Joe Biden at a news conference in New York. Stephanie Keith/REUTERS Stephen Colbert started off his biggest "Late Show" interview yet by flattering his subject.
"Everybody loves Joe Biden," Colbert said, eliciting a loud cheer from a younger-skewing audience.
In the nearly 20 minutes of back-and-forth, emotional, and, at times, gut-wrenching conversation that ensued, Biden showed why — although Colbert's statement is a bit of a hyperbole — that is largely true. Joe Biden embodies authenticity at a time when the voting public craves it.
For his part, Colbert surmised that "everybody loves Joe Biden" because "when we see you, we think we're actually seeing the real Joe Biden. You're not a politician who's created some sort of facade to get something out of this or triangulate your political position or emotional state to try to make us feel a certain way. We see the real you."
Colbert asked Biden how he had managed to "keep his soul" after spending so much time in a city — Washington, D.C. — that tries to tear it away from you.
Biden was quick with a quip.
"I commuted for 36 years," he said, a reference to his two-hour train trips to and from Wilmington, Delaware, each day while he was a senator.
'You can't do that'
Joe Biden did not sound very much like a man who is running for president Thursday night. The 72-year-old vice president has been publicly weighing a late challenge to Democratic presidential front-runner Hillary Clinton. But on Thursday, he sounded a bit tired, emotionally weary from so much pain — the latest episode of which featured the death of his son, Beau, in May.
"I don't think any man or woman should run for president unless, No. 1, 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," Biden said.
"And I'd be lying if I said that I knew I was there. I'm being completely honest. Nobody has a right in my view to seek that office unless they are willing to give it 110% of who they are."
During the interview with Colbert, Biden recalled a particular gut-wrenching story that exemplified his hesitation about entering the race. He said he was greeting veterans along a rope line at a military base near Denver, when one veteran who served with his son yelled out Beau's name.
"It was going great, and a guy in the back yells, 'Beau Biden, Bronze Star, I served with him in Iraq,' and all of a sudden I lost it," Biden said.
"And you can't do that," Biden added, during a presidential campaign.
Stephen Colbert.The Late Show with Stephen Colbert
Colbert, who lost his father and two brothers to a plane crash when he was just 10 years old, and Biden opened up about their experiences with loss. (Biden also lost his first wife and young daughter to a 1972 car crash.) It's a subject with which almost everyone in the audience — including this author — can identify. And it would make a theoretical Biden campaign a fascinatingly personal story.
Colbert joked that he had to "raise his mom," prompting Biden to talk about how he felt his sons — Hunter and Beau — "raised" him after the deaths of his first wife and daughter. To this day, Biden said, the levels of support around him are remarkable.
If Hunter Biden were at the taping of the show, Biden said of his son, he'd ask, "Do you need anything?" He also recalled being backstage after presidential debates when the "last two people" there would be his sons, reminding him to "remember who you are."
"I marvel at the ability of people who absorb hurt and just get back up," Biden said. He turned to Colbert.
"You're one of them, old buddy," he said. "Losing your dad when you're a kid. It's like asking what made your mother do it every day?"
"She had to take care of me," Colbert said.
"I imagine," Biden said, "that would be a hell of a job."
Jeff Swensen/Getty Images
'Guys like me would walk through fire for him'
Ironically, the Joe-Biden-who-sounded-very-much-like-he-is-not-running-for-president is exactly why many of his supporters want him to run. It's why they think he'd win.
A few weeks ago, sitting at his Florida home nursing a broken leg, Steve Schale came across a story in The New York Times that detailed Biden's further steps toward a run for the White House.
Schale, who was a top Florida aide to President Barack Obama's two presidential campaigns, didn't exactly need any extra work. But Joe Biden spurred him to action. He came on board the "Draft Biden" group, a super PAC encouraging the vice president to take the plunge, as an informal adviser.
Thursday's Colbert interview reminded him why he's willing to "walk through fire" for Biden.
"As we talked about when this all started for me, the appeal of Joe Biden is Joe Biden," Schale said in an interview on Friday.
"In an era when so many have become cynical, including myself, he serves with an honesty and humility that has sadly become too rare but, I would argue, are needed more than ever in this era of hyperpartisanship and lack of trust in government. And for Americans who have never seen that Joe Biden, last night provided a glimpse why guys like me would walk through fire for him."
Colbert, too, sounded like he'd be one of Biden's biggest backers should he decide to run — and at times seemed to try to push him into the water.
During the interview, Biden would make recurring mention of his mother and her various expressions. One of them: "Nobody's better than you, but you're better than nobody."
"You know who else said that?" Colbert said. "Thomas Jefferson. And that's why you ought to run."
Colbert said it would be "emotional for a lot of people if he didn't run."
"Your example of suffering and service," Colbert said, "is something that would be sorely missed in the race."
Joe Biden with Stephen Colbert. CBS
'Soon, we're running'
And yet, even as Biden publicly demurs about running for president, some of the organization around him is starting to really take shape. Schale said there's been a surge of interest on the Draft Biden website over the past few weeks. He received a number of texts Friday morning alone that were some version of this: "I'm ready to do this — how do I help?"
One veteran campaigner told Business Insider on Friday: "Hell, I'd work for him."
Politico reported on Friday that people "around" Biden are "increasingly convinced" he will run for president. In and around Biden's office, his supporters are talking to potential donors, past supporters, and laying the groundwork, should he decide to run.
For a person who sounds like he's leaning toward not running, Biden's moves over the past few weeks have indicated the opposite. Ever since he officially began exploring a run for president during a vacation to South Carolina last month, Biden has been ramping up his travel.
There was the trip to Florida last week, when he delivered a very campaign-style speech. There was the swing through Pittsburgh's Labor Day parade, where he appeared with AFL-CIO head Richard Trumka and heard chants of people wanting him to run. There was the trip to New York this week, which included events on the minimum wage with New York Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D), and the national backlog of untested rape kits with Attorney General Loretta Lynch before the Colbert appearance.
Next week, the vice president is scheduled to make a trip to the Anaheim-Los Angeles area on the same day the second Republican presidential debate is set to take place in the area. After that, he'll travel to Michigan. And then Ohio, perhaps the most crucial swing state in the general election.
Earlier Thursday in New York, Biden came out with Cuomo in favor of a $15 minimum wage in the state — a step, some Republicans duly noted afterward, that Clinton has not yet taken.
"We take one step, and then we take another step, and soon we're walking," Cuomo said, standing next to Biden. "And soon, we're running."
Cuomo was, of course, talking about progress in his state.
Secretary of State Hillary Clinton speaks with Vice President Joe Biden during a meeting between President Barack Obama and NATO Secretary General Anders Fogh Rasmussen in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, September 29, 2009. Reuters
A new poll out Friday showed some of the worst signs yet for Clinton's candidacy, amid a summer of tumult surrounding her use of a private email server as secretary of state. In general-election matchups:
- Clinton trails former Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida (R) 49-47 among registered voters. On the other hand, Bush trails Biden by eight points.
- Clinton and Republican real-estate magnate Donald Trump are tied among registered voters, each grabbing 48% of the vote. Biden would beat Trump by 10 points if the election were held today, the poll shows.
- Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, a Republican, leads Clinton by five points among registered voters. Biden trails Carson by three points.
For all of the numbers, the prodding, and the groundwork, though, the ultimate answer on whether Biden will run will come down to one very personal decision: Biden's.
"What we are all waiting on is whether he can make the intensely personal decision," Schale said. "And wherever he lands, we are all in."
When he was finished taping what could end up being one of his most iconic shows in his first week on the air, Colbert took a few moments to reflect with the studio audience.
He called the interview "special." But there was one point on which he disagreed with Biden — the thought that he shouldn't run because you "can't do that" — break down — on the campaign trail.
His response to Biden: "Why not?"
The crowd — most of which had laughed with Biden and nearly cried with Biden during the taping — agreed.