Posted: Aug. 31, 2015


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

Anyone who knows Joe Biden would never think it was out of the question he would show up at the Sussex County Democratic Jamboree.

He was not supposed to come, but it turned out to be impossible for him to stay away from the annual party gathering, held Saturday amid the sand dunes of Cape Henlopen State Park.

It has been a touchstone for him since the days he was a smart-as-brass comer from New Castle County and fell in love with Sussex County, and Sussex County loved him back. It was a place to bring along the family from the time Beau was a tyke, and how could he stay away now, three months after Beau was gone?

So he came back to get his bearings. "I'm still here. I'm still Joe. I haven't gone away," he said.

The vice presidential appearance made the Jamboree the political event of the year.

An enraptured crowd of about 300 Democrats thronged around him, once he arrived by motorcade at precisely 3 p.m., just as the program was to begin. It took him 15 minutes to wade to the microphone for a 15-minute speech -- undoubtedly the shortest he ever gave at the Jamboree -- and another 30 minutes to get back through the hugs and handshakes and photo shots to leave.

"I did think he'd be here," said Leah Betts, who was already a force in Sussex County Democratic politics for that first fateful race for the U.S. Senate in 1972.

The Jamboree belonged to Joe. He totally eclipsed the 14 other speakers, including the two senators, who all might as well not have bothered.

It was reminiscent of a famous exchange John Kennedy once had with Helen Thomas, the White House correspondent, who asked what would happen if Air Force One went down with the president and the press corps on it.

"I know one thing, you would be just a footnote," Kennedy cracked.

Muscle memory pulled Biden through the Jamboree. After he made his way under the familiar pavilion in his summer-beach-speech dress of khakis, a short-sleeve shirt of dark blue and those stylish aviator sunglasses, he climbed atop a picnic table in his signature way and did not forget as he talked to mention Sussex Countians like Leah Betts by name.

He looked like he was immersed in the overwhelming presence of Beau's absence. He did not look like he was burning to run for president.

"He whispered in my ear it would be a little while," Betts said.

Biden explained what brought him back for the first time since he became the vice president.

"I came because Beau would want me to come, and the reason is to thank you," he said.

That was what he did and all he did, name by political name and act by kind act, from the singular recognition for Beau of lying in honor in Legislative Hall in Dover to the hours and hours that thousands of people stayed in line to pay their respects.

The only way for anyone else to make any kind of mark at the Jamboree was not to be there or not to do something. John Carney and Jack Markell managed it.

Recent hip surgery kept Carney away, so he was not overshadowed on what otherwise would have been his day in the sun, literally and figuratively, amid the rising expectation that he intends to leave his congressional seat to run for governor in 2016.

Carney still picked up a pre-endorsement from Markell, who won their well-mannered rivalry for governor in the 2008 Democratic primary.

"I hope he runs," Markell told the crowd.

Markell also made the Jamboree notable on his own behalf by un-declaring for office. He said in a brief interview he had no interest in running for congressman -- "not happening" -- and followed it up by telling the crowd he would not be running for anything in 2016.

"I will not be on the ballot. I appreciate there was no applause when I said that," he quipped.

There was still some adrenaline around for Markell, who spoke right after Biden, but soon it drained away, as did most of the people.

All that was left was a straggle of speeches for about an hour and a half from another 13 unlucky speakers, namely, the senators, the insurance commissioner, a county council member, three legislators, a candidate for insurance commissioner, and five candidates for lieutenant governor.

It was like the tree that falls on a desert island and does not get heard. Joe speaks, and nobody else gets heard, either.