This year’s Democratic convention is heavy on biography, light on history. Speaker after speaker has told the story of Joe Biden’s personal life: his working-class roots, his family tragedies, his resilience. The message is that Biden cares about ordinary Americans because he sees their struggles as an echo of his own.
What no speaker has done is put Biden’s personal history in the context of American history. None has explained how the trajectory of his life has intersected with the country’s. For Democrats, that’s unusual. In “The Man From Hope,” the biographical video that played at the 1992 Democratic convention, Bill Clinton said he recited Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I Have a Dream” speech from memory as a child. He reflected on the fact that the assassinations of King and Robert F. Kennedy “broke the hearts and spirits of millions of people” and “changed a lot of things for my generation.” The implication was clear: As president, Clinton would return America to the path of moral progress it abandoned when those liberal giants died.
In 2004, John Kerry interwove his personal narrative with America’s war in Vietnam. The message was that Kerry was tough and patriotic enough to go to war, but wise enough to keep America out of unwinnable ones—in contrast to George W. Bush. Barack Obama evoked the ’60s in a different way. He cast his interracial parents’ “improbable love” as a testament to their “faith in the possibilities of this nation” at a time when those possibilities seemed bright. And he depicted his decision to become a community organizer during the Reagan era as an homage to the idealism of the decade in which his parents wed.