States. For a while, he fought his age, trying to appear more youthful than his opponent, but in the end he embraced it. Biden might have been partnered with Harris, but he was ringed by his contemporaries. One plea for Biden’s election, published in the New York Times, was written by the seventy-six-year-old novelist Marilynne Robinson, who argued that the country is less an idea than a family. (“We are asked to see one another in the light of a singular inalienable worth that would make a family of us if we let it.”) One of Biden’s campaign commercials that ran during the World Series was voiced by the seventy-six-year-old actor Sam Elliott. (“No Democratic rivers, no Republican mountains, just this great land and all that is possible on it with a fresh start.”) The Biden campaign’s theme was unity; its method was to emphasize the country’s people, particularly its elders. The victory video his campaign released on Saturday morning, once the networks had called the race, had no images of Biden but instead featured Americans around the country—a transit worker, two young surfers, a field hand—carrying a picture frame, all set to Ray Charles singing “America the Beautiful.”

Much of Biden’s speech was drawn directly from the slogans of his campaign: the promise to “restore the soul” of the country, the call to “give each other a chance” and to stop seeing fellow-Americans as enemies. The new element, or the heightened one, at least, was faith. In part, this meant religious faith—Biden read a hymn, which he said he hoped might give some comfort to the families of the two hundred and thirty thousand Americans lost to covid-19, and quoted from Ecclesiastes: “The Bible tells us to everything there is a season: a time to build, a time to reap, a time to sow, and a time to heal. This is the time to heal in America.”

But Biden seemed to feel a secular faith even more strongly, in the country’s continued potential. He spoke of a renewed faith that tomorrow will “bring a better day.” At the moment, Biden seems likely to take office amid a fair amount of skepticism about what he might accomplish. As disastrous as Donald Trump’s Presidency has been, seventy million Americans still voted for his reëlection. Mitch McConnell may well still hold the Senate, and the rift between the Democrats’ left and center wings seems likely to reëmerge with new intensity once Biden takes office. What plan does he have for surmounting the defining national divisions? The answer, on Saturday night at least, for all the talk of science, was both less and more than a plan: it was Biden’s belief that American unity and greatness are still with us, in some latent way. Biden said, “The refusal of Democrats and Republicans to coöperate with one another is not some mysterious force beyond our control. It’s a decision. It’s a choice we make.”

Political types will say that it’s common for the American people to replace a President with his opposite. But some of this work is done by the successor, who prunes from himself anything reminiscent of his adversary. Trump found his final political form as the opposite of Obama. The Biden who spoke in Wilmington on Saturday night is not the only one to appear on political stages in his career, and it may not be the final version. But it is the version that is most opposite of Trump: a diligent rule-follower, with his black pandemic mask. A gentle and humble figure. A person who acknowledges that he is near the end. A man of the Book.

The Irish broadcaster RTÉ closed its Saturday-evening news program by acknowledging Biden, “a proud Irish-American and admirer of the Nobel laureate Seamus Heaney,” and then playing a recording (in fact, a digital ad) of the President-elect reading Heaney’s poem “The Cure of Troy.” Biden may not be a writer, like Barack Obama, but he is a good reader, with a heavy, phlegmy voice; he extracts feeling from words. Biden read, “Believe in miracles / And cures and healing wells. / Call miracle self-healing: / The utter self revealing / Double-take of feeling. / If there’s fire on the mountain / Or lightning and storm / And a god speaks from the sky / That means someone is hearing / The outcry and the birth-cry / Of new life at its term.” New life at its term: in Biden’s voice, Heaney’s optimism sounded like it belonged to America all along.