Introducing the vice president on The Late Show last night, Stephen Colbert said, “Everybody likes Joe Biden, right?… I think it’s because when we see you, we think that we’re actually seeing the real Joe Biden. You’re not a politician who’s created some sort of façade to get something out of us.”
The remarkable and deeply moving dialogue that followed demonstrated exactly what Colbert meant. There is probably no one in American public life who has suffered more searing losses than Biden has—first the death of his wife and infant daughter in a car crash in 1972, then the death of his son, Beau, from brain cancer this spring. Instead of being embittered by grief, he seems ennobled by it; he’s full of empathy rather than entitlement. When Colbert asked about his son’s death, he spoke warmly and adoringly of him, but hesitated to discuss his own pain: “It’s a little embarrassing to speak about me. There are so many people—maybe some people in the audience—who’ve had losses as severe or worse than mine, and didn’t have the incredible support I had.” He discussed the profound solace he finds in Catholicism, but added, “the faith doesn’t always stick with you, so I don’t want to come off as…” He trailed off, and then returned to talking about the suffering of others, including Colbert, who, as a child, lost his father and two brothers in a plane crash.
When they came back from a commercial break, the crowd was chanting “Joe! Joe! Joe!” as if at a campaign rally. Colbert, naturally, asked about Biden’s presidential plans, and Biden said he couldn’t commit: “I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president, and two, they can look at folks out there and say, ‘I promise you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy, and my passion to do this.’ And I’d be lying if I said that I knew I was there.” He spoke about how he recently broke down when he met one of his son’s former military colleagues on a rope line. By the time the interview was over, Colbert was practically begging him to run, and many of the people watching were probably silently doing the same.
Today, invidious comparisons to Hillary Clinton—a person who has never been described as universally liked, or without a façade—are everywhere. In a Washington Post piece titled “The Amazing Honesty of Joe Biden,” Chris Cillizza writes, “Where Clinton is struggling with the perception that she is neither honest nor trustworthy, Biden is all honesty. Where Clinton is cautious and closed off, Biden is spontaneous and an open book.” Russell Berman writes at The Atlantic, “Clinton’s poll numbers are sinking, at least in part, because she is seen, once again, as the epitome of caution and parsing. Biden may be the consummate politician, but he is seen as the opposite.”
Cillizza and Berman are right about the perceptions. It seems worth pointing out, however, that no woman has the option of this kind of candor. Try to answer this question: Is there a single woman in America about whom anyone could say, “Everybody likes her, right?” (I mean besides Beyoncé, who is worshiped for her aloof perfection.) A female candidate who was prone, as Biden is, to veering off script and saying things she should not wouldn’t seem frank and lovable. She would seem sloppy and unstable. No woman could say on national television that she might be too emotionally fragile to run for president, and still be seen as someone who could actually run for president.
This isn’t meant as a criticism of Biden, who appears to be a genuinely wonderful man. It’s only to say that Clinton is in a straitjacket. She’s excoriated for her inauthenticity, but also for whatever glimpses we get of her humanity: her wrinkles, her laugh, her awkward fashion sense, her devotion to her philandering husband. As first lady, she once told Time magazine that she longed for a second child—she and Bill had had difficulty conceiving Chelsea—and might adopt. The press found this uproarious. Maureen Dowd made a crack about “Chelsea’s new little sister, Tribeca.” There is a demand that Clinton prove herself a real human being, but no real human being could appear before the public unguarded, having endured the sort of merciless, jeering personal scrutiny that she has.
If, in the end, Clinton is not the Democratic nominee, this straitjacket will be the reason why. The controversy over her e-mail server—a story full of boring technicalities, in which no proof of wrongdoing has emerged—is just a proxy for a deeper dislike. And that dislike is highly gendered. As The Washington Post reports, a new Quinnipiac poll shows her getting swamped among Democratic men: “She trails among them 48-29, while leading among women by a similar margin, 49-35.”
There are perfectly understandable policy reasons why voters might be deserting Clinton for the more progressive Bernie Sanders. There is very little divergence, however, between Clinton and Biden. (He is to her left on some foreign-policy issues, but his record is to her right on most other things.) The most salient differences between them are personal. During a debate, Obama once said to Clinton, dismissively, “You’re likable enough, Hillary.” But maybe she isn’t. Maybe she can’t be.