An emotional and raw Joe Biden didn’t sound like a man ready to run for president during his Thursday night interview on The Late Show with Stephen Colbert.
But it’s exactly that authenticity that would make the vice president a dangerous challenger to Hillary Clinton if he did decide to throw his hat into the 2016 Democratic primary.
Much of the interview centered on the tragic death of Biden’s son, Beau, in May. The vice president fondly remembered how his son, the Delaware attorney general and heir apparent to the Biden political legacy, shunned the spotlight — not even wanting special recognition when he served in Iraq or when he was awarded the Bronze Star.
But when the questions turned to Biden’s future, he still sounded very much like a grieving father and not like an energetic candidate preparing for a grueling presidential run.
“I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, No. 1, they know exactly why they would want to be president and, No. 2, they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you, you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion to do this,’ ” Biden told Colbert. “I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.”
Colbert and Biden are two kindred spirits forged by tragedy. Shortly after Biden’s election to the Senate in 1972, Biden’s wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident that left Beau and his other son, Hunter, badly injured. Biden recalled to Colbert how it was Beau who tried to keep both his and Hunter’s spirits lifted even while he was still recovering.
Forty-one years ago this week, a young Colbert lost his father and two brothers in a plane accident. Biden and Colbert, both devout Catholics, recalled how their faith had given them a “sense of solace” through both devastating accidents.
“I go to Mass and I’m able to be just alone, even in a crowd,” Biden said. “It’s just a place you can go.”
Overall, Biden looked torn about a third presidential bid. Even as the audience chanted “Joe! Joe! Joe!” and Colbert told him “It’s going to be emotional for a lot of people if you don’t run,” Biden seemed to still feel a sense of duty to at least consider a run, pushed by his late son.
“[Beau] said, ‘Dad, sit down, I want to talk to you,’ ” Biden said, recalling a conversation before his son died. “And he said, ‘Dad, I know how much you love me. You’ve got to promise me something. Promise me you’re going to be all right.’ He said, because ‘No matter what happens, Dad, I’m going to be all right. Promise me.’ This is the kid who — I don’t know what it was about him. He had this enormous sense of empathy.”
“There are so many people — even in the audience — who have had losses as severe, or worse than mine and didn’t have the incredible support I had. I have an incredible family. And I feel so self-conscious. The loss is serious, it’s consequential, but there’s so many other people going through this,” Biden added.
The deep hesitance Biden displayed with Colbert is nothing new for the vice president. Even as his supporters are pushing for him to run, Biden himself has given little indication he will. Just a week ago in a speech, the vice president questioned whether he has the “emotional energy” to run, and he has said on a Democratic National Committee conference call he’s still “pretty well banged up.”
The clock is ticking for Biden — the first debate for Democrats is in just over a month, and filing deadlines are approaching in early states. With Clinton suffering in polling, it’s been insurgent Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders who has been the beneficiary of her stumbles and lingering questions over her private email server — though Biden has also seen a boost in his poll numbers, running about even or above Sanders in some surveys.
One of Clinton’s biggest weaknesses with voters has been trying to appear authentic and trustworthy. In yet another campaign reset, her team has telegraphed they plan for her to show more “humor and heart.”
On Thursday, Clinton had a first crack at that, appearing on the Ellen show to underscore the historic nature of her own bid and try, once again, to talk bluntly about her email server. Clinton did cut loose some, too, even performing the Whip and the Nae Nae dance moves with DJ Stephen “Twitch” Boss.
But Biden outshone Clinton with his appearance later on Colbert, looking much more at ease even talking about a far more difficult subject. If Biden does get in, talk of his son will fade and he will face his own difficult questions. But on Thursday, Biden showed why he’s long been the one who appears more authentic on the campaign trail — something that should very much worry Clinton if he gets in.
Colbert summed up the goodwill for Biden at the end of the interview, echoed by the audience: “Sir, I just want to say I think your experience and your example of suffering and service is something that would be sorely missed in the race. Not that there aren’t good people on both sides running. But I think we’d all be very happy if you did run. And if you don’t, I know that your service to the country is something we should all salute. So thank you so much.”