It was one of the biggest moments of President Barack Obama’s tenure, the signing of his landmark health-care law. Every word was planned. Message discipline was critical, particularly for the administration’s least scripted member: Joe Biden.

The vice president’s staff had worked on the remarks late into the night. There was the quote from Virgil. The nod to history. The praise of the president. But in the end, all anyone remembered was a single off-color, off-the-cuff phrase, one Biden intended to whisper to Obama but was caught on mic: “This is a big (expletive) deal.”

For those who have tried to write speeches for Biden, it was a signature moment. He likes his language simple and direct. He wants to communicate things in their essence. And he rarely follows the script.

Biden now faces the most consequential speech of his political career — Thursday’s address claiming the Democratic nomination he has sought for much of his life — and it will unfold under extraordinary circumstances, with strict social distancing and no cheering crowd in the room. It comes days after a similarly constrained speech, Biden’s introduction of Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., as his running mate.

A speaker who thrives on speaking extemporaneously, often feeding off his audience and just as often frustrating his staff, is now preparing for something he’s never faced. His speechwriters are attempting to craft something entirely new – a convention speech without built-in applause lines, lacking the crowd’s appreciative laughter or adoring cheers, where any pause could look awkward or worse.

Public speaking has in many ways been an organizing element of Biden’s life. For decades he has used speeches not just to ask for votes or outline policy, but to express his grief and vent his emotions. Speeches have taught him when he’s able to move a crowd and when he’s struggling to connect. Aides are now closely monitoring his speeches for a sense of which campaign promises he will want to prioritize should he win in November.


It was Biden’s severe childhood stutter that taught him resilience and the power of words, and it is his lingering tendency to bungle words and phrases that the Trump campaign is trying to use to cast doubt on his cognitive abilities. Over the decades, he has given eulogies and commencement addresses, spoken at political rallies and delivered more Senate floor speeches than anyone could reasonably count.

His presidential campaign in 1988 was derailed when he was accused of plagiarizing part of a speech, and since then he has been careful to attribute even the most mundane phrases (“As the old saying goes, ‘Give me a break,’ ” he said last week).

Three times he has given presidential announcement speeches, and twice he has given withdrawal speeches. This week, for the first time, he will give an acceptance speech. But it will also be one of the most unusual convention speeches in modern history, one delivered in isolation to a country that is itself largely in isolation.

“It’s interesting to engage with the speech process without an audience on the campaign trail,” said Carlyn Reichel, his campaign speechwriter who has been helping him craft his remarks. “You’re not writing to applause lines or thinking about that. You’re really just trying to find ways to connect people who are not only just socially distant, but extremely distant, thousands of miles away.”

Initially Biden was to deliver the address before thousands of giddy, sign-waving Democrats in Milwaukee. Instead, he and Harris will give their speeches in a largely empty hall at the Chase Center in Wilmington, Del., a waterfront event center not far from his home.

Politicians have long used their speaking style to define themselves, from George W. Bush’s folksy banter to Obama’s soaring phrases. Biden’s opponent, President Trump, rose to power in no small part on the strength of his belligerent, crude rhetoric, which enthralls his supporters and appalls his detractors.


Biden’s approach is to draw on his emotions and telegraph empathy, to be granular and simple, to tell a story. He strains to connect with the crowd, unafraid to come to the verge of tears in front of an audience.

Some of his better moments, according to those who have worked for him, come from words he never wrote down. A 2012 speech to military families, where the then-vice president talked about the crushing weight of grief, speaking of the day he lost his wife and infant daughter in a car crash, was almost completely off-the-cuff – and among his most powerful speeches.

“I realized how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide,” Biden said at the time, hunched over the lectern. “Not because they were deranged, not because they were nuts. Because they’d been to the top of the mountain, and they just knew in their heart they’d never get there again, that it was never going to get – never going to be that way ever again.”

Less tragically, it has long been a running joke that among the most challenging jobs in American politics is writing a speech for Biden. He is allergic to following a teleprompter, frequently veers from the prepared text and can walk himself into verbal cul-de-sacs. He stops abruptly mid-sentence and says, “Well, anyway.”

“My job,” said Matt Teper, who was one of Biden’s longest-serving speechwriters, “was trying to script the most famously unscripted man in politics.”

When he was vice president, Biden’s staffers sought to use a teleprompter to keep him on message. But the military officers who ran the machine would often find it challenging to keep up. Once, it unexpectedly rebooted toward the end of a speech, forcing Biden to ad-lib while his speechwriter at the time, Dylan Loewe, frantically retyped the ending to him in real time.


“When it was over, I thought he’d be mad,” Loewe recounted. “But he came over and high-fived me and said, ‘That was the most fun I’ve had all day.’ ” Loewe added, “Some of his worst moments have happened when he’s veered off script. But most of his best moments have happened that way, too.”

Biden gets heavily invested in the text, according to current and former speechwriters. Not one to sit at a computer to type out the lines himself, he will sometimes write out ideas longhand. But more often, he dictates his thoughts, and then heavily edits the drafts of the speechwriters – a process that continues sometimes up until the words are coming out of his mouth.

Biden in the past has been a fiery speaker, but that has mellowed in recent years. His speeches now tend to be grounded rather than soaring.

“There’s a poetry to his writing, but he finds lofty rhetoric to more often be meaningless than beautiful,” Loewe said. “His most common feedback was that a draft needed to be more granular.”

Biden also has a practice of clipping sentences into shorter segments, something he has talked about doing as a way to avoid stuttering. That influences how his speeches are crafted, with some of his speechwriters saying that they write in a larger font as a way to avoid thick, dense paragraphs.

“He wanted short sentences – short easy sentences – so he can feel the rhythm of something,” Teper said. “It was a process to create clear language so everyone could understand it . … Not everybody has to sound like Kennedy or Obama or whoever you else you think of in that vein. The tricks with him are simplicity, clarity, connecting on a human-level basis and not some ethereal speech.”


From the start of his career, Biden has viewed himself as an orator, and when he came to the Senate in 1973, others agreed. After his first floor speech, Sen. John Stennis, D-Miss., wrote him a letter: “You stood tall, like a stone wall. Like Stonewall Jackson.”

One of his favorite movies is “The King’s Speech,” which depicts the unlikely ascension to the throne of King George VI, who must overcome a speech impediment and address Great Britain as it enters World War II.

He has a distinctive way of talking – “Folks!” “Not a joke!” “Here’s the deal!” “C’mon, man!” – and he often unspools adages that purport to be Irish proverbs or family sayings. “We used to joke his mom was Winston Churchill because everything she said was quotable,” Teper said.

For decades his speeches have included quotes from the Irish poets he read as a child attempting to overcome his stutter. He quoted Seamus Heaney while eulogizing then-Israeli President Shimon Peres, and also while at a global business summit in Marrakesh, Morocco. He quoted William Butler Yeats while addressing the National Education Association, and also while speaking at the Bombay Stock Exchange in Mumbai.

Mathew Littman, the speechwriter for Biden’s 2008 presidential campaign, recalls the first thing he wrote for Biden, a 15-minute speech that began with a quote from Abraham Lincoln. Littman did not attend the event, and afterward an aide called from Iowa, saying Biden had used the Lincoln quote as scripted.

“Congratulations,” the aide said. “He never uses quotes that speechwriters give him.”


“What about the rest of the speech?” Littman asked.

“He didn’t use the rest of the speech,” the aide responded.

Biden’s gift, Littman said, was in channeling his empathy and drawing on a wealth of experiences, even if that meant veering far from the text into areas that were not previously planned out.

“Once he started talking about these secret meetings he had in the Palestinian territories,” Littman said with a laugh. “All of a sudden he’s ad-libbing about these secret meetings. I didn’t know about these meetings. I’m the speechwriter!”

While there have been various speechwriters over the years, most of Biden’s remarks are assembled with a committee of advisers who have been with him for decades. Mike Donilon, his senior strategist, can channel and shape Biden’s voice better than anyone. Tony Blinken, another top adviser, has always had a prominent role and has been credited publicly by Biden for coming up with some of his signature lines.

But often Biden speaks almost from an outline, with rough ideas of what he wants to say that his speechwriters try to hone as best they can.


“There was no speech he delivered word for word that we did together,” Teper said. “He’s a good storyteller. If he’s going to tell a story, just bracket it and tell him to tell the story. Sometimes this is where things go a little long. But he knows how to tell it and gets the rhythm of it. That will always be better than you trying to script it.”

David Frank, a professor of rhetoric at the University of Oregon who has studied some of Biden’s speeches, said research suggests those with flawless deliveries can be seen as inauthentic. He said Biden’s imperfections – including the stutter – can help him connect to an audience.

“I would not place him at the pantheon of great American orators, but that makes him, for some audiences, a quite appealing speaker,” Frank said. “He’s honed that persona as an everyday kind of guy. And an everyday guy doesn’t speak like Abraham Lincoln in the Gettysburg Address or Barack Obama in the 2004 Democratic convention speech.”

Frank added, “He’s using language you use when neighbors are talking to each other across the fence or at a Little League Baseball game.”

He said Biden in some ways shares that trait with Trump, who also uses an improvisational style to connects with his audience and has derided those who use a teleprompter (even when he’s had a teleprompter in front of him). Both figures riff in real time, keeping an audience guessing where they are headed.

Like a scene in one of his favorite movies, which depicts the king in a quiet room taking a microphone to speak to a country by radio, Biden will soon be addressing a country through the airwaves, without a large adoring crowd or a celebratory drop of red, white, and blue confetti. And as he often does, he will sit before his speech, going over it line by line and making changes in the final minutes before it gets fed into the teleprompter.

“It’s very much a personal thing,” Reichel said. “It has a true sense of almost – solitary is not the right word, but it’s him and the text, really engaging with it.”

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