About midway through “Lucky,” the journalists Jonathan Allen and Amie Parnes describe the concerns that some Democrats had last summer about Joe Biden, by then the party’s presidential nominee: How could they hope to win with “an agenda and a person so bland it made cardboard taste flavorful”?
Considering that this agenda and person constitute a driving narrative force in “Lucky,” the line reads like a coded admission that the authors — tasked with parsing the flavor of cardboard over the course of more than 400 pages — had their work cut out for them.
Allen and Parnes have published two previous books, both of them about Hillary Clinton, including the best-selling “Shattered,” which recounted how the Clinton campaign bungled what should have been a winnable election against Donald Trump in 2016 by succumbing to incompetence and infighting.
“Shattered” arrived in the spring of 2017, when bewildered Democrats were still asking what happened. “Lucky” arrives at a completely different moment. A string of tell-alls about Trump’s White House have recounted a level of backbiting and chaos that made the inner workings of the Clinton campaign look like a Swiss timepiece by comparison. Within the last year alone, a pandemic has killed more than 500,000 Americans and the White House demanded crackdowns on protests against police brutality. Less than two months have passed since Trump supporters invaded the Capitol. I’m guessing that a number of readers felt so inundated by the unrelenting news cycle of the Trump era that their receptors for campaign-trail intrigues have been worn down to calloused nubs.
It’s understandable that Allen and Parnes would do everything they could to amp up the drama — not an easy feat, given the cardboard. With their new book, they promise to explain “how Joe Biden barely won the presidency.” Biden’s margin of victory — 7 million votes, or 4.5 percent — was considerable by modern American standards. But the quirks of the American system, including the gauntlet of the primaries and the peculiarities of the Electoral College, meant that there were a number of moments when Biden’s chances were nearly sunk — moments that “Lucky” recounts in full.
The book reminds us that back in April 2019, when Biden announced he was running, he wasn’t an obvious favorite in a crowded field of Democratic aspirants. (“Lucky” reports that Clinton was so unimpressed with everyone’s prospects that she briefly considered running … again.) Biden had already sought and failed to secure the nomination twice, in 1988 and 2008. He was 76 years old — not even a boomer like Trump, previously the oldest president sworn into a first term, but a member of the Silent Generation. Biden had always rambled and repeated himself, and during the early days of his campaign he was rambling and repeating himself more than ever.
Although he brandished his record as a consensus-builder in the Senate, he had a habit of hurling insults at potential voters. At one town hall, as if he were intent on reminding the audience of both his age and his temper, Biden called a young woman “a lying dog-faced pony soldier.”
But Joe Biden was always a favorite of Joe Biden. One of the themes in this book is how unwaveringly confident he was in his chances — “a great strength and a weakness that could leave him sounding a little self-delusional,” Allen and Parnes write. (Barack Obama, in his recent memoir, describes him as someone who “wasn’t always self-aware.”) Biden believed he could win even during the dark days of the early Democratic primaries more than a year ago, when his campaign was running out of money and he placed abysmally in Iowa and New Hampshire before coming in a distant second to Bernie Sanders in Nevada.
Sure, Biden realized that some progressive voters might take issue with parts of his long Senate record, including his adamant opposition to busing in the 1970s, his treatment of Anita Hill during Clarence Thomas’s confirmation hearings and his authorship of the 1994 crime bill. But Biden was banking on his likability, Allen and Parnes say. That, and the hunch that an American populace exhausted by an erratic Trump just wanted someone experienced, steady and familiar at the wheel.
He also benefited from a Democratic establishment that was so averse to Sanders that it closed ranks around Biden as other centrist contenders — Pete Buttigieg, Amy Klobuchar — dropped out of the race. Biden, with his “bland message and blank agenda,” was “not what most Democratic voters had envisioned as a Trumpslayer,” Allen and Parnes write. But a hard-won endorsement from Jim Clyburn of South Carolina, a central figure in the Congressional Black Caucus, helped turn Biden’s fortunes around. “Lucky” portrays the Biden campaign as stuck in traffic until Super Tuesday, when it started hitting a string of green lights.
This luck persisted through the pandemic, which revealed Biden’s ability to empathize with a grieving public while showcasing President Trump’s determination to do the opposite. As Anita Dunn, an adviser to the Biden campaign, put it: “Covid is the best thing that ever happened to him.”
It’s a ghoulish sentiment, the kind of candid cynicism that one expects from a political ticktock like this. But it also highlights something else. Amid all the fund-raising, the polling, the minute movements of the horse race enumerated in this book, people were dying. Americans were suffering. California was burning. The world, in other words, was happening — all while enormous political energy and billions of dollars got sucked into the maw of endless campaigning.
A future researcher will undoubtedly find it useful to have a page and a half of exacting detail about what everyone was thinking when a fly landed on Mike Pence’s head during the vice-presidential debate, or to learn how Biden’s people insisted on watering down one of Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s jokes during the Democratic convention. Given how the American political system currently works, the granular politicking ably recounted in “Lucky” is a necessity — but what becomes unintentionally clear is how wasteful so much of it is.