It was August 9, 2010 when a plane carrying U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens and eight other souls crashed into a mountainside in the wilderness of Western Alaska. The closest settlement was Aleknagik, population 200. The weather closed in and rescue crews struggled to reach the steep final resting place of the amphibious floatplane, which was en route between two fishing lodges.
Five died on the mountainside that day, including Stevens, who by then had been retired from the U.S. Senate for 19 months after losing to Democrat Mark Begich in the General Election of 2008.
Stevens and then-Sen. Joe Biden had been friends and colleagues in Washington for many years.
They served in the Senate together, although on opposite sides of the aisle. They had both lost their first wives to horrific accidents. In 1972, Biden’s wife Neilia and their 13-month-old daughter were killed in a car accident after a tractor-trailer t-boned the family’s car just before Christmas.
Ann Stevens died in a Lear Jet crash landing at the Anchorage airport just before Christmas in 1978.
Stevens lost his race for reelection in 2008, while Biden won his race with Barack Obama, and headed for the White House. But there was a bond between the men, and so when the former senator died on that fateful summer day, Vice President Joe Biden didn’t hesitate; he flew on Air Force II into Joint Base Elmendorf-Richardson outside of Anchorage, and was brought by Secret Service to East Anchorage to deliver the eulogy on Aug. 18.
Introduced that day by Dr. Jerry Prevo, pastor of Anchorage Baptist Temple, the vice president rose before the large congregation of Alaskans and dignitaries who had gathered.
Biden spoke warmly, easily, and gracefully about his friend Ted. At times he was solemn and comforting to the family, and then he would share a vignette, with a twinkle in his eyes, which generously crinkled, expressing love for the Alaskan known to his constituents as "Uncle Ted."
There were smiles, laughter, some gentle ribbing about how the money that should have gone to Delaware and Maryland was all in Alaska because of Ted Stevens.
Biden was an audience charmer. He was good. He glanced at his notes, but relied on them little, for he was in his prime as a public speaker, and he knew his subject well. He soared on that occasion to move his audience and bring the honor and grandeur of the office of the vice presidency to the grieving Stevens family, sitting in the front row of the church that day, wiping tears and smiling through the pain. He was there to bring closure, and he did it well.
Today’s Joe Biden can barely read a script without stumbling. Even a brief pitch for campaign funds on social media had a couple of odd words thrown in that should have signaled to his campaign that they needed a do-over.
Or, maybe it was the best take they could get.
His speech is stilted, his face seems frozen.
His eyes no longer twinkle, and at times appear slightly vacant.
Biden’s campaign staff has the candidate all but sequestered, not exposing him to interviews even with the friendlies in the activist media. There is no allowing him to be "Biden in the wild" during this campaign season, because Biden can no longer be trusted to string together two sentences that make any sense.
The decade has taken its toll on the old Washington warrior. At some point, he will have to come out of his basement and expose himself to the softball questions of what will be a fawning media.
They — the reporters — have already tried to frame Biden’s diminished capacity as a simple stutter, one that he has dealt with since his boyhood. That makes it easier to explain, thus we cannot criticize him.
In just over one month, Biden will not be able to avoid the live microphone and the live audience. He will walk across the stage in Milwaukee to accept the nomination at the Democratic National Convention. He’ll articulate a vision for the United States that must reassure his worried base.
But it will be 10 years, nearly to the day, since he spoke at Ted Stevens’ celebration of life, and it’s clear he is no longer the orator he once was.
For Democrats, this has to be a huge worry.
They cannot afford to go into the fall without a contingency plan.
Suzanne Downing is the publisher of Must Read Alaska and Must Read America. She is a former business owner, longtime journalist, and political adviser who worked for Gov. Jeb Bush of Florida and Gov. Sean Parnell of Alaska. She was raised in Juneau, Alaska and is based in Anchorage. Where she writes on current events and politics. Read Suzanne Downing's Reports — More Here.
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