Joe Biden strolled into the cramped room and everybody got quiet, even the beer-bellied man in the T-shirt that said, "my DOG is smarter than the PRESIDENT." An interesting apparel choice given the setting, a local Plumbers and Steamfitters Union that doubled as a training center.
Around the corner, Gray's Lake and Jasper Winery. Biden's Thursday night town hall was organized by the Iowa Asian and Latino Coalition (IALC). Open only to members, but anyone could pay a fee, $25 or so, and join the union for admittance.
A group of six 20-somethings in rolled-up jeans and woke-slogan T-shirts shuddered at the price of entry and backed out of the room with their eyebrows cocked.
Also, there was an actual dog in the room, a French bulldog. Which did not appear to belong to the "DOG" T-shirt man, but there was no telling with that crowd.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Some of them were more Biden than Biden himself. Like the guy in an oversized button-up with embroidered parrots along the shoulder. The way he nibbled on the same croissant for at least 15 minutes. Did he eat everything like that? Like he'd been instructed how to chew by NPR?
Or the middle-aged woman in the lion-themed blouse with psychedelic designs. She yipped whenever she felt the urge, sang out with answers or praise any time she liked what Biden had said. Several times, she crabbed out of the room, shoving and groaning. Then when she returned all you could smell was booze. And the drunker she got, the more impressed she was with her observations. At one point, this lady was within arm's length of Joe Biden, which was as dumbfounding as it was cool or horrific.
"Folks, this is wrong," Biden would say. It was a phrase he used as punctuation.
Photo by Sean Ryan
The room was about half the size of a basketball court. Maybe smaller. It felt like a sweat lodge. The lights and cameras and laptops and people made it 15 degrees warmer.
The media swarmed at the back of the room, encroaching into the crowd of serious people in gray folding chairs. A row of video cameras like robotic creatures, all spindle and wire. Behind the videographers, journalists with laptops perched at a long wooden table, the measured clack clack clack clack slump clack of furious typing. Paper plates with finger foods stacked wherever there was space.
Photo by Sean Ryan
The photographers had the most freedom. They could wander around snapping photos like it was their birthday and this was their party. Which is not how they acted. The opposite. They climbed around the room with the intensity and skill of a Navy SEAL in a swamp. They got as close as they could before someone, usually a bodyguard or a secret service agent, told them to back off.
Nearly half of the audience were media. There wasn't an empty seat in the room, but it still felt odd, as if the media had taken up space that could've been used by, say, a group of 20-somethings without enough cash to see the former vice president of the United States of America speaking to a room full of local politicians and plumbers, as CNN and ABC and Fox News filmed it all.
In reality, the media were there partly as stand-ins for the hundreds of millions of Americans, of people throughout the world, who couldn't make it to the union hall in Iowa, as Joe Biden writhed into another cringy mistake.
Biden's campaign had spent money on perfecting optics. At every speech, he spoke into a brand-new PA system, facing spotlights like you'd see in a theater. All of the candidates knew how to plaster any given room with their campaign signs. Biden and Kamala Harris understood the deeper game. The optics. Bernie Sanders likely did as well, but chose not to play it. Which is to say that Biden looked great, better than he looks in the 22-second clip of the event, the clip that went viral, the 10-second hiccup of his two-hour talk. The gaffe. Quite possibly a deadly moment in his campaign.
Photo by Sean Ryan
"The other thing we should do is we should challenge these students," he said, firm and smooth. "We should challenge students in these schools to have advanced placement programs in these schools. We have this notion that, somehow if you're poor, you cannot do it."
He paused for a moment, then concluded: "Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids."
A chatter of applause, because everybody knew what he meant, that this was Uncle Joe fumbling his words again. And that was pretty much the end of it. The New Yorker framed the scene with a touch of the dramatic: "There were groans in the room, and a smattering of hesitant applause."
Biden definitely botched the landing, but he followed up quickly, "Wealthy people," he said. "Black kids. Asian kids."
Photo by Sean Ryan
The next day, the media leapt on Biden. Naturally, President Donald Trump took the opportunity to throw some shade. He told reporters that "Joe Biden is not playing with a full deck. This is not somebody you can have as your president." In a bizarre moment of unity, the media and President Trump agreed, though for much different reasons.
Biden may never outlive it: "Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids."
At the Presidential Gun Forum a few days later, Biden will say, "Look, I misspoke. I meant to say 'wealthy.' I've said it 15 [times]. On the spot, I explained it. At that very second, I explained it. And so, the fact of the matter is that I don't think anybody thinks that I meant anything other than what I said I meant."
For the past three years, President Trump has been the media's focus. Unrelenting. He's the giant prize at the arcade and they're pre-teens with leftover money, desperate to own that giant orange panda. When's the last time you heard a positive remark about President Trump from any mainstream media besides Fox News?
Now, President Trump doesn't seem to mind, not publicly at least. Because he has always played the media. During the 2016 election, the media lavished him with free advertising. He didn't even have a campaign website. Why bother, when the New York Times does the broadcasting and recruitment for you?
Maybe Biden lacked this acuity. This bull energy. And that's why he never recovered as well as he messed up. Or maybe Biden played the course as it was meant to be played. It wasn't time to activate the boosters. Too early. Just maintain a steady pace, hone the routine, and show your face to Americans. Because that's where Biden excelled.
All the same, there's hypocrisy to Biden's constant attack of President Trump. If you're going to paint someone as a lying, soulless, brainless, misogynistic racist, you better make sure that your room is clean, that your life, your language, and your presentation are spic-and-span. Otherwise, you lose. And, at the moment, Biden was losing.
He would be 77 in two months. He had lost a son to brain cancer. And when he was 30, his wife and daughter died in a car wreck. He's had private dinners and intimate conversations with the most powerful people on earth. Correction … He is one of the most powerful people on earth.
When then-President Barack Obama draped the Medal of Freedom around Biden's neck, he cried.
But, always, the gaffes. Even as vice president, he was the butt of many jokes, however, well-meaning. Like the Onion's satirical take on Biden, "Diamond Joe."
For the first half of 2019, the country mocked him. Depicted him as a creep. Turned him into a meme. All because he was old-school with his body language and affection. You can find the montage online.
For years, Biden used physical touch to break through the barriers and restraints of conversation on an impossible schedule. How do you make a meaningful connection with a stranger, or a roomful of strangers, when you have very little time?
And he had been affable Joe Biden for decades without a single issue. The times had changed. The latest generation was touchy about personal space, according to the focus groups and surveys.
Despite the outrage, Biden didn't apologize. But he acknowledged the issue.
"I will be more mindful about respecting personal space in the future," he said in a video. "That's my responsibility and I will meet it."
Photo by Sean Ryan
I think most people believed him. Agreed that he's not a predator. Maybe he's the guy who constantly tries to give everyone neck massages because he thinks he's good at it. But really he's just knotting people up and violating their space. Sometimes a person just needs to be told when they've become intrusive, or else they might never realize.
Or maybe Biden is neither, not a creep or a doofus, but a man who wants to connect. A man who wants the Oval Office, for real this time.
As Biden's campaign built steam, the "Creepy Joe" story slowly vanished. In its place, articles about Biden's gaffes became more prominent, and now 20 of his fellow Democrats were hoping for his downfall.
He was christened "Sleepy Joe" by President Trump, who scoffed that Biden was too old for the job, tongue-in-cheek referring to himself as a "young vibrant man." From the start, everyone attacked Biden because he was in the lead. Because he was, probably, the most qualified. So he had to just take it. With dignity, if possible.
Did he ever get tired of all the commotion?
His obsessive word that night was "solitary." As in, "every single solitary child." Earlier that day, it had rained. Poured down onto people at the Iowa State Fair. It must have soaked every single solitary person.
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To add to it all, Biden has struggled in Iowa before. When he ran for president in 1987, he ended his campaign after plagiarizing a Neil Kinnock speech at a Democratic debate at the Iowa State Fair. As is usually the case with Biden, the whole thing seems to have been a misunderstanding. Around that time he fibbed about his law school grades or something like that. Middle Class Joe with his tall tales and lofty aspirations. Isn't that the ultimate Middle Class Joe move?
It's like how Iowa has the highest per capita number of golf courses in the country, and, in 2007, actor Rob Lowe whacked a golf ball and it catapulted up and hit a goldfinch mid-flight. His first round of golf in Iowa, as part of a PGA Pro-Am celebrity tournament, and he killed the state bird. That's an Uncle Joe move.
Democracy fails without journalism. Mass media connect us to reality. Journalists hold this incredible power. The power to utterly ruin someone who maybe doesn't deserve ruin, or lionize someone who should be leeching in obscurity.
This ultimatum hung in the air as Biden spoke, clumsy like he hadn't slept well in weeks, maybe longer. Which is probably the reality.
He'd already botched the speech, he knew it, likely with no forgiveness from the media.
Ideally, politicians and journalists are like sharks and pilot fish. The sharks don't devour the pilot fish and, in turn, the pilot fish eat the shark's parasites. Politicians need journalists in order to spread their message, to impact public opinion. And journalists depend on politicians for protection, in a business sense, and for access. People want to watch sharks be shark-like. Pilot fish keep them alive and save their own scales in the process.
I bet you're wondering, "So who are the parasites in this metaphor?"
Biden had class, that's for sure. Despite his goofs, he had an air of diplomacy. The presence of someone who, for eight years, had classified material delivered to him like the morning paper. He has seen the innermost workings of the world's governments.
He was one of the dozen-or-so people who watched the live feed of Osama Bin Laden's assassination, an occasion captured by that gripping, now-iconic photo of Biden, Obama, and the national security team in the Situation Room.
By this point, after decades in politics, he looks good as a matter of habit. He wears sharp, deep-blue suits like the rest of us wear a T-shirt and khakis.
Photo by Sean Ryan
In Iowa, he exuded prestige and wisdom. When he spoke, even when he misspoke, people listened. And he looked you in the eye with an avuncular kindness.
Then he fumbled a few words or stumbled into some bad optics and the media went full shark on him. They went shark on him. The shark! Which too often felt contrived.
Most of the time, you could tell what Biden meant to say. Although, yes, if you have a habit of bungling your words, then don't center your speech on the idea that a President's words matter, so, in the 2020 presidential election, vote for me, the habitual word-bungler.
All week, flags were at half-mast.
Two shootings within 13 hours of each other. And we, the whole country, all slumped around with a devastation. So I had expected every Democratic candidate to talk about guns. That morning, on the back of the Des Moines Register, a full page in red font was devoted to the Presidential Gun Sense Forum being held in two days at the Iowa Events Center. Where all of the candidates would give a speech at an appointed time. If the Iowa Star Fair had opened during the previous news cycle, the candidates would likely fume about immigration or Israel. And they all hated President Trump, or pretended to, with a ferocity usually reserved for cockroaches and murder.
Just that morning, Sen. Elizabeth Warren flagged down a journalist to say, "For the record, Donald Trump is a white supremacist."
And the rest of them shouted in accord. They're politicians. Like male frogs, when one of them ribbits loudly and a female frog responds, the other male frogs do their best imitation. It's a real-life game of language poker. Bluff, wince, suppress, speak, listen, react. Do anything and everything to win win win.
Photo by Sean Ryan
So they had to talk about gun control and white supremacy in order to keep playing. They had to reference the primary topics of discussion for August 2019, but in a way that revealed authenticity, without seeming gullible. It's a matter of knowing what to say, always. Which is an insane expectation, for so many reasons.
Because the clarion call is different by the day, certainly by the month, depending how fervidly the media push it. Good news is, research shows that people aren't so gullible. We typically distrust the media. Because public opinion doesn't always line up with the media message. If Americans don't like the narrative being hammered down their throats, they'll shrug and change the channel, move on, stop caring. Like Bill Clinton's impeachment. The media wanted an opera, but most of the country just didn't give a damn what the man did behind closed doors, even if they were the doors to the Oval Office.
"The reason I call him Barack," Biden said, somewhat randomly, "is because I don't want to confuse him with the President." Soft spoken. Gentle voiced. Earlier, he compared Trump to Hitler. Hitler, leader of the Nazis, genocidal maniac, full-blown hellaciously prolific psychopath, an honest-to-God dictator who murdered and tortured millions of Jews. Trump, on the other hand, is the first President to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel, but just happens to be, well, kind of an ass. Nobody denies that. Many people even happen to admire it. But Hitler?
Hyperbole is fine, but it becomes dangerous when exaggerations mutate into something uglier. It was like the Democrats were trying to psyche themselves up to fight the class bully or, better yet, the most popular kid in school.
Can you blame them for having shaky nerves? The man is a pulverizer. We all saw what he did to the entire stage of Republicans in 2016. He destroyed 16 Ivy League-educated lawyers and seasoned politicians, legacy politicians, American royalty. Poor Jeb Bush probably still has a stammer. Trump ruined careers by giving out nicknames. He went toe-to-toe with Hillary Clinton, a woman with a reputation for getting everything she wants no matter the cost, for being an impenetrable force that frightens many people, for having spent eight years in the White House as the first lady, and even she lost.
I'd be shaky if I were them, too. Any of us would.
But, every day, it's a more serious accusation. Yet another barb directed at President Trump. Which, oddly, just becomes further proof of President Trump's ubiquity. Every insult levied at him just bounces off his orange Teflon skin like a jelly bean and next thing you know you've got sugar stains on your forehead.
Sculpture on the lawn of the Plumbers & Steamfitters Local 33 in Des Moines, IowaPhoto by Sean Ryan
As Biden's speech entered its second lap, the journalists in the back of the room just seemed bored. How long had Biden been talking?
Earlier that day, at the Iowa State Fair, he performed better, although he got a tad weird in the press scrum afterward and shouted it out with a reporter from Breitbart.
The drunk lady in the trippy lion blouse kept chirping along with Biden, adding a weird dominant energy to a room that already had a weird energy of its own, and by then even the kids could tell the woman was wasted. What a time to get hammered. During a town hall? At a plumbers' union? In Iowa? On a Thursday night? In front of all of these people? In front of a man who once had his own customized 757, aka Air Force 2?
The dog-shirt man gawked at Biden as he strolled around the tiny island of space between the tables. The dog-shirt man was a clumsy lad. Several times, his arms windmilled around as he balanced. The room syncopated to his clumsiness, more out of obligation than respect.
Parrot shirt guy had finished his baguette at some point, and moved onto some other task. I do not know what he was doing, with his face and with his presence. I am at a loss of words. "Alien" is the best word I can come up with. He whispered with the lop-sidedness of a sinking boat, far too loudly, somehow.
But in America, we can eat our baguettes as slowly as we please. We can paunch ourselves into corner-store t-shirts then go to a formal event. We can get nice and revved up on wine or vodka or whatever else we please, within reason. Best of all, we can do these things in the presence of a former Vice President.
"I've never been more optimistic about America than I am today," he said.
Then he spiraled into an elaborate story about Chinese President Xi Jinping. How, during one of Biden's visits to China, as the two men ate dinner, Jinping asked Biden to define America. "One word," said Biden. "Possibilities." Now that woke everyone up. How could you not admire a line as good as that line?
Photo by Sean Ryan
The Q&A went as well as a Q&A can. The people with pre-written questions were nervous, like this was an audition. The first question came from an off-duty Sheriff, and he said, "Hi, I'm a Sheriff."
Without a pause, Biden said "Didn't do it!" leaning into the microphone. And it was great. Maybe I enjoyed it more than everybody else. But it just felt so playful and innocent. Then somebody asked about the Democratic debates. "I won't call them debates," he said. "I'll call them one-minute assertions." Another good ad-libbed line. Where was this delivery during his speeches?
Biden has shotguns, he told the Sheriff, then veered into a tangent that journalists have characterized as near-senile. To me, it was charming. It was him saying, "Look, we're spending this time together so how about I open up and let you see who I am." Or at least who he wanted to portray. The moderator quipped that, could Biden be a little more succinct with his answers? A joke. Everyone laughed. Then we all moved on.
Photo by Sean Ryan
Outside, the sun was still as red and orange as usually is, before evening. We were nearing the sanguine moment when day changes hands with night. A cool dampness skipped the air. 78 degrees? In August? And a low of 65? What was this place?
Iowa exudes an American rawness, in manner and spirit. Its State colors are red, white, and blue. Its flower is the wild rose. It's motto is "Our liberties we prize and our rights we will maintain." It is the birthplace of John Wayne. Home to the crimson-painted bridges of a fictional Madison County. It is heart-breaking how American Iowa is. The vintage America. With the worst cellphone reception I've ever encountered, and Amish-run gas stations that don't have credit card slots on the pumps. And everywhere, a slower pace, as if social media never happened.
On the lawn of the Plumber's Union, a statue of two hands clenching pipe wrenches and fastening a socket. In front of it, a plaque titled "Pulling Together," which noted, "This piece of art is not only about unions. It is about the human condition."
The American flag by the entrance had been raised to its peak. Possibly that day. Most other places still had their flags at half-mast. There was something triumphant about returning the flag to its proper height. It was by no means a slight against the recent shootings. If anything, it was a way of redistributing power.
Photo by Sean Ryan
A red SUV waited by the rear door. Next to a white van. My guess was that this was the subtle way that Biden traveled. Endurance. Meanwhile, Kamala Harris had her own fleet with her name in purple and yellow down the side. We've yet to see if hers might have been the better approach.
It was getting late, and Biden was still yammering and we had places to be. As my dad and I tiptoed out, the French bulldog snorted around the room. You could hear him chuff. And he hustled toward the kids slumping against the walls. He jumped away from his leash. When he finally arrived at the children, he licked and licked. Meanwhile Biden was talking about reality. "We choose science over fiction," he said. "We choose truth over lies." People murmured supportively. Then the French bulldog's owner turned to me, smiled, and said, "He really likes little kids."
New installments to this series will come out every Monday and Thursday morning. For live updates, check out my Twitter.