Joe Biden’s radical humility
By Frank Bruni
You no doubt saw or heard at least some of Joe Biden’s pitch-perfect victory speech last weekend, but what about the victory video that his campaign released hours earlier, just after CNN and other networks declared him the president-elect?
It’s a gorgeous two minutes of music (a rendition of “America the Beautiful” by Ray Charles) and images, precisely none of which show Biden. He cedes the frame and the moment entirely to Americans themselves — to Black Americans, white Americans, Native Americans, disabled Americans, young Americans, old Americans — and to the landscapes in the lyrics of the song.
The video made clear that we, not he, were the focus, the story, the point of all of this. His speech hours later similarly elevated the first person plural over the first person singular, which was singularly transcendent under Donald Trump.
Largely to draw a contrast with Trump, Biden ran one of the humblest presidential campaigns I can recall. He claimed victory in the presidential race last weekend with the same radical humility. And that tonic of a tone could be crucial to his agenda.
His sweepingly ambitious goals include a major expansion of health care, a titanic effort to combat climate change, yet another change in the tax code and much, much more. But he’s wisely fashioning all of that as a public, not a personal, quest, and he’s casting himself as servant, not lord. The best way to ask for the moon is modestly.
That approach — call it the New Humility — was evident in a small detail on Monday morning. He released a written statement about Pfizer’s reported progress toward an effective coronavirus vaccine, and its second sentence extended congratulations to “the brilliant women and men who helped produce this breakthrough.” He directed attention away from, not toward, himself.
He added this: “It is also important to understand that the end of the battle against COVID-19 is still months away.” There was none of Trump’s overreach, the kissing cousin to his self-congratulation. Biden was giving it to us straight. He was giving it to us humble.
It’s often said that people aren’t capable of big change when they’re older. But Biden has changed, in ways as poignant as they are prudent. I sometimes don’t recognize this version of him.
He used to have a way of sucking the oxygen out of a room. He couldn’t shut up. If you gave him the microphone, he thrilled to it, wouldn’t surrender it, sang an aria that turned into a whole damned opera.
A bunch of us Times columnists had lunch with him at the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 2012 and came away commenting on how spirited, upbeat and warm he was, but also on how he talked and talked and talked.
The following year, he visited the Times Building in Manhattan and sat down with a small group of editors and writers. He talked even more. We were lucky to get in a question every 10 minutes.
But something happened between then and now. He got older. He suffered great loss with the death of his son Beau. And Trump happened, too, providing the country with an example of hubris so monumental — and self-fascination so malignant — that any sane and sensitive observer would recoil from it, look for traces of those toxins in himself and purge them, especially if volunteering to be the antidote to that egomania.
Biden’s campaign verged on self-effacing even before the pandemic compelled a retreat from the campaign trail and a shedding of all the pomp that a presidential bid typically entails.
In those early primary debates, while Biden’s rivals talked past their time limits, he’d cut himself off, coloring dutifully within the lines. Technically, physically, he was always in the center of the stage. Effectively, he was anywhere but.
He positioned himself not as the heir to the Democratic tradition or as a messiah charting the party’s future but as a transitional figure. What could be humbler than that? Sure, this was strategic, but it would have rung hollow had it not been matched by his bearing.
His climatic remarks at the Democratic National Convention in August seemed to be the work of a team of people who had hung the most famous line from Trump’s boast to Republicans four years earlier — “I alone can fix it” — on the wall of their writing room and resolved to produce its antonym.
The convention itself was distinctive for how it kept turning the camera around so that voters, not Biden, dominated the frame. When there were Biden-centric testimonials, they described him not in heroic terms but simply as a decent, honest man.
“He was making clear that he wouldn’t rule as some self-obsessed despot,” I wrote then. “He wouldn’t rule at all. He’d govern. It’s a different, humbler thing.”
The assumption that Biden won’t seek a second term as president reflects more than his age, 77. (He’ll be 78 before Inauguration Day.) It reflects his bearing, too. There’s little greed or gluttony in it.
It reflects an ethos that was embedded deep into this campaign, that is carrying over into this transition and that manifests itself in all sorts of ways. Jill Biden’s decision to continue her teaching job even as first lady: That’s part and parcel of the New Humility.
So was Biden’s reticence after Election Day, as he modeled and urged patience with vote counting and steered clear of any tit-for-tat with Trump.
The New Humility means that he and his aides aren’t trying to monopolize the headlines by turbocharging chatter about who might get which cabinet positions but instead sending signals that this is a process, and a sober one at that.
And the New Humility shaped the opening stretch of Biden’s victory speech. “Folks,” he said, “the people of this nation have spoken. They’ve delivered us a clear victory, a convincing victory, a victory for we, the people. We’ve won with the most votes ever cast on a presidential ticket in the history of the nation, 74 million!” We. The people.
“I’m humbled by the trust and confidence you’ve placed in me,” he added. Humbled. Trust. This new presidency will force us to dust off an old vocabulary.