For 20 minutes it was Joe Biden, live and unplugged.
Standing with a hand-held microphone, before a dozen TV cameras and scores of reporters, the former vice president held forth Saturday. Not as someone whose decades-long political career was on the line, which it may well be in Tuesday’s New Hampshire primary.
More like a man set free, his tongue loosened and liberated — although, it should be said, for much of this campaign it has been Biden who chose to avoid the kind of free-ranging, all-access press policy that transformed Pete Buttigieg from a pinpoint to a serious contender for the Democratic nomination.
The former vice president was cloistered — seen by reporters but not available for questions — until his dire political situation left him no choice but to shed his front-runner’s presumption and show a bit of stagy swagger. Finishing fourth in the Iowa caucuses will do that to a candidate whose White House bid is heavily premised on supposed electability.
For the loquacious Biden, standing in a campaign field office in a former American Legion Hall, it was like a dam burst open. Or a shaken soda bottle, uncorked.
He talked. And talked and talked some more: about his rivals and their extravagant promises — “C’mon, man” — about the absurdity of those crowded debates, where seemingly everyone and their brother has been allowed on stage.
“You call those debates?” he demanded. “I’ve been in debates.”
He named two of them, against his vice presidential opponents in 2012 and 2008.
“I debated Paul Ryan. I debated that woman from Alaska who could see Russia,” he said, referring to Sarah Palin. “I did pretty well. They were debates. You could answer questions. Look folks, c’mon.”
Several times staffers sought to cut Biden off, peremptorily shouting, “Last question!”
He talked, and talked some more.
Buttigieg? Nice guy. Great former mayor of South Bend, Ind. But, c’mon. “The idea of passing a budget as the mayor of a town the size of Manchester.…”
Bernie Sanders? No knock on the guy. But push through Congress a massive “Medicare for all” plan and then explain how he’d pay for it? C’mon.
Biden paced. He scowled and squinted. He lowered his voice to a theatrical hush and nearly shouted.
How, as the candidate who says he can reclaim the industrial Midwest for Democrats, does he explain his poor showing in Iowa?
That? That was a contest for the Democratic nomination, he said. It was strongly tilted to the left, whereas Biden’s appeal is more to the center, as well as disaffected Republicans. “C’mon, man,” he scoffed. “Comparing that to a general election is just not rational.”
Biden knew all along, he said, that he’d walk around with a bull’s-eye on his back. That’s the way it goes for the front-runner — not that you’d ever hear a peep of complaint.
“You deal with what’s before you,” Biden shrugged. “As my dad would say, never explain and never complain.”
The acquittal of President Trump? Biden mocked the justifications given by Republicans who, he said, cleared the president of an impeachable offense. “George Washington is rolling over in his grave,” he said, “and George Wallace is clapping.”
No podium, no lectern. Just a man and his thoughts, walking in a small semicircle.
Punching at his fellow Democrats? Not his thing, but that’s how politics works these days.
“I don’t think we need a circular firing squad. But you all,” he told reporters, “judge on how much fire is there. Are you ready to respond? You judge whether or not you go after a Democrat who misrepresents you and say, ‘Well, can he take on Trump?’”
So now it’s slugging — and available — Joe.
Pull up a chair? Biden declined, to the evident relief of aides.
He walked off, quoting his mother. “God bless you all,” he said, “and see you all later.”