DES MOINES—Joe Biden's story starts and ends, and starts again here: The Polk County Fairgrounds, home of the Iowa State Fair. Twenty years ago it all went wrong in a few poorly chosen words. Now it is the place to exorcise the ghosts.
Twenty years ago, Biden was his generation's New Voice, the Democrat whose rhetoric and youthful exuberance recalled the Kennedy mystique. For a time, he seemed the ideal antidote to the autumnal stagger of the Reagan administration's latter days.
The rest of the field in Iowa was hardly formidable: Earnest Rep. Dick Gephardt from Missouri, Paul Simon, the durable bow-tied liberal from Illinois, Michael Dukakis, the technocratic Massachusetts governor, among others. The prize loomed for Biden.
His ability to talk in that rousing fill-the-hall style had put Biden in this place. Then came his speech at the State Fair and his failure to credit a British politician, Neil Kinnock.
His license with Kinnock's words were soon outed by the Dukakis' campaign, sending Biden's presidential dreams sprawling into the wilderness. Rarely has someone as verbose as Biden been so persecuted for something he didn't say.
And after all of that, he almost died, and had his brain sliced open on an operating table.
A very bad year.
The narrow street in front of the fairgrounds pavilion is lined with signs: Clinton, Obama, even Richardson. None for Biden.
But there are the Ears of Experience.
It's the first thing you see inside the building. A large display featuring mounted ears of corn stacked vertically to mark each candidate's time in office. Biden beats them all, with 34 ears -- er, years.
More than 1,000 people pack the room. Biden speaks first, followed by Bill Richardson and the headliner, Hillary Clinton. He's pumping hands, fronting the Smile: his wide-angle grin with the perfect white teeth.
Biden quickly makes it clear what this campaign, 20 years later, is about. He's here to "tell the truth" to the American people. He's running this campaign his way, screw the naysayers. He's the Democrat, not only with more "ears" of experience, but with a plan for Iraq. He's tough on crime. He's big on God. He's the statesman coming to rescue his party.
Unfortunately, the mic keeps going out, which dampens the effect a bit:
"[Muffle] know that America is [flump] more than a country, it's [flump] idea."
But that's the problem. Since 1987, the timing has never been great for Biden. The following morning, in the small town of Guthrie Center, in the middle of his plea about not allowing the White House to exploit fear of terrorism, the town air raid siren starts wailing, drowning out Biden's words.
"It was over for me, before it ever really got started," says Paul Newman's pool player, Fast Eddie Felson, in "The Color of Money."
That 1986 movie came 25 years after Newman first played Felson in "The Hustler." That Felson was brash, cocksure, had an answer for everything. At the end of the film, he's ruined, pushed out of the game by larger forces. "The Color of Money" finds him aged, ruminative, watching younger players chase the glory that was meant for him. Eventually, he's seduced into taking one more shot at the big time.
In '87, Biden was the hustler. Now he's the seasoned hand. He is a high priest of the Senate, a master of its mores and a beneficiary of its homage to seniority. He chairs the prestigious Foreign Relations Committee, and before that the Judiciary Committee; and has long been a regular on the Sunday talk shows.