Biden stood at his son Beau’s wake for more than 10 hours, accepting other mourners’ condolences while much younger aides rotated to recover in the pews. When he was vice president, the Secret Service would often cover up the windows of rooms he was in while he was on the road for events—not as a safety precaution, but to keep Biden from catching sight of the crowds outside and insisting on going out to greet the people who had lined up to see him.
Read: The battle that changed Kamala Harris
This week, Biden finally got the presidential nomination he’d been chasing for more than 40 years, across three campaigns he ran and three more he almost ran. But he got it under conditions that forced him to be something less than his full self.
Because of the quirks of the primary calendar, the pandemic shutdown began at just the moment when Biden became unstoppable in the primaries. He had a big rally in Detroit on March 9, then landed in Cleveland on March 10, only to get right back on the plane and fly home, abiding by the Ohio governor’s advice that the rally he had planned for that night was too risky.
As Donald Trump and his allies like to note, Biden has been mostly stuck in his basement since. And though he’s committed to being careful—for his own sake and to set an example for others—aides and others who have been talking with him tell me that he’s sad and frustrated to be sidelined. Trump stopped by a pizza place in Pennsylvania yesterday and showed off the pie he bought. It was striking to see a man who almost never does retail politics decide to give it a whirl. In a normal campaign, Biden would probably have been stopping for food and handshakes and selfies (he likes to work the iPhones himself) at every stop. There would, most definitely, have been a lot of ice-cream cones. He’d be sliding into restaurant booths next to old ladies, talking about cars and jobs and Tastykakes. On one of the last nights before February’s Iowa caucus, when he and everyone else on his campaign knew he was about to get crushed, I saw him happily working the bar at an American Legion hall in Ottumwa, next door to the room where he’d just delivered a listless, useless speech. Biden heard that a man on a stool at the end of the bar was in his 90s, and made him take out his license to prove it. It must have been the most fun a lifelong teetotaler could have around a beer tap.
Biden didn’t get balloons dropping from the ceiling at the end of his convention speech. He didn’t even get to have his family in the room to watch. There was no crowd. There were no cheers. All Biden got was about 20 reporters, sitting on chairs in the dark, staring at the halo of light the producers put around him for his speech.
The Democrats did organize fireworks in a parking lot outside the convention center where Biden spoke on a special little stage assembled for a makeshift attempt at near-normalcy. For a moment, Biden forgot himself and grabbed Harris’s hand, lifting it up in the traditional candidates-in-unity pose—precisely the kind of touching they have carefully been avoiding at events since he picked her. He quickly realized his mistake, and dropped her hand. Then, right as the fireworks finale was letting rip, he decided to just go for it, and deliberately grabbed her hand to raise it again, this time holding it up for all the time the photographers needed to get the shot.