Column By David Howard

  When Joe Biden’s voice came out of my phone, I wasn’t thinking much about how he sounded, or how surreal it was that I was about to start talking with the soon-to-be leader of the free world from a desk in the corner of my living room. 

   I was just trying to draw a breath and say something coherent.

   It was the early evening of November 24, and I was working on a story about Biden for Delaware Today, a monthly magazine. The assignment was to write a kind of hometown-hero piece that spanned Biden’s career up to the present tense. The former senator and vice president from Delaware winning the White House was a very big moment for a tiny state. The piece was supposed to be at least as personal as it was political, and for that reason, I didn’t expect it to be a particularly challenging interview.


   But still, I had to ask good questions, and I was cranked up. In three decades as a journalist, I’d interviewed mayors, governors, members of Congress, professional athletes, a few celebrities. The best political stories always came out of Waterbury. When I was just getting started, my old friend John Murray hired me to cover Andy Michaud’s pivotal independent run for mayor in the Observer’s second issue, in 1993.

   I worked at the Republican-American during the height of the Edward D. Bergin Jr. era—a colorful time ripe with intrigue—before bouncing to The Waterbury Observer as part of my plan to become a magazine writer. John and I teamed up some of the most memorable stories of my life in those days—narratives that tugged at the tightly woven threads connecting the city’s populace and police to its body politic. Even when I moved from Waterbury to New York City, I never fully left. My first book, Lost Rights, co-starred disgraced former Waterbury developer Bob Matthews and his exploits as a politician buyer—one of the key figures in the collapse of Governor John Rowland (yet another Waterbury connection).

   But Biden—this was my first president (if he was still only a president-elect at the time). It was a different scale of experience. He had been one of two people seemingly at the front of the entire world’s minds for the past six months.

   I’d painstakingly prepared my questions—writing them out, then rewriting them, then rewriting the rewrites. I told my son, Vaughn, 16, that he would have to disappear at the appointed time, so I could focus and avoid any distraction. He said he planned to be home then, but promised to stay invisible. He is more interested in politics than I was at his age.

   Then the moment arrived. My phone buzzed, and I answered it. Biden’s press secretary said, “I have the president-elect on the line.”

   We exchanged a brief greeting and I launched in. Awkwardly. I began with a long-winded question about how the pandemic had made for a weird election year. But I was too rushed, and I felt like I was pelting him with words—as if I’d just run a mile at top speed while trying to eat a piece of beef jerky.

   The gist of the question was this: Was there any benefit to being stuck at home for so much of the campaign? Any kind of home cooking? Cringing inwardly, I pressed onward.

   After I finished, there was a brief silence, during which my mind raced to fill the void. Was Biden thrown by the question? Had he considered this before? Did it even make any sense?

   What finally came out of his mouth surprised me.

   That I was even on the phone with the soon-to-be 46th president of the United States felt like a small miracle.

   The journey had begun that summer, when a friend and longtime editorial collaborator, Ashley Breeding, had inquired whether I was interested in writing a Biden story. As the top editor at Delaware Today, she’d been thinking through the magazine’s election coverage since Biden had emerged as the likely winner of the Democratic nomination. Delaware is a small state, and he’s a towering figure that the magazine had been covering since his first Senate run in 1972.

   I told her that I was interested in whatever kind of story she had in mind, then we checked in over the summer as the campaign plowed forward. By October, we began to spitball ideas. Biden had a lead in the polls, but planning an election story before anyone actually votes is a tricky thing. Biden would either reach the pinnacle of his life and career, or he would go down in devastating defeat to a polarizing incumbent.

   Regardless of what happened, one thing was certain: We wanted an interview. Biden had spoken to the magazine many times over his 48 years in office, including during his previous two runs for president, in 1988 and 2008. Ashley anticipated that this time would be no different. We asked for an in-person interview—a wish that was unlikely to be granted during the pandemic, but worth the ask.

   My first request went to the Biden campaign on October 5, five weeks and a day before the election. The reply was not encouraging: “Honestly—I am not sure when we are able to do (an interview) before the election,” an aide wrote.

   What happened over the subsequent eight weeks was predictable enough. The world zeroed in on the campaign. The Cleveland debate debacle happened, the pandemic raged on. Then there was the contested election result. Through it all, I kept up a stream of polite requests, at the same time understanding the extraordinary circumstances. I knew why it hadn’t happened, and I knew that it might not happen, ever.

   I filled in the blanks by interviewing other Delaware politicians and some of Biden’s friends and acquaintances. I would write what I had. I had a deadline of November 25, the day before Thanksgiving.

   Then on Monday morning, November 23,I received a call from Delaware Today. Someone connected to the magazine knew someone in the Biden family. Word had been passed up the line, and Biden—loyal to all things Delaware—wanted to participate.   

   Be ready tomorrow, Ashley Breeding said. You’re getting 10 minutes.

   It was shaping up to be the most fraught 10 minutes of my life.

   That day I drafted questions, sent them to Ashley for feedback, went for a walk in the woods, came back, retooled the questions. That night I dreamed about the interview, a kind of elevated-stress REM visitation. The next morning I rewrote the rewritten queries. The interview was set for 5:45 p.m. It would be an audio call on Google Meet. The invitation included six names—mostly Biden’s handlers—and I worried about a too-many-chefs-stirring-the-pot scenario, everyone trying to talk or facilitate all at once. But it wasn’t like I had much choice.

   In the afternoon, Biden’s press secretary called to interview me about my interview. She warned me that I had a “hard” 10 minutes. I was hoping for the soft 10, but again—I had to take what I could get.

   At 4:45, with an hour to go, I tested both my digital recorders, deleting files to ensure they had enough space to record a 10-minute conversation. I put in fresh batteries. I printed out my questions and then instantly began to doubt them: Were they in the right order? Would they draw him out? Provide any insights? I crossed out passages and scribbled in the margins.

   As I spun my wheels, my phone buzzed at 5:06 with a text. Another of Biden’s calls was being moved; could I be on standby for 5:15? Of course I could. I stared at my ink-scribbled page of questions, fully aware that I now had nine minutes to settle on them. I reminded Vaughn to become invisible and stay off the internet to avoid any Wifi glitches. He offered a few words of encouragement, an intense look on his face, before heading upstairs. I’d explained to him what I do and how I do it many times, but it was always hard to know what landed. This time seemed, of course, different.

   The next 25 minutes passed as a centipede might traverse an expanse of quick-drying cement. At 5:36, a new text: Biden’s press person was now going to call me directly—no Google Meet.

   Good thing we made all those plans.

   He sounded tired.

   That was what hit me when I heard the first few words of his first answer, about being rooted in Delaware.

    “Well, it’s not a great deal,” he started, his voice sounding distant and weary. “I was worried that it would dislocate some Delawareans, that there was a lot of attention. But it turned out that I think it, uh, it also helped the economy.”

   He chuckled, probably picturing all the Fox News and CNN guys hunkered around tables every afternoon at the Charcoal Pit, a renowned ’50s-theme Wilmington diner, waiting for lunch.      

   It made sense that he’d be wiped out. He had undoubtedly already had a long day. I could only guess at the mental obstacle course of his 17th day as president-elect: The hard decisions to be made, cabinet appointments, calls from foreign leaders, and who knew what else—not to mention the friction coming from his vanquished but unyielding foe.

   Feeling more grounded, I was poised to ask my next question, but before I could, Biden launched into a story. He described an incident from 1972, the first time he ran for the Senate, where he mistakenly insulted a cousin of his hosts after attending church with them.

   It was everything I’d been told to expect of him: a little drifty, self-deprecating, a raconteur who slathered details over his anecdotes. After what seemed like some time, I asked whether what he called the Delaware Way—shorthand for bipartisanship—could translate to a divided country.

Joe Biden said when he dies it will be Delaware on his heart. As he spoke on January 19th about his love of Delaware and his deceased son, Beau, Biden began to weep.

   “Yes,” he said. “And by the way, I’m going to say something both self-damning and self-serving at the same time: When I was in the Senate, and as vice president, I had a reputation of being able to bring people together, Democrats and Republicans in the Senate. And I think I learned a significant part of that from just being in Delaware, the Senator from Delaware. It was the way we’ve always worked together.”

   And off he went. He told a funnier story. More verbal jazz solos.

   I worked in another question, and soon Biden’s press aide interjected with an apology that we were out of time. But before she could finish, Biden cut her off—“Look, I know we’re running late,” he said. “A couple more quick questions and then I’ll let you go.”

   So we continued. And as he talked about his bone-deep connection to his home state, he gained energy, seemed more animated. He read out loud part of a congratulatory letter sent to him by an unnamed Republican. He apologized for getting too sentimental, then he talked about his children, especially his son, Beau, who had been Delaware’s attorney general and on a career trajectory similar to his father’s before tragically dying of a brain tumor at 46.

   Before our time ran out, he told me a last story. Whenever he came off stage after speaking at national events, Beau would always be waiting. He would grab the elder Biden by the lapels and say, “Remember, Dad, home base. Home base, Dad. Remember who you are, Dad. The rest doesn’t matter.”

   This was moving, knowing what would come later for the family, knowing the tragedy they endured. A powerful moment. Biden’s voice had been rising. 

   When we hung up, and I spun my chair and took a breath. Vaughn instantly emerged from the stairway behind me, where he’d been listening. “Well, that’s one to check off your bucket list,” he said.

   We talked a bit about the interview—Vaughn also noticed that Biden had sounded tired at the start but had become energized by the topic.

   Only later did it hit me: Of course Vaughn wanted to stick around. He’s growing up in a time where politics take up more of the oxygen than they ever did early in my life. He’s paying attention. He cares. It seemed fitting that the Biden story, in the end, was largely a story of a father and his son, and what they were able to do together in the time they had.

   The course of my life is mostly set, but Vaughn’s is just beginning, and he’s shown an interest in travel, international relations, politics, writing, philosophy and environmental science. Vaughn will have to narrow his focus later, but for now his lens is wide open. Who can say what hearing a president-elect’s voice in his own house might inspire? Maybe it’ll mean more to his future than any magazine article means for mine.

       Home base, Dad. Remember who you are, Dad.

       I won’t forget. Vaughn won’t let me.

(David Howard is a freelance writer living in Portland, Maine. Howard has written for The New York Times, was an editor at Backpacker Magazine, Bicycling Magazine and Popular Mechanics, and has written two books; Lost Rights, and Chasing Phil)