Thirty-three years ago, Joe Biden was tasked with delivering a rather somber speech.
The then senator of Delaware called journalists to a press conference on Capitol Hill to announce he would no longer seek the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination, following accusations that he plagiarized a speech by the British Labour leader Neil Kinnock and inflated his academic record.
“I made some mistakes,” Biden told reporters. “But now, the exaggerated shadow of those mistakes has begun to obscure the essence of my candidacy and the essence of Joe Biden.”
Despite the ignominious end to his first White House bid, Biden expressed optimism about his political future. “There will be other opportunities for me to campaign for president,” Biden said. “This country’s going to be lifted up, and I’m going to play a big part in doing it.”
Now, after another failed presidential campaign and two terms as Barack Obama’s vice-president, Biden is finally getting the chance to realize his long-held dream. On Thursday, Biden formally accepted the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination – a moment he has was waited more than three decades for.
“United we can and will overcome this season of darkness in America,” Biden pledged. “It is with great honor and humility that I accept this nomination for president of the United States of America.”
The moment was almost certainly not what Biden had been imagining since 1987. Rather than walking out on to a convention stage to thousands of cheering fans, Biden delivered his remarks in front of a silent room, his remarks transmitted via livestream from an event site in his home town of Wilmington, Delaware, because of the coronavirus. The career-defining speech was eerily devoid of applause.
Biden’s path to the Democratic nomination, like his career overall, has been marked by the highest of highs and lowest of lows. Weeks after winning his first Senate race in 1972, Biden’s first wife, Neilia, and one-year-old daughter, Naomi, were killed in a car crash. Tragedy touched Biden again in 2015, when his eldest son, Beau, died of brain cancer at age 46.
“His life has been defined by loss and hardship and tragedy that most of us can’t fathom,” said Jeff Wilser, author of the Biden biography The Book of Joe. “One of the biggest clichés is politics is, ‘I feel your pain’. But when Biden says it, it’s truly earnest. He does feel it.”
Biden has cited his son’s illness when asked why he chose not to seek the Democratic nomination in 2016, despite some of his allies urging him to do so.
By the time of his son’s death, Biden had been the vice-president for six years. Obama selected his former primary rival as his 2008 running mate months after Biden was forced to suspend his second presidential campaign following a dismal showing in the Iowa caucuses.
“He’s been counted out many times before,” Wilser said. “And yet he keeps coming back. He keeps getting up.”
But Biden, who has previously described himself as a “gaffe machine”, has frequently attracted criticism for his off-the-cuff comments. During the 2008 race, Biden was forced to apologize for referring to Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”.
After joining the presidential ticket, Biden caused embarrassment by accidentally asking a state lawmaker in a wheelchair to “stand up”. The White House again had to issue explanations for the vice-president when Biden said during the 2010 signing of the Affordable Care Act: “This is a big fucking deal.”
But the most intense criticism of Biden came in April last year, when several women accused him of touching them in ways that made them uncomfortable. The allegations sparked speculation that Biden might abandon plans for a third presidential campaign.
However, he did indeed announce weeks later that he was launching another bid for the White House, framing the 2020 election as a “battle for the soul of this nation”. Biden was immediately considered the frontrunner in the race, but his struggles in the early voting states of Iowa and New Hampshire led some to suggest he may be doomed to repeat the failures of his first two campaigns.
It took his landslide victory in the South Carolina primary, followed days later by his impressive Super Tuesday performance in March, to right the ship. One by one, his Democratic rivals dropped out of the running, until only Biden and Bernie Sanders remained. In April, a year after Biden launched his campaign, Sanders announced he was withdrawing from the race. Biden, a three-time presidential candidate, became the presumptive Democratic nominee.
Formally accepting the nomination on Thursday, Biden once again framed his candidacy as an urgent response to the threat posed by Donald Trump’s presidency as the nation faces a global pandemic and a reckoning over racism.
“Our current president has failed in his most basic duty to the nation. He has failed to protect us,” Biden said. “My fellow Americans, that is unforgivable. As president, I’ll make you a promise: I will protect America.”
Democrats hope that message can carry them to a presidential victory in November, and Biden, who has spent 33 years waiting for this moment, hopes that the third time will prove to be the charm.