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I’ve discovered Joe Biden’s fountain of youth

From my first visit to St. Augustine, Fla., as a 10-year-old, I was intrigued by the mythology surrounding 16th-century Spanish explorer Juan Ponce de Leon’s purported search for the fountain of youth on the tropical peninsula he hoped to settle. Now a bit older, I wish Senor de Leon’s supposed quest had been a successful fact, rather than legendary fiction to attract gullible tourists to the Sunshine State. Perhaps the famous welcome centers at Florida’s border could have served such a magic elixir instead of the state’s most famous beverage: orange juice. Those searching to mask the ravages of time must rely on such things as hair dye, Botox, chemical peels and plastic surgery.

Attending a recent holiday reception at the White House, hosted by the president and first lady, I discovered a less painful remedy that seems to suit President Biden, our first octogenarian chief executive. After enjoying the decorations and sampling the buffet, I positioned myself directly in front of the podium centered in the mansion’s main entryway. With holiday music filling the hall from the “President’s Own” Marine Band, and lights and ornaments brightening the rainy evening, the president and Jill Biden walked to the small stage to welcome the guests and raise a toast to the season. They looked festive, he in his dark suit and she in an ivory dress, but I wondered how tiresome it must be to have to greet hundreds of revelers throughout December who are partying in your home, one floor below the residence level.

Suddenly, the president stepped down from the stage and began working the crowd. When he stopped in front of me, as a presidency scholar who has seen in person two-thirds of the chief executives in my lifetime, I took the opportunity to engage him in a brief conversation. From the few feet that separated the podium from the velvet rope line, 10 to 15 years seemed to slip from his face. He could have been Clement Clarke Moore’s St. Nicholas: “His eyes how they twinkled! His dimples how merry!” Retail politics, engaging people one on one, clearly energizes Biden. No wonder he served more than 30 years in the Senate, representing a state small enough to give him the chance to meet nearly every Delaware voter.

My theory holds that Joe Biden is the reincarnation of an Irish pol, working the wards of Boston or Chicago, delivering turkeys at Christmas, and attending wakes in the neighborhoods, like the character played by Spencer Tracy (complete with snow-white hair) in the 1958 film, “The Last Hurrah.”

The 46th president wouldn’t be the only chief executive to derive energy from rubbing elbows with the electorate, particularly since “we the people” started expecting presidents to do so in the early 20th century. Some presidents literally found medicinal relief in the adrenaline rush of adoring crowds. Former President Theodore Roosevelt, while running as a third-party candidate for his second non-consecutive term, continued speaking at a 1912 campaign rally despite having been shot in the chest by a would-be assassin. For his cousin, Franklin Roosevelt, speaking to crowds or frolicking with fellow polio victims, was a tonic.

John Kennedy’s painful back condition plagued him throughout his presidency, but he appeared incandescent in front of enthusiastic throngs. Just look at the joy on Ronald Reagan’s slightly drawn visage, in his first speech before a cheering Congress, after surviving a near-fatal gunshot wound less than one month earlier.

Presidents who come from modest roots in the nation’s heartland are especially invigorated when among the people. “Plain-speaking” Harry Truman was no happier than when he could rouse a campaign crowd on his 1948 whistle-stop train tour. “Give ’em hell, Harry!” they would respond to his attacks on congressional Republicans, and he would rouse them all the more with his rejoinder, “I don’t give them hell. I just tell the truth, and they think it’s hell!”

Or, as a former Bill Clinton staffer once told me about her boss, “He fills a room with oxygen as soon as he enters it.” After years of stumping through the outback of Arkansas, the 42nd  president can speak to anyone about any topic, and both will be mutually jazzed by the chat.

George W. Bush, though to the manner born, took on the persona of a Texas cowboy to attract votes in his adopted Lone Star state and can work a room with the best of them. Although prone to malaprops in front of cameras, he is relaxed, humorous and engaging in less formal settings. I once witnessed him win over a group of undergraduates with humorous stories about his college-age daughters and tales of his Texas Rangers ownership.

To be sure, some presidents can win office without the popular touch. Richard Nixon always seemed ill at ease with voters, and George H.W. Bush, although the consummate statesman, appeared aloof in town hall formats. But as Joe Biden faces concerns about his age and vitality among friends and foes alike, he should continue to find as many “Benjamin Button” moments as possible in the otherwise enervating job that is the American presidency.

Barbara A. Perry is Presidential Studies director and Gerald L. Baliles Professor at the University of Virginia’s Miller Center. Follow her on Twitter @BarbaraPerryUVA.

Tags Biden presidency George W. Bush Harry Truman Jill Biden Joe Biden Joe Biden Theodore Roosevelt We the People

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File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)
File - A Chevrolet Bolt is displayed at the Philadelphia Auto Show, Jan. 27, 2023, in Philadelphia. Electric vehicles are far less reliable than gasoline-powered cars, trucks and SUVs, mainly because most automakers are still learning how to build a completely new power system, according to this year's auto reliability survey by Consumer Reports.(AP Photo/Matt Rourke, File)

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