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Analysis: Biden offers from-the-heart counterpoint to GOP spectacle

Vice President Joe Biden tours Bobrick Washroom Equipment Inc. in North Hollywood, where he spoke in favor of a national increase in the minimum wage.

Vice President Joe Biden tours Bobrick Washroom Equipment Inc. in North Hollywood, where he spoke in favor of a national increase in the minimum wage.

(Katie Falkenberg / Los Angeles Times)

The presidential campaign seemed consumed last week by Trumpian madness.

As many in his party looked on in horror, Donald Trump flung tart criticisms of fellow Republicans, denounced illegal immigration and reviled the abject failure, as he sees it, of everything touched by politicians from both parties.

The Republican candidates obscured by his fiery presence responded with mighty efforts to gain attention.

Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul demonstrated his view of the tax code in a video in which he ripped into a copy of it with a chain saw, fed it into a wood chipper and set it afire. “Hey, I’m Rand Paul and I’m trying to kill the tax code,” he said in jocular juxtaposition to all that violence, inviting fellow believers to join him.

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After South Carolina Sen. Lindsey Graham dove into a nasty back-and-forth with Trump that prompted the New York billionaire to release Graham’s cellphone number, Graham appeared in a video in which he tried to destroy his phone with a meat cleaver, a blender, a golf club, a block of concrete and lighter fluid set ablaze.

Funny, maybe, but it reeked of desperation, as the campaign for the presidency once again played to the baser instincts that feed reality television.

And then, in California, came reality itself.

It arrived in a quiet interlude toward the beginning of a speech at a manufacturing plant in North Hollywood by Vice President Joe Biden, some of whose friends are holding out hope that he will join the Democratic presidential race.

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He was talking about the minimum wage, at first.

“The single most devastating thing that can happen to a parent is having a child look at you, having a problem or a need, and you know you can’t meet that need,” Biden said. “There’s nothing more devastating. Whether it relates to health or financial well-being or education....”

And suddenly it wasn’t about the minimum wage at all. It was about Biden and his son Beau, who died May 30 of brain cancer at 46, after no one could meet his most fundamental need — not his doctors, not his father.

It was that rare thing in this presidential campaign, and most others: Reality that had nothing to do with reality television, vulnerability and grief in full view.

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Authenticity has always been Biden’s forte. Hair plugs and re-mastered teeth aside, he has always exuded, better than most politicians, the feeling that you are getting the real thing, like it or not.

Biden was not a stellar presidential candidate, far from it. His campaign for the 1988 nomination died early, when he was accused of plagiarizing speeches. His 2008 campaign highlight came when Barack Obama asked him to serve as running mate.

So it is not as if Biden, were he to run in 2016, would be a lock to win. Hillary Rodham Clinton remains the overwhelming Democratic frontrunner, and there is no discernible groundswell for Biden.

But during the 18 months he will remain onstage, campaigning at minimum for the administration’s desires, Biden will provide something perhaps more essential and certainly more real: a public figure working through the most grievous personal blow anyone can suffer — in public, with everyone watching.

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To be sure, Biden wasn’t wholly self-absorbed or maudlin in North Hollywood, one stop in a California tour dominated by private fundraising events. There was just a flicker, not a full stop, at the mention of his lost child. He pushed through the moment and on to his greatest hits: The Obama administration saved the auto industry, created jobs for millions of people and delivered access to healthcare coverage for millions more.

He offered the sort of icing-on-top praise he always does. He told the proud mother of one of the men who’d accompanied Biden on a tour of the plant that “you’ve done good with this boy” — and, thrumming her heartstrings even more, said that all her son had hoped for aloud during this visit was for Biden to meet her.

He praised Mayor Eric Garcetti as having “heart”. “You’re one of the finest guys I know,” said the man who knows everyone.

Garcetti was at the forefront of L.A.'s drive to raise the minimum wage, a success that made Biden’s appearance seem a bit superfluous. But the 15 TV cameras arrayed in front of him served to blast Biden’s broader message — to raise the minimum wage nationally — well beyond local borders.

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He indulged in Bidenisms, the one about how his dad always said that a job wasn’t about the job; it was about respect and dignity — and another about how those people in Washington refer to him as “middle-class Joe” and “that is not meant as a compliment.”

As he has been before, Biden was blunt about the limits of the administration’s achievements. Things had improved, he said — and here he thundered — “except for really hard-working people” struggling to reach the middle class.

A rise in the minimum wage nationally would set off a cascade of benefits for those all along the economic ladder, he argued. “The mission of our time is to restore the middle class,” he said, “and that’s not hyperbole.”

For those touting a Biden candidacy, it was as good a campaign premise as could be. Yet Biden had made the same pitch at a Los Angeles event last October, and the contrast between then and now was stark.

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Joe Biden in October had been effusively buoyant and over-caffeinated, in the thrall of what he was saying and the fact that he was saying it. Biden last week seemed depleted and drawn, despite his best efforts at enthusiasm. He seemed a man trying to be the Joe Biden he used to be.

That is what is authentic for Biden now. No bombast, no chain saws, no meat cleavers. A public man working out private grief, the real thing, like it or not.

cathleen.decker@latimes.com

Twitter: @cathleendecker. For more on politics go to www.latimes.com/decker.

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