Critic's Notebook: Biden Sticks the Landing on Final Night of the Democratic Convention

Joe Biden day 4 DNC - H 2020
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Joe Biden on day 4 of the Democratic National Convention 2020.

Night 4 lacked the substance of night 3, but Joe Biden's closing speech powerfully captured the crossroads this election represents.

Night 4 lacked the substance of night 3 — and some of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ jokes jarred — but Biden closed with a speech that powerfully captured the crossroads this election represents.

On the fourth and final night of the 2020 Democratic National Convention, Joe Biden had one main job: to convince voters that he’s not just the alternative to Donald Trump, but an honorable and worthy candidate in his own right.

The Democratic primaries, which only ended this spring, were brackish and bruising, and the former vice president must know that he was far from the first choice of many in the party’s base. In a year when millions of Americans will have to take more steps to cast a ballot than a leisurely stroll to one’s neighborhood polling place (if those are open at all), sufficient enthusiasm on the part of the electorate to do the work of self-enfranchisement will be an absolute requirement for a Biden victory.

Night 4 lacked much of the vigor and weight of night 3, but as a final sell to the Democratic voters still licking their wounds about their preferred candidate not being chosen, it definitely delivered.

Many of Biden’s former rivals — including Michael Bloomberg, Cory Booker, Pete Buttigieg, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren and Andrew Yang — praised him in a show of party solidarity. Several of them also supported the vision of Biden that this year’s DNC has meticulously projected: that of a man who’s suffered unimaginable personal loss, and who’s managed to turn his pain into an imperative to serve.  Biden may be a wealthy, straight, white, male septuagenarian from the Northeast running against another wealthy, straight, white, male septuagenarian from the Northeast, but the DNC has been largely persuasive that their radical empathy of a candidate couldn’t be more different from the callous and bullying narcissist currently occupying the White House.

There’s still a lot to quibble with. Biden’s family tragedies didn’t, for example, make him a better senator or a more compassionate man, for example, when he oversaw the all-male committee that ran roughshod over Anita Hill during her 1991 testimony against Clarence Thomas during his Supreme Court hearing. (Biden finally apologized to Hill for “what she endured” — but not until last year.) These missteps in his career, which is full of flubs and compromises, are probably why the DNC spent so much more time on Biden the person than Biden the politician — one who’ll hopefully bring his extraordinary and nearly unparalleled breadth of experience, knowledge and relationships to the Oval Office next year.

The road to the former veep’s keynote address was a largely monotonous and familiar affair, though it wasn’t without highlights. A moving video tribute to the late John Lewis was followed by a rousing performance by John Legend and Common, and presidential historian Jon Meacham foreshadowed Biden’s speech by referencing the historical crossroads that we will find ourselves in this fall. “This is a grave moment in America,” Meacham intoned. “We must decide whether we will continue to be prisoners of the darkest of American forces or will we free ourselves to write a brighter, better, nobler story?”

The only major surprise of the night may have been the discovery that national treasure Julia Louis-Dreyfus was fallible after all. Of the four actress-moderators who hosted this year, she was the weakest, burdened by uneven jokes that often jarred tonally against the earnestness of the rest of the night. It didn’t help that she was dressed in a tight but conservative dress — a look redolent of her Veep character, the incompetent and morally loathsome vice president Selina Meyer — or that she paid Biden a slightly backhanded compliment by making a crack about his willingness to read Amtrak’s on-board magazine: “Joe Biden not only knows how to read, but also he reads everything.”

Biden was introduced by four of his granddaughters, who emphasized — as did several of the night’s speakers — his willingness to call and listen. Shot in a tight close-up — a huge improvement from the roving camera that exposed the empty room that his VP pick, Kamala Harris, gave her speech to — Biden spoke to the urgency of the current moment and lambasted the man he hopes to replace.

“History has delivered us to one of the most difficult moments America has ever faced,” he said, calling the pandemic, the ensuing mass unemployment, wide-scale racial injustice and climate change todays’ “four historic crises.” It shouldn’t be a big deal for our leaders to simply state the challenges that are currently engulfing us. And yet, because of Trump’s mendacious underplaying or denial of these ongoing national or global catastrophes, the mere naming of them felt potent and powerful. Biden sounded even more clear-eyed when he called this election “a battle for the soul of this nation.”

It’s hard to disagree, especially when the former vice president reminds us of the marchers in Charlottesville three years ago, “coming out of the fields with lighted torches, veins bulging, spewing the same anti-Semitic bile heard across Europe in the ’30s.” He prompts us to remember, as if we could ever forget, that Trump said of the white supremacists and the counter-protesters that there were “very fine people on both sides.”

I remember a lot of people snickering when MTV unrolled its 2004 electoral slogan, “Vote or die.” But hyperbole hardly seems possible when describing the stakes of the upcoming election. Biden, along with the rest of the DNC, conveyed not just the momentousness but a necessary clarity of the crossroads at which we stand.

“Give people light, and they will find the way,” Biden said, quoting civil rights activist Ella Baker. “I’ll be an ally of the light,” he promised, cementing his image as the guy who might not always instinctively get it, but who definitely wants to help. If he’s rolling up his sleeves, the subtext of the DNC’s four nights has been that voters have to, too. Trump can be a “season of darkness,” as Biden called the last four years, but unless voters act, that darkness can extend far longer.