Americans have spent this year watching aghast as reality demolished what Evan Osnos calls “the most basic stories we tell ourselves”. Those stories habitually declare the US to be exceptional, uniquely virtuous and therefore entitled to pre-eminence: how then has “the world’s richest, most powerful country” been laid low by the pandemic and shamed by Trump’s irresponsible antics? To help repair the damage, Osnos presents Joe Biden as someone whose career has been a basic story of a different kind – grounded in shared suffering and commiseration with others, not inflated by preordained conceit.
Osnos begins impersonally, with a nameless, middle-aged white male collapsing in a hotel room in 1988; after a while the victim is identified as Biden, toppled by a brain aneurysm. Anonymity makes a pitiable everyman of him, and even though emergency surgery saved his life on that occasion, Osnos goes on to show Biden coping with an extra battery of cruel blows. His young wife and their infant daughter were killed in a car crash in 1972; his adored son Beau was to die from a brain tumour in 2015, aged 46. Biden, we learn, is acquainted with grief, and he also understands how a bereaved person or an afflicted nation can be coaxed towards recovery.
As an epigraph for his book, Osnos chooses King Lear’s declaration that he is “bound upon a wheel of fire”, a claim that may be too monarchical and histrionic to suit folksy Uncle Joe. A friend fits Biden into the same lofty tragic story and supplies him with a catharsis, by suggesting that Beau’s death left him a “humbled, purposeful man”. The truth is that Biden has endured a long series of humiliations, which in retrospect probably prepared him for his new role as sympathiser-in-chief. As a teenager he stuttered, and he was viciously mocked by a nun who taught at his Catholic school. He sloppily underperformed as a law student. In 1987 his first campaign for the presidential nomination fell apart after he was found to have plagiarised a speech of Neil Kinnock’s. He was sidelined in 2016 when his party made way for the purportedly unbeatable Hillary Clinton.
The man of sorrows emerged from these setbacks with an instinct for self-criticism and self-mockery, which has allowed him to acknowledge his insecurities, and overcome them. Obama’s offer of the vice-presidency rankled at first, because Biden grumbled that he’d be better at the top job than his boss. Later he admitted: “The right guy won.” Once, in an after-dinner speech, a comedian said that he’d read Biden’s dreary political memoir Promises to Keep before meeting the man himself; he added, deadpan, that the book was more fun, and to his credit Biden howled with laughter.
Trump made a tactical error when he chose to deride his opponent as “Sleepy Joe”: as a veteran of the Obama administration tells Osnos, after four years of jangled hysteria the country “‘needs to chill the fuck out and have a boring president”. Biden, however, is more than a bromide. Persuasive as well as combative, adept at engineering compromise, he is described by Osnos as an innately political animal – unlike Obama, who considered it “undignifying” to beg for votes, and even more unlike Trump, who confuses politics with a contact sport such as mud wrestling.
Biden’s conviviality sometimes seems corny. He often ended phone calls to Hillary Clinton by saying: “I love you, darling”, to which I bet she didn’t reply: “Big kiss, honey bunch.” He can be insensitive: he marvelled that Obama, then a novelty as a black senator, was so “clean and nice-looking”. But at his best he is shrewd and fearless, as he demonstrated when he met Putin. Complimenting the kleptocrat on his swanky office, he remarked slyly that it was a monument to capitalist acquisition. Then he remembered that George W Bush had vouched for Putin’s honesty, after supposedly catching a glimpse of his patriotic soul. Biden trained his gaze on the thug to whom Trump has always slavishly deferred: “I’ve looked into your eyes,” he said to Putin, “and you don’t have a soul.”
Logically enough, Biden subtitled his presidential campaign “a battle for the nation’s soul” – a spiritual revival, not just a political contest. As this slogan confirms, God interferes in American elections more insidiously than the Russians. While votes were being counted, Trump’s spike-heeled spiritual adviser Paula White spoke in tongues at her Florida church and summoned legions of angels to defend the demon-beset incumbent. Biden, a devout Catholic, might flinch from such ecstatic gibberish, but he too compares a politician’s duty with that of a priest, and Osnos ends by citing a speech in which he calls for a holy light to dispel America’s “season of darkness”.
Such supernatural appeals sound weird to those of us who are reconciled to life in an irredeemably fallen world, where the sad, secular task of politics is to manage our messes. Yet every US dollar bill proclaims In God We Trust above an image of the temple-like White House portico, and the promise of perfectibility is written into the country’s constitution. Although Osnos has his doubts about Biden’s dazzling regular teeth and his replanted hairline, the cosmetic rejuvenation of this good, comfortingly ordinary man is just one more proof of America’s enviable capacity for making a fresh start.
• Joe Biden: American Dreamer by Evan Osnos is published by Bloomsbury (£18.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply