Bernie’s playing sports arenas, with Public Enemy as a warm-up act. Trump’s army camp outside the convention centres he’s playing. There we were on a Monday evening, in the Harbour Palace Seafood Restaurant, listening to a dignitary from the local Asian-American community warm up for … Joe Biden. Outside, the crowd who can’t get in are taking selfies with a big Biden display, signing up for a photo with the man himself, when he gets here. Inside, the warm up acts.
‘You know my husband built a multi-million dollar company’ said the small neat woman, standing in a cleared circle, furniture pushed back to create some sort of speaking area. The place looks like every new-built banquet Chinese restaurant, big round fake stone-top tables, knock-off black single stroke paintings, gold huge Hitler-saluting cat. People are crammed in to every corner and spare space, looking at the forty or so seated with undisguised envy and hatred. ‘We didn’t expect anything like this’, a BID–N-sweatshirted chubby young too-honest Biden volunteer had said outside, as she worked the long line, signing up precinct captains. Sure, sure. It’s an old trick to book a too-small venue, get people listening intently to a speaker outside. But they hadn’t even moved all the tables out, which suggests their expectations were very very modest indeed.
This was last week in Vegas, in a very, very different time, when Coronavirus was a whacky story about cruise ship hell, and not a potential pandemic, which threatened to shut down schools and meeting places for a month. Joe’s stumping round South Carolina now, desperate for a win this Saturday before Super Tuesday next week. He’ll probably get it, before he gets smashed to bits four days later. But that will be spectacular at least, and he’ll be in good company. Here, he needed a first or second to stay in the race, and if he didn’t get it, this was where a half-century political career would end, in the Harbour Palace Restaurant on the outskirts of Vegas. The crowd was Asian- and Pacific-American Vegasites, many of them prosperous and neatly turned out, in Sunday best, grouped in families–which at least meant there were some kids here.
Speakers were filling, the local congresswoman, a former governor Joe was late. Joe’s always late. He’s always at the kerb, glad-handing someone, yakking about that time he saw them at the tyre-fitters local 323 ball in ’73, remember those pies they served and so on and so on. Joe’d be late for his funer… oh he is.
‘My husband and I went out for five months and when he didn’t ask me to marry him, I proposed!’ Huge laughter from this crowd. But when he died I found out the business was bankrupt. So after I grieved I went to work and I built it back up again!’ Applause. ‘Then I liquidated the assets and sold it for a billion dollars!’ Huge applause. This is not a crowd that will be stumping for Bernie Sanders. I suspect about twenty percent of them would drown him in the river. Then, as she’s detailing more of her life philosophy, there’s a flash of light from the kitchen doors and the MC, with palpable relief, takes the mike, and announces ‘ladies and gentlemen, Vice-President Joe Biden!’, and Joe, the whitest guy in the room, shining under the TV lights, ghosts into view, shaking hands, Jesus, with someone on the way into the middle of the room.
‘Yeah hi how are ya how are ya?!’ Joe’s white hair is slicked back, the collars of his open-necked white shirt splayed wide. His smile’s wide, but not perhaps as wide as I’ve seen it. Slightly pinched, slightly rote? Or am I just finding it thus? Does he think ohshitthismightbeitthelastoutinghereallyHERE?. Or are politicians, in the act, utterly without self-observation. Here’s the job this is the job. The Asian people like me. Talk to the Asians. What did that lady say?
‘Gee you know what was being talked talked about, how she proposed to her husband, and you know I was thinking about how I proposed to Jill [his current, second wife], and man you know that took months, and I’d just been to South Africa…’ and it was here, in the middle of this meandering story, triply infolded like some middle passage of the Quixote, that Joe made his latest gaffe. ‘We were on the way to see Nelson Mandela and we were arrested…’ He’d repeated this several times in the past week, even as it was being fact-checked and found wanting. Why was he saying it now? The grin was still on the face, but now we were—still not yet at the proposal–back into Joe’s Irish ancestry, and how he was of the emerald green on both sides, and he’d been back to the old blarney, and ‘my family left at the time of the potato famine, which was a terrible thing and some people say a genocide and maybe it was; anyway…’ I looked around and everyone else was as bewildered as I, all these petite burnished golden people being told about the mists of Skibbereen. A polite laugh here and there, a cough, and painted smiles on his team to one side. God, that must be a bare-knuckle ride.
This was billed as a twenty-minute appearance. This anecdote was getting to minute ten already. Joe’s smile was wide, he was hitting his straps, and it was at that point that it occurred to me that Joe Biden may truly now be subject to fast neurological decline. This wasn’t a reminiscence. This was a fugue state. Joe wasn’t back in Ireland. But he was back in Wilmington, Delaware, stumping among the Baltimore Irish spillover for the Senate seat he got in 1972, at the age of 29. He was in Keene, New Hampshire on his 1988 primary tilt, at an Ohio local rounding up the vote for Jimmy, for Bill, for Hillary, for Barack. Wherever he was, he wasn’t here. Perhaps that explained his quiet calm. We weren’t here either. Joe’s smile was wider now, his few wrinkles stretched. This crazy last run! Joe had an out-of-time quality. He looked like a young man made up to play an old man in a school play.
‘I won’t take up much of your time’ he said segueing to policy. He was right. He has none, really, no big idea. A lot of small and sensible policies. ‘I hear a lot of people talking about a revolution’ he’s said. ‘Well Americans don’t want a revolution. They want to progress, they want to build on what we’ve got.’ It’s a good message for an audience which has got a lot. Two of the three couples near us, pushed up against the media section rope at the back, had restaurants in the strip mall this place was in, a vast colonnade of West Lakes, Peony Gardens, nail bars and tax accountants. ‘Would you vote for Bernie Sanders?’ I asked Mr Lu (many had name tags; they appeared to have brought them from home). He smiled. ‘It was wonderful of you to come’ he said, still smiling.
Many Asian-Americans vote for the Democrats like a lot of African-Americans; they are not even slightly to the left, in any conventional sense. They vote for the respect for education, for steady order, and, more recently, for basic sanity. They would probably turn out for Bernie. But they love Joe. He talks of ‘Barack and my’ administration, and occasionally reverses that to ‘my and Barack’s’ and then reverses it back quickly. He rattles the can on gun control–’it took me seven years to get the first law up’–one violence against women, on health care, ‘I rounded the Senators up to get Obamacare through; we’re not going to tear that down , I’m going to add to that, and call it Bidencare!’ It’s a triumphant answer to a teasing TV question from weeks back. Without it, it sounds vainglorious and pathetic. But all stumps do, these insistent recitatives, like the old, well, Irish craic game where you hold a lit match between thumb and index and can’t drop it until you’ve recited all the people who’ve loved you. No-one burns their fingers. Getting it all in, all you’ve done, before someone pushes you into a car to go eat a taco at a mayor’s daughter’s quinciniera, or open a bus-stop, can leave you short. Joe has more than most, but whether he’s a solid practical progressive of decades standing, or a lifelong professional hack in hock to Delaware’s insurance and chemical conglomerates, an Israel-booster and a big union flak who occasionally done good, is something for the historical record.
He has no policies that acknowledge where the country is at, the avalanche of debt burying lives and the economy, the vast gaps that remain in health care—the Sanders campaign has people whose houses were (re)possessed by hospitals they owed money to bobbing up on cable news—simply no acknowledgement of the quiet desperation that has become the background hum of American life.
But he’ll win it in South Carolina. But on Super Tuesday, he’ll be up against Bloomberg for the first time, and that may well reduce him to a couple of victories in the South. Bloomberg is heading towards a half-billion dollar total ad spend. Joe has less than a million dollars in advertising out there—’targeted’—which means he’s run out of donors. Can he hang on until the convention, for the thirty plus primaries still to come after Super Tuesday? Speaking to twenty Shriners at the Pierre, South Dakota Buffalos Dinner, shoving down his thousandth on-camera Philly cheese steak in Pennsylvania? Had it ended in Vegas it would have been up in the Bellagio, whisky in hand, tie loosened, watching the numbers go bad on TV, like losing political keno. But it will most likely end somewhere before the Convention, in a Hampton Garden Inn in Omaha, a Frittlers Local 303 in Las Cruces, or in Springfield, Anywhere, a Harbour Palace Seafood Restaurant. Fifty years.
Joe, Joe why didn’t you write that record? Why didn’t you exit on as good a win as you could get, partner in a historic administration, a vast record, and write a vast tome-memoir claiming your place in history? Well, where we were is the answer. Vegas baby, a whole city raised from the desert, built on the gamblers’ instinct to neither cut their losses nor gather their winnings, but to stay in for one more spin. All this, to be able to say ‘my administration?’ The last thing? The words of his son Beau, who died of cancer in 2015. ‘”Dad, promise me you won’t disengage”—and that’s one of the reasons I’m here.’
The man had already lost a wife and daughter in a car crash in the 1970s. It is simultaneously deeply moving and a politician’s grim self-parody. My son told me, on his death bed… The last thing? No, the second last. Inside, they’ve started serving again, baskets of spring rolls the size of mortar shells circulating. Outside? In the desert evening haze, the distant glow of neon, with the man himself, more selfies.