When I saw that former Vice President Joe Biden was having a town hall event at a nature center in Cedar Rapids, I paused. I’m all for nature centers, but they tend to be, well, in nature, and therefore not that close to people who vote. So, I was not surprised when I drove down to Cedar Rapids and GPS led me far out of downtown into the outskirts of the city where I had never been before. It was a pretty ride along the river, and I saw a cluster of wild turkeys and a gorgeously collapsed barn along the way. But, still, this place was far enough out of the city that I had trouble getting a reliable phone signal. Was this a good idea for a campaign event?
When I arrived at the Indian Creek Nature Center, cars were already sprawled out along the narrow country road in front of the center. It was a warm day, and chairs had been set up outside the center on an outdoor patio. The scene was pretty, but did I mention that it was warm? The Biden campaign handout doubled as fans for many in the audience, and people felt no shame in using umbrellas as parasols to ward off the sun.
Two other things stood out about the event. The crowd was notably older, which could have spoken to Biden’s support or the fact that this was a midday event, or that you had to know the area pretty well to find this place. I estimated that over 200 people were there, a respectable if not exceptional turnout, but there must have been 100 media folks covering the event as well. I guess that’s what happens when you’re the front runner.
Biden entered the race late and at the top of the polls. He had not been working Iowa as hard as some other candidates, and I had been unable to attend the one event he had had in Waterloo, next to where I live. Biden also had skipped a number of the cattle call-type events (though he was slated to participate in a sold-out LGBTQ forum later that day), so there hadn’t been as many opportunities to see him, which accounts for his being down the list at number 17 of the candidates I’ve seen.
Having initially put the wrong address into my phone (which led me to a remote gravel parking lot), I got to the event too late to get a chair, but that also meant I didn’t have to wait too long for things to begin. The MC was state Rep. Rob Hoag who I’d already seen at least twice before at other candidate events, and he explained why the event was being held here. It was the day of the Global Climate Strike, which I knew, but I hadn’t made the connection with this location (duh!). The Indian Creek Nature Center structure met the “Living Building Challenge,” which is so super-environmental I’m pretty sure it uses sunshine to generate both power and happiness.
This was my first time seeing Joe Biden in person, though it is hard to remember a time when I didn’t know who he was. He looked…like Joe Biden. In fact, with his mirrored sunglasses and open collared shirt, he seemed to be channelling the Joe Biden of the Onion or of Hope Never Dies. It was a good look. As with a number of other candidates I’ve seen, including Elizabeth Warren, Beto O’Rourke, and Joe Sestak, I was struck that someone who seems trim on television is actually rail thin in person. It’s one of those weird TV things. Of course, this date was also right at the beginning of the revelations of Ukraine-gate or whatever this scandal will eventually be termed, so that loomed larger in the moment, and I wondered if Joe Biden would address it during his remarks, but, no, he stayed right on message, focusing on environmental issues for almost all of his speech.
Biden didn’t mince words. Climate change is “the single most important issue” we are facing today, and it is hard to imagine anyone less well equipped to deal with it than Donald Trump. He said of Trump that “everything he has done as President has made things worse.” Biden listed rejoining the Paris Climate Accords as something he would do on Day One, and he pledged to convene an international climate summit within the first one hundred days of a Biden administration.
It was notable that Biden both had a lot of details on his fingertips. Shoutouts during the speech included farming and carbon sequestration as well as electric cars and public charging stations, and he had been well prepped for this particular appearance. He was able to reference a lot of environmental legislation that he had previously supported, and he knew specific details about the Cedar River flood that had engulfed much of downtown Cedar Rapids in 2008 (the river crested at over 31 feet, which was ten feet higher than the previous record).
He argued that making progress would require an ability to work across party lines. “You can’t leave out entire sectors of society and expect that we’re going to get things done. You gotta know how to negotiate. You gotta know how to bring people together, generate consensus… That’s something I’ve spent my whole life doing. And I know everybody says ‘well, you know you can’t cooperate anymore.’ Well, if we can’t cooperate anymore, get ready– get your flippers out and, you know, your wetsuit, because we’d better be able to cooperate.” It was a laugh line, but one that provoked nervous laughter.
The stump speech part of the event wasn’t too long, but Biden was happy to spend a lot of time answering questions. That doesn’t mean he answered a lot of questions, just that he spent a lot of time answering them. Biden has a reputation for being somewhat long winded, and whenever an explanation evolved into a discussion of his early political career and the DelMaVa peninsula, I knew we were heading down a rabbit hole. But I will say that even when his response seemed to go off in an unexpected direction, he got around to answering the questions asked in the end.
At one point, people got distracted and began looking up into the sky. There was a bald eagle doing a flyover of the event, and someone interrupted to make sure the former Vice President noticed. That was a moment that no campaign could pay for. If there was a low point in the event, it was when the answer to an environmental questions inexplicably veered into a defense of Obamacare. When he began going after Medicare For All proposals and defending private insurance plans, he got pushback from a woman in the audience (whom he dismissed as an Elizabeth Warren supporter). His critique of Medicare For All was later criticized as “bungled” in the Washington Post. Biden was much more effective when keeping his fire focused on Trump.
By the end of the event, I began to worry that people would start passing out from the heat. I made a halfhearted effort to join the scrum for selfies, but it was hard to make any progress in the crowd, and I’ve never seen such media interest in the aftermath of the speech. Two different boom mics were in place to catch any stray bit of conversation that could be deemed newsworthy.
Looking back, this event would have to have been considered a nice, if hot, oasis in Joe Biden’s day. Though it began with news about Ukraine, he didn’t have to talk about any of that here. Later the same day, he attended an LGBTQ forum and had a tense exchange with the moderator about his record and past statements. I have to think his afternoon at the Indian Creek Nature Center was the nicest part of this trip to Iowa.