‘The Biden Whisperer’ Tells Us What to Expect From an Unconventional DNC and Election Season

by Michelle Brown

Over 13 years of coverage, NBC News Correspondent Mike Memoli just gets Joe Biden.

“Someone on [Biden’s] staff once told me that the problem is I don’t understand him, I over-stand him.” — Mike Memoli

Mike Memoli (left) speaks with Vice President Joe Biden (center) outside Gianni’s Pizza in Wilmington, Del. in 2019. (Jessica Griffin/The Philadelphia Inquirer/AP)

NBC News Correspondent Mike Memoli isn’t your typical made-for-TV program host or high-profile anchor. He’s a “reporter’s reporter,” as we’re told by Andrea Mitchell, NBC News chief foreign affairs and senior Washington correspondent. “Everyone knows he’s genuine, he’s the real deal… he gets it right all the time.”

A political journalist with a long history of presidential campaign coverage, above all Memoli is known for his in-depth and long-term coverage of former Vice President and presumptive Democratic presidential nominee Joe Biden. Following Biden all over the country and the world since 2007, even though you may never have noticed, Memoli has been right at the center of the action and in the room where it happens, either backstage or just out of frame.

He was there for the 2008 Denver DNC where Biden accepted the vice presidential nomination, the 2011 diplomatic meeting of two then-Vice Presidents Joe Biden and Xi Jinping, the Women’s World Cup in Canada shortly after the untimely death of Joe Biden’s son Beau, the Virginia campaign rally for Hillary Clinton where, backstage, Biden quietly confessed his concern for Democrats’ lack of enthusiasm, the road to Iowa earlier this year, and most recently in Wilmington, Del., for Biden’s announcement that Sen. Kamala Harris of California would be his running mate. (Before the announcement, Sen. Harris had been high on Memoli’s radar as a vice presidential contender as Memoli has said that for many Democrats, the 2020 vice presidential nomination “may very well be the first primary of the 2024 or 2028 Democratic presidential nominee.”)

Memoli has interviewed Joe Biden on matters political and personal and has a familiarity with Biden that few others can claim. Biden’s even taken his Dairy Queen order. (Memoli has a fondness for Blizzards. It’s a childhood favorite.) In Memoli’s experience, “all politics is personal” is more than a mantra for Biden, whom he has observed campaign and conduct diplomacy with a focus on building personal relationships. Every step of the way, he’s seen Joe Biden “largely driven by family” in the personal and career decisions Biden makes. It’s in “typical Biden fashion,” Memoli has written, for the former Vice President to start off any conversation with a reference to family wisdom.

It’s because of this long career that the ice-cream-loving New Jersey native, though he’s mostly out of the spotlight, is well-established among the Washington press corps and known as “The Biden Whisperer” to his colleagues. Mitchell affectionately calls Memoli the “heartbeat of our coverage of Joe Biden” — “one-of-a-kind” in his field. 

Now of course, Memoli is in Delaware, Biden’s home state, to cover the mostly-virtual DNC which runs today until Thursday, at which point Biden will give his speech remotely. Though the DNC is headquartered in Milwaukee, downsizing due to public health concerns over coronavirus means the experience will be more of a “four-night infomercial for Biden’s candidacy and the party,” in Memoli’s words. We talked with Memoli about his remarkable career in such proximity to Joe Biden, what he suspects lies ahead for the DNC and how the Biden-Harris ticket will fare in the rapidly-approaching election.

WL: Where did you get that nickname, the “Biden Whisperer”? 

Andrea Mitchell and Mike Memoli reporting in Joe Biden’s home state Delaware awaiting Biden’s announcement of his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris.

Memoli: I can’t trace its origins exactly but I first remember hearing it in 2015. That summer there was frenzied speculation about whether Joe Biden would join the 2016 Democratic nominating race, and as a reporter for the Los Angeles Times then I had a number of stories along the way tracing the decision-making that got attention of my colleagues and competitors. My old bureau chief there joked once that I had this “Biden ESP” he couldn’t understand but that was reflected in my reporting that seemed to reflect Biden’s thinking better than others.

But for sure the “Biden Whisperer” nickname has become much more popular at NBC News, especially as we were looking for clues about whether he would run in 2020.

“Mike uniquely is so meticulous, and so well-sourced and everyone likes him. The people whom he covers like him, admire and respect him no matter how tough he can be in his reporting.” — Andrea Mitchell

WL: You’ve been able to get close to Joe Biden and watch him in action since 2007. He’s even singled you out of a crowd of reporters in the past. How would you describe your relationship with the former vice president?

Memoli: One of Biden’s mottos is that all politics is personal, and it applies I think to his relationships with the press as well. He has tended to be more accessible and open to the reporters covering him than other politicians I’ve covered, much more so in 2008 than now of course. Then, he did more gaggles or informal Q&As — he often couldn’t wait to get back on the plane and chat with reporters early on about the place we’d just been or share a story from the ropeline.

It’s hard to believe this is already the fourth presidential campaign cycle with him, and so I’m definitely a more familiar face and someone who I think has demonstrated fairness in how I cover him that he appreciates. Someone on his staff once told me that the problem is I don’t understand him, I over-stand him. I think it was a compliment, that my institutional memory over the last decade-plus of what he’s said and done helps me contextualize things quicker and more fully than others. 

“[Biden] offered as he usually does to buy ice cream for the press pool. We usually decline the offer, but he singled me out and said he knew for sure I wanted something. I buckled and ordered myself a blizzard (but made sure to give a staffer some money to reimburse the vice president for it).” — Mike Memoli

WL: In 13 years following Biden across the country and the globe, what moment (or moments) stands out to you as really capturing his character?

Memoli: Most of the time I’ve spent with Biden has been on the campaign trail. But I think one of the most memorable experiences I had with him was covering him on a two-week trip to China, Mongolia and Japan in 2011. He was holding the first significant meetings any world leader had with then-Vice President Xi Jinping, who was expected to become president soon. It was a very different dynamic from campaigning to high-stakes diplomacy but it was still for him all about personal relationships, and it was fascinating to see him in that setting.

Vice President Joe Biden (right) talks to Mike Memoli (center) in the senior staff cabin on AF2, Aug. 22, 2011. (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

A lot of the country is also familiar with how Biden has faced so much personal tragedy over the years, most recently with the death of his son Beau. I served as the pool reporter for one of the public memorial services that was held in Delaware, when Beau laid in state at the Delaware state capitol building. I watched as Biden stood by his son’s casket and received hundreds of mourners, embracing them, sharing stories with them, accepting their condolences. It had to be an excruciating moment but he never took more than a moment’s break over more than five hours. It was a remarkable thing to witness. 

WL: Democrats have been pressing Biden to raise his visibility. Do you think he will be taking a more publicly aggressive stance following the DNC? Why or why not?

Memoli: Everything the Biden campaign has done has primarily been based on the best medical advice about the pandemic and the risk it poses to both Biden and to anyone who might attend his events. When we first began to appreciate how serious and how widespread it was by late March or April, the campaign thought maybe by mid-June or July they’d be back to holding rallies and public events.

But we’ve seen the crisis linger and even get worse in a lot of places, and so I wouldn’t be surprised if we don’t see Biden travel more than a dozen or so times to battleground states in the fall, and that any events he does continue to be fairly small scale. But they have since adapted to the digital campaign and we’ll see him do more virtual events that bring him to different audiences – and very often in ways that go around the filter of the mainstream media.

WL: Do you have a favorite moment over the time you’ve been covering Biden, a funny memory or an instance you look back on fondly?

Memoli: Biden loves going to Dairy Queens on the road, and I have been going to Dairy Queens with my family since I was young. So I always enjoyed those stops. In the 2012 campaign, the staff often joked how it seemed coincidental that he made those ice cream stops whenever it was my turn to travel with him. On one of those stops in Ohio, he offered as he usually does to buy ice cream for the press pool. We usually decline the offer, but he singled me out and said he knew for sure I wanted something. I buckled and ordered myself a blizzard (but made sure to give a staffer some money to reimburse the vice president for it).

WL: This year’s DNC being slimmed down, where will you be in all the action? What will this unorthodox DNC look like?

Memoli: My earliest days covering Biden included being back stage in 2008 when he accepted the vice presidential nomination in Denver, and then the next night when Obama accepted his nomination at the football stadium. It’s disappointing to think that I won’t get to be part of anything even close to that this year, but I’ll be close by when he gives his speech at the mostly virtual convention from Delaware.

I often tell people when they talk about me as the ‘Biden whisperer’ that there really isn’t much that should surprise them if they just listen to him closely.” — Mike Memoli

WL: Without much of the DNC’s typical energy and drama, how consequential do you think the convention will really be? 

Memoli: The biggest thing we’ll miss at the convention this year is seeing just how unified the party is behind Biden compared to what we saw in 2016 when there were very clear signs that Bernie Sanders supporters were not fully behind Hillary Clinton, often loudly protesting speeches including hers in Philadelphia. The public will mostly see what looks like a four-night infomercial for Biden’s candidacy and the party itself – if they tune in.

WL: Do you see any opportunities for rising stars in the Democratic Party to get their “breakout moments” at this year’s convention? Anyone involved with the DNC who we might want to keep our eye on?

Memoli: Biden has said he seems himself as a “bridge” to help usher in the next generation of Democratic stars, and so he’ll certainly want to showcase some of those up-and-coming players at his convention. But none of them will have the chance to really shine nationally in the way Barack Obama did in 2004 at John Kerry’s convention. 

WL: Looking ahead to the months to come and after Biden gets the nomination, what do you think we can expect from the debates against President Trump, whom you’ve also covered extensively? Biden’s not really known for his oratory — will it be more gaffes or gains for him?

Memoli: When I covered Biden in the 2008 campaign, he was asked almost every day about the debate he was going to have against Sarah Palin. Obviously it was a high-stakes moment, only one other woman had been part of a vice presidential debate. And there was certainly concern Biden might do something or say something that would spark controversy. In the end he held his own and both candidates in fact felt happy with the outcome. 

Four years later it was a much different situation – Obama had stumbled at the first debate with Mitt Romney and Democrats really wanted Biden to show some fire and re-energize supporters. He didn’t hold back against Paul Ryan and gave the ticket a bit of a lift. Now, it’s a much trickier game with three debates against Donald Trump (we think). The biggest risk for Biden is that Trump knows what buttons to push that might knock him off his game plan – especially if he goes after his family.

“Based on all the public and private data that we trust, it looks like if the election were held today Biden would win a comfortable majority. But we know full well how quickly things can change … it looks like we could be in for a more complicated election day, week, month than usual.” — Mike Memoli

WL: What’s something you’ve witnessed or come to learn about the former Vice President that might surprise people?

Vice President Joe Biden, Dr. Jill Biden and Mike Memoli prior to the State Dinner on the South Lawn of the White House, Oct. 18, 2016.  (Official White House Photo by David Lienemann)

Memoli: I often tell people when they talk about me as the “Biden whisperer” that there really isn’t much that should surprise them if they just listen to him closely. He jokes about it, that no one ever doubts he means what he says, but that too often he says all that he means.

But I have been struck over the years about the contrast between him and his wife, who is much more private and really until this campaign has been happy to stay out of the spotlight. She has a very sharp sense of humor though and has enjoyed being a bit of a prankster. At a party Biden hosted each summer for members of the White House press corps, she at one point had on a wig and camouflage as a lot of young kids were running around chasing the adults with water guns.

WL: You’ve covered Biden as a senator, vice president and presidential hopeful — what do you think are the odds you’ll be covering him as a president-elect come November?

Memoli: One of the hardest things for reporters now is to make a real assessment of what the campaign really looks like without the ability to talk to voters as you would usually be able to at events and rallies. Based on all the public and private data that we trust, it looks like if the election were held today Biden would win a comfortable majority.

But we know full well how quickly things can change, and then you add the additional layer of concern about how easily  people will be able to vote and vote by mail – it looks like we could be in for a more complicated election day, week, month than usual. 

Each day of the DNC and RNC, NBC News and NBC News NOW (streaming) will air a nightly Special Report from 10 to 11 p.m. ET anchored by Lester Holt, Savannah Guthrie, Chuck Todd and Andrea Mitchell.

MSNBC will deliver live, special prime-time coverage from 7 p.m. to 2 a.m. ET each night. Rachel MaddowJoy Reid and Nicolle Wallace kick off special convention coverage on MSNBC at 8 p.m. ET. They’ll be joined by Brian Williams who continues coverage at 11 p.m. ET, followed by Ari Melber at 1 a.m. ET.

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