Joe Biden and show biz buddies assembled for a virtual fundraiser on Thursday night. Organizers modeled the format on a recent Rosie O’Donnell livestream extravaganza for The Actors Fund, featuring a parade of celebrity performances and chats.
Success was not guaranteed. Biden’s virtual appearances since stay-home orders settled in haven’t exactly earned standing ovations. RealClear Politics reported of the candidate’s inaugural digital foray: “Biden’s voice was garbled at times, unsuspecting participants appeared on-screen randomly, and at one point Biden appeared to walk out of frame. ‘Am I on camera?’ Biden can be heard asking at one point.”
The alarming situation was not quick to self-correct. In a headline on April 15, The Washington Post queried, “This is Joe Biden’s biggest moment. Why does he feel so small?” And a columnist for the Boston Herald savaged the candidate’s Earth Day virtual event of April 22.
So to what degree was Thursday’s glad, er, glam-handing soiree a sizzle or a fizzle? Here’s my blow by blow and lessons learned:
* Checking in and waiting: Time to scope out the crowd. Hey, is that George Takei??? It is!
* Enter emcee (and “Kinky Boots” star) Billy Porter: High energy and on script. Exactly the vibe this campaign needs. With the opposition branding the candidate “Sleepy,” the more the campaign can snap voters awake with vim and vigor, the better. Grammy-winning ringer Porter gets the party started right.
* MC Billy hands things off to Melissa Etheridge for an acoustic political anthem. Not my fave genre. Give me a dance beat and a winking lyric. But for those who like their politics steeped in emotion, Etheridge delivers. For everyone else, she at least puts it across with winning warmth.
* From rock star Etheridge we bounce to transcendent sports icon Billie Jean King, who makes the shrewd choice to keep her remarks short and sweet … just the kind of volley that works best on a virtual court.
* And now for the actual politicians, starting with Pete Buttigieg. Here things sloooooow dooooooown. The New Yorker magazine once described the technocrat from South Bend as “not an especially physical or energetic performer,” and Buttigieg doesn’t seem eager to change that assessment. Credit him with consistency, at least? None too soon the former mayor introduces the former vice president …
* The low point of the evening unfolds as the two politicians exchange compliments. And then more compliments. The 19-year-old at my house rolls his eyes. While bowing and back scratching has been a political ritual for millenia, it plays as self-indulgent in the intimate setting of a 21st century Zoom room.
* But once he has the spotlight to himself, Joe’s performance is actually much better than the ‘lowlights’ you see on cable news. Clad in blazer and tie, the candidate seems reasonably comfortable, sufficiently leader-like and appropriately fired up.
No doubt the latter quality gets a boost from President Trump’s latest gaffe — musing about humans injecting disinfectant to fight the coronavirus. Joe wisely singles out that timely whopper.
Sure, some of the candidate’s phrases clank and clatter like boxcars threatening to derail. But MC Billy has set a brisk pace, and the speed keeps the Joe train on track. All in all, the candidate is reassuringly competent — which is a significant win right now.
* Lest the event seem too contrived, a question from the audience arrives, lending the proceedings a degree of spontaneity. The inquiry is about voting by mail as a way to thwart a feared election hack.
An unseen moderator has been accepting written questions throughout the event. Why did the hack query rise to the top? Probably because it offers the opportunity for a full-throated, multi-front response. The response can hit on suspicions about Trump’s campaign methods, the president’s scorn for voting by mail, the recent Wisconsin election cycle and the alleged Republican war on voting rights. It’s a steaming smorgasbord — and Joe digs in.
* Back to MC Billy for the biggest missed opportunity of the night. Billy asks Biden if he can call him Joe. Of course, the joke would be for Biden to respond with a curt ‘no’ & let it hang there … before chuckling. That would’ve been the Obama-at-his-best move. No such luck.
* For the finale, Kristin Chenoweth offers up a BIG Broadway number trapped in a tiny online box. Virtual pizzazz is almost as hard to pull off as virtual pizza. But again, ENERGY!
Overall: Not as lean, mean and on point as the new tune the Stones dropped on the same day, but relatively sleek and effective. The tight structure pays off — figuratively with a confident, glitch-free event, and literally with MC Billy’s announcement that this show biz shindig raised more than $1 million.
Lessons: Keep it moving. Invite engaging friends. Keep it moving. Go light on the political backslapping. Keep it moving. Be clear and concise. Keep it moving. Select questions that allow you to unleash fire and fury on the opposition. And finally and always, keep it moving!