October 22, 2015 6:08 AM EDT

In the end, it was a classic Washington squeeze play. For weeks, Vice President Joe Biden had delayed a decision on whether to mount a third run for President. Now, powerful interests were trying to speed his timetable. Senior Democrats, taking their cues from the Hillary Clinton campaign and the White House, leaked word that he was eyeing a decision soon, essentially pushing him to choose one way or the other. Even President Obama was left to ask aides what they were hearing. “The Vice President is a fool,” one told the President, rightly predicting that he would pass, “but he is not stupid.”

So on Oct. 21, with his wife and the President by his side and his oldest friends watching from the wings, Biden announced that he would forgo one more try at the job he had always wanted. “Unfortunately, I believe we’re out of time,” the Vice President said, “the time necessary to mount a winning campaign for the nomination.”

Biden has never been one to flinch from a fight, but this time was different. In early summer, the Vice President had buried his older son, Beau, 46, the heir to the Biden political legacy who lost a long, brave fight with brain cancer. Biden spoke openly about his grief as word leaked that Beau’s dying wish for the man he called Pop was one more presidential campaign. To be a candidate for the White House, he told Stephen Colbert on The Late Show, he would have to commit “my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion to do this.” Then, “I’d be lying if I said I knew I was there.”

In his Rose Garden remarks, Biden explained that the mourning process had continued to unfold. “I know from previous experience that there’s no timetable for this process,” he said. “The process doesn’t respect or much care about things like filing deadlines or debates and primaries and caucuses.” While his family was healing, he said, the time had run out, if not to enter the race, then to have much chance of winning it.

If he had jumped in, Biden would have become the first sitting Veep in recent memory to enter the presidential race as an underdog to succeed his boss. He would also have started some 27 points behind Clinton, according to a CNN/ORC poll released Oct. 19, with a plurality of voters in his own party–38% to 30% in a separate NBC/Wall Street Journal poll released a day later–saying he should just retire. He had no campaign money, almost no campaign apparatus and an alumni network that was in many respects skeptical of a race. Nonetheless, he sounded like a candidate-in-waiting as he phoned allies and interviewed potential campaign staff.

The smart money was stacked against him, so Biden chose the next best route. “While I will not be a candidate, I will not be silent,” he said, before launching into what would have been his campaign stump speech: a call to help the middle class, extend public education into adulthood, reform campaign finance, address inequality, dampen partisan division and fund a moon-shot bid to cure cancer. “And when we do,” he said, “America won’t just win the future, we will own the finish line.”

Is Biden’s own run finally near its end? All his years in Washington have imbued him with talents that many others lack, including a knack for landing a political blow without looking like a jerk. “We’ve had two great Secretaries of State,” he said early last week, before he withdrew. “But when I go, they know that I am speaking for the President.” He added a comeback to Clinton’s recent boast at the Democratic debate that she was proud to call some Republicans her enemies. “The other team,” he said, “is not the enemy.” Both remarks were warning shots to Clinton, and he repeated the latter even as he said he would not run.

Biden did not rule out a future role in public service. After all, it’s how he and his clan have coped with grief in the past, and he says he is on the mend.

As Beau lay ill, friends and family wore wristbands that read WWBD?–What Would Beau Do? The father concluded that his son would have wanted him to run for President, yes. But Beau also would not have wanted to see his Pop fail. Joe Biden has accomplished, and suffered, enough.

This appears in the November 02, 2015 issue of TIME.

More Must-Reads From TIME

Write to Philip Elliott at philip.elliott@time.com.

You May Also Like
EDIT POST