Biden on 'Colbert' -- shockingly frank and noble

Story highlights

  • Jay Parini: Joe Biden's interview with Colbert shows he's unlikely to run, but he also showed the humanity and honesty the race needs
  • He says Biden has unexpectedly wakened a nation to what it craves: a vulnerable, fully committed person who can honestly lead

Jay Parini, a poet and novelist, teaches at Middlebury College in Vermont. His newest book is "Empire of Self: A Life of Gore Vidal," which comes out in October. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author.

(CNN)What the American public craves is authenticity: a sense that the men and women we elect are, like us, flesh-and-blood creatures who celebrate and grieve, who dance and despair. But it's rare to see politician reveal his or her vulnerability before a mass television audience.

Jay Parini
And that is why Vice President Joe Biden's appearance on "The Late Show" with Stephen Colbert on Thursday night was so uncommonly moving. In the face of Biden's offhand honesty, passion and wrenching humanity as he discussed his beloved son Beau's death from brain cancer earlier this summer, it is almost embarrassing to acknowledge that it made for "good television."
It was life happening before our eyes, the kind of life we find in our own living rooms and kitchens.
Real conversation about the human experience is something we don't expect on late night -- from arch hosts, and particularly from politicians, who often seem like pieces of Styrofoam.
The Biden appearance slapped the nation awake, reminding us that we've become almost numb as we listen to the excuses, the prevarications, the bragging, the naked vanity that seems to dominate both major parties in this election season.
Is it just me, or has it gotten horribly worse Isn't this why we crave somebody like Joe Biden, somebody willing to reveal his pain, his fear, his frailty and nobility?
It seems unlikely now that Biden will run, not after this interview, where Stephen Colbert — the most gifted interviewer in America today -- brought up "the elephant in the room," which he cleverly suggested was really a donkey. He referred to the pressing political question of the moment: Will Joe Biden challenge Hillary Clinton and others in the ongoing Democratic primary?
A lot hung on his answer, and the whole nation leaned forward to listen.
Biden was shockingly frank for a man under the klieg lights. His face was extremely mobile, with a range of emotion flickering as he dipped his eyes to the floor and seemed to wince. A vast audience saw the obvious truth: Here is father grieving for beloved son, Beau, who died of brain cancer only a few months ago. The rawness of his feelings were vividly on display.
Biden was frank, saying: "I don't think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president and, number two, 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." One could hear a pin drop in the audience, which held its breath. "And I'd be lying if I said that I knew I was there," Biden added, more or less putting the kibosh on a presidential bid.
He could backtrack, of course, claiming that suddenly a voice had come to him from heaven, saying "Run, Joe, Run!" But that seems highly unlikely now. Voters would genuinely have to wonder if Biden really had the heart, the energy and the passion to give to this difficult and demanding job. Running for high public office can't be easy. And it's clear that even Joe doesn't think he can manage it in the wake of his son's death.
It's easy to say why so many like Joe Biden a great deal. I'm among them. He's a compassionate human being, and he's real.
Born in 1942, he grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania -- the lunch-pail capital of the western world, in my view. I grew up only a mile or so from Biden, whose father scraped to find work during some hard economic times in this era, when anthracite mining had died out and left many in northeastern Pennsylvania without other options for making a living. My mother, who died at 97 only last year, was a friend of Biden's aunt and mother, and she recalled that they moved to Delaware in search of better work.
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Like so many baby boomers, Joe was among the first in his family to have a college education, which he managed to get with the aid of scholarships, attending the University of Delaware and law school at Syracuse.
Ordinary Americans identify with Biden. He wasn't born with a silver spoon in his mouth -- like Jeb Bush or Donald Trump. He made his way -- slowly but surely -- in the often clamorous world of American politics. And he has risen to a height his family could scarcely have imagined in those hardscrabble years after the war in Scranton.
Joe is the real deal. He would have made a great president, perhaps: a man of the people, who understands their needs, their fondest wishes, their fears. But that probably isn't going to happen.
Nonetheless, Joe Biden has -- unexpectedly -- wakened a nation to what it craves: a vulnerable but fully committed person who can say what he or she means, without bombast or equivocation, and lead us forward.