Biden seemed aware that he hadn’t closed the deal. “There’s a lot more,” he said. “If you can hang around afterward, I’ll tell you more.”
Biden knew as well as anyone that just as there was no “town,” there was unlikely to be any “afterward,” at least not with Humphrey. Biden’s occasional willingness to press his phone number into the hands of a few of the everyday people he meets is evidence that he understands the impersonal nature of political representation. Campaigns require candidates to mass-produce moments of intimacy; on the trail Biden displays a quixotic determination to salvage something real from them, to forge lasting friendships with a security guard in an elevator or a boy struggling with a stutter, genuine relationships that are in turn harvested by his campaign. As he tried to forge this kind of connection with Humphrey, Biden showed one of his rarer qualities — an almost painfully keen awareness of his own inadequacies.
“No, but I really mean it,” he said, and rambled a bit further, through an account of his own (white) family’s financial difficulties, before finally chancing on the words he was looking for. “You’re behind an eight-ball,” he said. “The vast majority of people of color are behind an eight-ball.” Here was some safe middle ground. “Behind an eight-ball” didn’t contradict Biden’s broadly optimistic rhetoric of America as the land of possibilities, but it did at least hint at something structural and endemic about racial inequality.
Stephanopoulos cut in again to switch to a different questioner. “I’m sorry,” Biden said softly, turning back to Humphrey. It sounded as if he were sorry for his answer, which didn’t go as far as Humphrey might have wanted, but also sorry that they didn’t have more time for some back-and-forth. Within the fake context of the fake town hall, he believed that he and Humphrey might actually be talking to, and not past, each other. His commitment was not so much to a fixed policy platform as to an endangered set of traditions and manners, one that rejected Trump’s politics of contempt.
In the final debate a week later, Biden groped for a metaphor to convincingly portray the country as a union that crisis could strengthen rather than divide. He eventually landed on the classic trope of a middle-class family at a kitchen table, faced with tough economic choices. The cliché was too much for Trump, who interrupted the moderator to get in a rebuttal.
“A typical political statement,” he said, and then added, snidely: “The family, around the table, everything.” Trump knew that the merciless shattering of collective illusions was what the voters of 2016 had wanted from him. “I’m not a typical politician,” he said. “That’s why I got elected.”