2020 Election
August 21, 2020 11:04 AM EDT

Joe Biden gave the biggest speech of his life to a near-empty room, his words hanging in the air against a backdrop of hermetic silence. There was nothing fancy or newfangled about it: a graybeard politician in a suit and tie, flags and a curtain behind him, standing at a lectern, telling you how he saw the choice ahead.

“Give people light,” he said, quoting the late civil rights leader Ella Baker. “Those are words for our time.” As president, he vowed, he would “be an ally of the light,” and a President for the whole of the country.

The bar had been set absurdly low for Biden, whose opponent’s campaign—the official reelection effort of the incumbent 45th president of the United States—has for months been openly calling the 77-year-old former Vice President senile and mentally deficient. In fact, the whole four-day non-convention that culminated in Biden’s speech had been testament to the moment on which his candidacy was borne, a moment so much bigger than the man. All parties, or at least all sensible ones, strive to project the image of a big tent, but few can boast the range that President Donald Trump has pushed under one canopy, from Bernie Sanders to Colin Powell to the pop star Billie Eilish and a plate of Rhode Island calamari.

Over the course of the surreal proceedings, Biden popped up from time to time—getting to know regular people like health care workers and union members via video call —but it was hard to shake the impression that he was almost irrelevant, the figurehead for a movement brought together by dire circumstance. One after another, speakers paid tribute to him, always in the same terms: a decent man, honest, compassionate, a regular guy but more so. On the convention’s final night, the candidates he’d defeated in the primary lined up alongside a historian, a 95-year-old World War II veteran, some senators, Mike Bloomberg, a kid who, like Biden, has a stutter, an athlete, an actress and his own granddaughters to recommend him for the job that he’d aspired to his whole life.

And then, finally, it was Biden’s job to close the deal. It was a short convention speech, as these things go. The camera panned slowly in as he delivered it, without cutting away. He talked about who we are, the soul of the nation. The pandemic and how bad things are right now. “A president who takes no responsibility, refuses to lead, blames others, cozies up to dictators, and fans the flames of hate and division,” he said, never calling out Trump by name. Democrats feel like they overdid it with that stuff four years ago, and we know how that turned out. The desperation this time around is palpable.

All through the convention, Democrats pushed the crazy idea that this whole fractious country could answer to a single leader, that we could have a nation where things actually get better. In Trump’s worldview, that’s all phony, naive crap you’d be nuts to fall for. When the President’s own kids were little—the first three kids, with Ivana—he would kiss them and push them out the door of the penthouse apartment in Trump Tower every morning while saying, “Don’t do drugs, and don’t trust anyone.”

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And yet, at the Democratic Convention, America was told over and over that right and truth could prevail over brute force and lies, that Congress was capable of passing laws that helped people, that the virus could pass into history and people start hugging and shaking hands again, not just because they could but because they liked each other. That votes could matter. Like most slick Hollywood productions, it required a suspension of disbelief.

Biden used to go to the floor of the Senate and recite the Irish poets, one of those charming quirks senators once had when they, too, were humans like us, instead of Potemkin people engineered by consultant machines. The boy with a stutter, a beautiful, brave 13-year-old named Brayden, talked about how he and Biden had talked about Yeats. Biden’s a softie like that, obviously. But by the end of speech he got mad, talking about the fascists and the soul of the nation and George Floyd and John Lewis and whatever happened to liberty and justice. As he listed all the outrages of the moment, the old man’s anger and confusion felt more fitting than not.

The convention shot broadly and, in the end, said little. You can make people feel good or you can have a specific message, but you can’t do both. It papered over the party’s deep divisions, the collision that awaits between its cosmopolitan and working-class bases, not to mention all those newly converted Republicans. “I have always believed you can define America in one word: Possibilities,” Biden said, a line so vapid on paper it could be one of Jack Handey’s Deep Thoughts.

Maybe he isn’t what he once was, but he can still say this kind of thing like he means it. And in that sense, if the purpose of a political convention is to bring together the believers and give them one shot at showing their best argument to the nation, the Democrats pulled it off. Good politicians talk about results, not proposals, and Biden talked about jobs and health care and Social Security. He paid tribute to the “American story” of his half-Jamaican, half-Indian, HBCU-attending, liberal, tough-on-crime female running mate, Kamala Harris. At the end, he quoted the contemporary Irish poet Seamus Heaney—“the longed-for tidal wave/ Of justice”—and when he finished the screen dissolved into a disorienting field of Zoom-like squares of people clapping, all in different places.

Biden became a Senator at 29, a too-big-for-his-britches guy from a teeny state, and so many bad things happened to him since that you have to think if he becomes President, the White House will get hit by lightning. He loved being a senator, being the Vice President, being a leader of men. His whole career—more than that, his whole ideology, his whole political framework—was premised on an unquenchable belief in the overriding power of speaking from the heart.

That was, obviously, problematic. Over and over—in 1988, in 2008—he was proven wrong. People wanted something more substantive, more original than that. But even if you believe Joe Biden only ever wanted power and glory, you have to admit he never stopped trying. And now 2020 hinges on whether, after so many years, he’s finally right.

Then the speech ended, and Biden and his wife walked outside to see the fireworks go off. They stood there, in their masks, outside the empty arena in Wilmington, Del., watching the fireworks.

Write to Molly Ball at molly.ball@time.com.

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