Joe Biden was going home, back to Scranton, Pennsylvania, where character was carved into his soul around a kitchen table in a house on North Washington Street here in a city that had been full of people with hard hands and warm hearts. It was the last Sunday before America elects a new president and vice president and Biden was quite aware that the curtain on his lifetime in elective office was, if not dropping, it sure was fluttering in the near distance.
He began Sunday at 9 o’clock Mass at St Joseph’s in Wilmington before heading to Delaware National Guard headquarters at the airport in New Castle, where Air Force II was parked, engines idling, beneath a splendid sun on a warm November Sunday morning.
“Celtic is arriving,” an agent said, using Biden’s Secret Service code name.
He bounded out of the SUV and up the stairs onto the plane like an athlete finally getting the coach’s call to enter the game. He is a joyful, hands-on, shoulder-punching, hugging, smiling guy whose idea of a great day is a crowd, an event, a few laughs, and the certitude that his day will end at evening with his family by his side.
“Yeah,” he laughed. “The president always asks me, ‘Joe, how do you do it? I would never do this again. It’s exhausting.’ He tells me all the time, ‘Nobody knew me until I was 47. They’ve known you since you were 27. How do you do it, man?’”
The big plane breezed through a cloudless sky, 25,000 feet above a part of the country Biden knows by heart and has a feel for like few others. The leaves below were a collage of reds and yellows and the land was flat and the sun reflected off the rivers that encircled southern Pennsylvania and Delaware like vines.
Then as Air Force II tilted toward the northeast, and Scranton, the flat coastal landscape gave way to low hills covered with trees that had already surrendered to frost and the first chill. The leaves were a mix of brown almost the color of potato skins.
Biden was looking down on the long serpentine roadways the nation takes for granted, the Interstate system that helped create suburbs, ease of travel, and more open commerce. A system sponsored by a Republican president named Eisenhower and a government program that literally changed the American landscape and way of life.
“We built those roads,” Joe Biden said. “American working families built those roads. Those roads are part of the best social program we could ever invest in: Jobs.”
Scranton is where the Bidens lived until the vice president was ready for high school when his father found work in Wilmington, Delaware. “I left Scranton,” he was saying, “but Scranton didn’t leave me.”
It was a town where people once worked the mines and the railroad brought both employment and prosperity. But the mines closed and the railroad’s impact was reduced by trucking, time, and progress, but the pride of its people is still strong and slowly, surely they have dealt with recessions and a near utter collapse of the economy in 2007-2008. Hundreds were there in an auditorium at Johnson College Sunday as the vice president of the United States returned home to campaign for Hillary Clinton and Katie McGinty, the Democrat running for the United States Senate.
The first speaker was a 30-year-old 7th-grade math teacher, Crystal Johnston DeAnton, and, as she gave the crowd a brief outline of her life story, Joe Biden stood off to the side, listening intently, his eyes like lasers.
She told them she and her twin sister were raised by a single mother who worked hard but still needed social services to help her daughters. She told them they had lived in subsidized housing, used food stamps. At the age of 14, in the year 2000, she was given a school assignment to study the platforms and write a paper about the two candidates for president of the United States. She told them she got loans to go to college. She said it all in a voice that was strong and proud and a little nervous, too.
“So I was 14 when I realized I was a Democrat,” DeAnton said, as the hall exploded in cheers.
When Biden was introduced, he came onto the stage and wrapped his arms around everyone in the auditorium with one of his very first statements: “Money doesn’t determine your worth. You are defined by your courage and redeemed by your loyalty.
“These guys we’re running against—they don’t think we have the same dreams. They don’t think that miners and mechanics, people washing dishes in diners, parents and grandparents, nurses and teachers, none of them have the same dreams for their children and their families.
“Look, I’ve been lucky in my life, unlucky too, but I’ve traveled the world. I’ve sat and talked with world leaders. Once, the Chinese premier asked me to define America and I told him I can define it in one word: Possibilities.”
The possibilities he outlined described an America where aspiration and achievement are the sturdiest rungs of a ladder anyone can climb if offered the opportunity. On the stage, needing no notes, the thoughts filling the hall with a sense of optimism about the future and a ton of scorn for the scorched-earth landscape of the present political campaign, Joe Biden was the closer, coming out of the bullpen throwing fastballs at a time when the public has turned in disgust from spitballs or curves. And the exhausted electorate here sure did appreciate it, with constant cries of “We love ya’, Joe.”
Then the Scranton rally had ended and he was back on the plane heading toward another event in this big, sprawling, and critical state; this one in Harrisburg.
“Any feeling of melancholy in you?” he was asked.
“Sure,” he said. “A little. Sure but… ahh… it’s important, really important that Hillary win this. I couldn’t do it, run.
“The second year is the hardest,” Joe Biden said. “The second year… ahh… the second year is the worst. It’s the loneliest. It’s when you realize that it’s forever.”
He was thinking and talking out loud about his son Beau, claimed by cancer more than a year ago. Now the full force of the father’s energy and emotions and intent are wrapped up in coordinating a ‘Cancer Moon Shot’ dedicated to arriving at a cure for a disease that touches so many families.
The political campaign is something entirely different. Watching Biden on the trail, in a hall, on a rope line, smiling, laughing, baring his soul is like watching Pedro Martinez or Madison Bumgarner on the mound. It’s Michael Jordan in a big game. Yo-Yo Ma at Carnegie Hall. It’s a pure politician in the business for all the right reasons engaging, cajoling, teasing, pulling the crowd along for causes he believes in and standing for people he feels have been forgotten or ignored by both political parties.
“They sometimes call me ‘Middle Class Joe’ in Washington like I’m some kind of circus act,” he was saying. “But it’s tough out there for a lot of people and I know what that’s like.
“Growing up, we never felt poor but I knew there wasn’t a lot of money. I can remember in Wilmington when we first moved there we were living in rented housing and one day the guy from the electric company came to the back door. I’ll never forget it. My mother told me to go to the door and tell the guy that I was home alone and I did and he left. He had a shut-off notice. I never forgot it. Good people can have bad times.”
In Harrisburg, he again waved the flag for Hillary Clinton and Katie McGinty and stood and signed pictures and banners and yearbooks and posters for everyone who asked. And when the line thinned and the requests stopped, he shook hands with all the cops and firefighters and EMS workers who were on site because the vice president of the United States was in their city.
Then he left for his plane, Air Force II, sitting, engines humming on the tarmac of Harrisburg International Airport. He bounded up the stairs with the same energy he had displayed earlier in New Castle, Delaware.
Now the big plane rolled on to the open runway and roared off into a coal dark sky, nightfall coming suddenly and surely. Joe Biden was out in the country, his country, our country, trying to coax goodness and hope out of people on a day when he went home to Scranton for the last time as vice president and now he was on his way back to his family in Wilmington to wait and see if America shares his deep faith in the future.