long . lines and ripples

The Man Who Has Always Been Running for President

Joe Biden has been around a long time, most of it running for president. During the endless Democratic primary, I assumed he was running one last time for his own reasons, and didn't take him that seriously. But after South Carolina, once it looked like he would win, my memory did not go to his long, mostly unremarkable, period as Obama's vice president, but to a nonfiction book written by George Packer, then staff writer at the New Yorker, in which Joe Biden is a prominent character.

The book is called the The Unwinding. Published in 2013, early in Obama's second term, the title refers to the "unwinding" of American life, the coming-apart of various institutions and supports that gave the individual American life a pattern. The premise is not that the patterns were good for everyone, but that they contained expectations, and relationships that gave those expectations solidity. The loss of both has raised existential questions and had material consequences for many Americans. Given where the country is today, the term "unwinding" seems pretty apt; the book has aged well.

Anyway, it's built around four extended biographical narratives. One is a guy named Jeff Connaughton, a member of the Washington "permanent class" of staffers, lobbyists and other para-government corporate types, who gets his start working for the political hero of his young adulthood, Joe Biden.

I don't have the book anymore, but the sections of The Unwinding on Biden and Connaughton were based on a long piece in The New Yorker.

There is no headline-worthy damning information about Biden in the article. But it is a carefully constructed character study, unclouded by the urgencies of the present moment or his newfound success on the national stage.

Near the end of his twenties, Connaughton leaves a dissatisfying career in finance to work for Biden during his 1988 presidential campaign, the one where plagiarism and other past character failings lead him to an ignominious withdrawal. Connaughton becomes disillusioned about Biden, but not because of the revelations, or any other nefarious secret that can take down a politician. What happens is that Biden is Connaughton's on-the-job introduction to the unsparing hunt for power in public life. Connaughton is pretty much a peon who barely registers to Biden, with no real ambition or interpersonal talents to compare. Still, he's useful as a loyal worker bee in various capacities across Biden's numerous campaigns, which over the long run makes him a "Biden guy," a title that he reluctantly accepts and uses to his own benefit as a successful lobbyist.

So who is Biden? If the stories can be believed, Biden is one of those people who knew he wanted to be president since he was a kid. Indeed, he began seriously planning his run for president almost as soon as he was old enough (1980, age 37). And he would run, or dabble with it, every chance he got for the rest of the 1980s, until chastened by the scandal of 1988, after which he took a break in the 1990s, then returned by the early 2000s and made one last push in 2008 before Barack Obama picked him up.

What Connaughton saw was someone whose ordinary behavior was pretty much commensurate with his goal. When you want the same thing for your entire life, people either help you get there or they don't. There was nothing extraordinary about the shape of Biden's ambition, or its influence on his personality. There is little drama to his character. He's just a guy defined by this big thing that he wants, always on the way up. And now he's there.


George Packer, The Unwinding: An Inner History of the New America (Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2013)