Updated at 11:42 a.m. ET on May 15, 2020.
They say that if you live long enough, you’ll get to experience nearly everything, and so it has been for Joe Biden, who has lived to see history’s first Zoom presidential campaign. Unfortunately for him, it’s his.
Nobody looks good on Zoom—or FaceTime or Skype or any of the other online simulacra of human interaction that the lockdown has forced upon us. It diminishes all the distractions and intangibles that give life texture and zest, that make life seem rather pleasanter than it is. Did anyone fully understand just how unfunny late-night talk-show hosts are—take your pick; I pick Stephen Colbert—until the pandemic forced them online and deprived them of the Pavlovian and highly implausible laughter of their studio audiences? So too with political campaigns.
What is a presidential candidate without cheering crowds, balloon drops, overbearing music, a stage choked with grinning sycophants? Or without a dour Jim Lehrer or even a Larry King prodding him with uncomfortable questions face-to-face ?
Now we know the answer. Last week, as Biden remained confined to his Delaware home, his campaign took to YouTube to put on a virtual rally. It’s still available online, though in truncated, buttoned-up, highly edited form. When it was unfolding in real time, it was messier.
The “site” of the rally was designated as Tampa, Florida. (New motto for politics in the age of Zoom: “If you can’t attend, at least pretend.”) It featured a brief parade of luminaries from the state Democratic Party. The party chair, a delighted woman named Terrie Rizzo, was first to appear on-screen, though she seemed not to know it at the outset, sitting in silence with a wide smile creasing her face for several uncomfortable seconds until she received an off-camera signal to commence. She responded with unmistakable vigor. Her voice and mouth were unsynchronized, however, and the choppy connection dropped every fifth or sixth syllable. “Let– g– to wrk! Go Joe!” she said in conclusion.
An offscreen announcer then asked us to welcome a young high schooler to lead us in the Pledge of Allegiance, just like at a real campaign rally. The choppy sound mattered less here because all of us, even Democrats, already know the words to the Pledge of Allegiance. In contrast to a real campaign rally, the pledge was followed by a long silence. Off camera, a frustrated voice growled: “Jesus.” Then, floating in another Zoom box, came—no, not Jesus—a man introduced as a regional organizer, who asked us all through a stuttering connection to host a virtual event. Presumably like this one.
A rally needs music. “Ladies and gentleman,” said the disembodied announcer, “from Funkman Productions, DJ Jack Henriquez!” Suddenly a small, elderly man appeared in close-up, wearing a slouch hat and sunglasses. He was chewing gum and heaving his shoulders in time to a pop song by Haim. Colored lights shone behind the funkman. He jauntily wagged his finger in the air. He gave no indication that he knew he was being watched—indeed, he behaved as if he were sure he wasn’t. Again the camera lingered on him uncomfortably, dissolving at last to a photo montage of happier, pre-pandemic days. “Ordinary people,” as Biden likes to call them, were shown greeting the candidate, barely able to contain their joy. Soon the funkman was back with another song, “Ain’t No Stoppin’ Us Now,” a disco hit released 41 years ago, when Biden was entering his second term in the Senate.
Seldom has the need for a crowd—hundreds of humans, thousands of the buggers, packed together shank to flank—been felt so acutely. Without applause, laughter, and the crush of swaying bodies, the conventions of a political rally come off as ludicrous. For example, there is absolutely no reason for an old disco song to be played, ever, except to rouse an audience and prepare it to receive with wild abandon whatever comes next. At the virtual rally, what came next was Charlie Crist, the telegenically tanned former governor of the state where we were pretending to be. He was sitting before a Miami Beach backdrop.* He glanced skyward, in perfect silence. He took out a handkerchief, and he wiped his chin. At last he realized he was on live, and he began speaking. The sound, finally, came through unbroken. Then the screen went black. All we heard was his voice.
“If we work hard,” Crist said, “this man will become president of the United States. And God is going to be happy for it.” If your last name is Crist, you can say stuff like that.
And so it went, the blackouts, the indecipherable monologues, the speakers staring silently, endlessly, waiting for a prompt. I kept my eye on the viewer counter in the corner of the screen. From what I could tell, viewership peaked at 2,637 and then fell off a cliff as the technical troubles continued. The numbers rose a bit when, nearing the program’s end, the announcer spoke Biden’s name. The screen filled with a sunlit suburban room, and we saw a man in aviators approaching the camera from the glow of a patio. “Did they introduce me?” he asked, looking around. “Huh?”
Biden gave a version of his stump speech from the campaign trail, with unfortunate improvisations: “This country is really all about the American people,” he said. It felt like a mercy when, after he bade us goodbye, his image faded and a card came up advertising the Virtual Rally in Tampa, Florida, that had just ended.
The whole rally was, in short, a disaster—not a lasting or sizable one, but easily, in its comprehensiveness, the equal of any in my political experience, and I covered the 2016 Jeb Bush campaign. The fundamental problem was conceptual. Biden’s handlers approached the challenge of bringing a rally online too literally. They tried simply to list the elements of a typical rally and tick off the boxes—music, check; Pledge of Allegiance, check; speeches, check; candidate remarks, check; Ray-Bans, check—and then throw them up on the web, in serial fashion. For Zoom-campaign operatives, the trick in the future will be to somehow re-create the essence of a real-life rally, its excitement and spontaneity, without straining after a precise simulation.
No one should underestimate the devastating effects of technological incompetence. We know that a lot of former Obama-administration officials are getting involved in Biden’s campaign, which is perfectly understandable, but the Tampa rally suggests he’s brought back the tech crew from the first Obamacare website.
Other online appearances have been more successful, though not very. Biden’s team has posted a number of endorsements, including one from his former rival Bernie Sanders. Watching the two candidates side by virtual side, viewers of a certain age had the happy experience of reliving the Bartles and Jaymes commercials of our youth. Hillary Clinton joined Biden in another Zoom town hall, her mandible-cracking smile showing dimly in her ill-lit living room. The timely subject of that segment was the effect of the pandemic on American women. They gave the issue of sexual assault special attention—but not so much attention that the subject of Tara Reade came up. “Violence against women is a huge problem,” Biden said.
The Virtual Rope Line with Joe Biden, in April, was a well-packaged sequence of mutual flattery between the candidate and his voters over Zoom, broken off at the four-minute mark. “Folks, I hope we can keep doing this,” Biden said from his basement recreation room, but he hasn’t. He expressed the same hope at the end of his Virtual Happy Hour a month before—a Zoom Q&A session with Millennials that has also proved to be a one-off. A Facebook series called Biden Brunch Live, for campaign workers, broadcasts weekly, but the candidate doesn’t attend. Biden and his staff are creating history’s first Zoom campaign as they go along, in fits and starts, by trial and error—a road map, so far, of dead ends.
In none of his Zoom appearances does Joe Biden ever appear to be anything less than a happy man. Yet he is a happy man who has reached the peak of his career in the rec room of his basement, talking into a computer. The crisis has forced him into being only a simulation of a presidential candidate. It has done the same to his rival, of course, but the difference is, his rival gets to be president too.
*This article previously misspelled Charlie Crist's name.