Throughout his nearly 50 years in Washington, Joe Biden has been described as many things - influential, rambling, amiable, ambitious, error-prone and so on.
But in all that time, virtually no one has said Biden is an inspirational figure.
After watching him in what was likely his last political debate, it seems to me that's exactly what he's become.
Biden isn't so inspiring, of course, to the party activists and younger voters who supported Senators Bernie Sanders or Elizabeth Warren in the primaries (and whose votes Biden needs). Those Democrats have always gravitated toward stirring speakers and symbols of social change.
They loved Barack Obama for the chills he gave them as an orator and for the story he embodied about racial justice. They rallied around Hillary Clinton - despite ideological misgivings - because of the breakthrough she represented for women.
Biden's never been about any of that. For decades, he moved easily within Washington's chummy male aristocracy, every bit the old-school senator.
His first presidential campaign imploded amid allegations of plagiarism. His second got off to an abysmal start when he described Obama as "clean" and "articulate", instantly reminding all younger liberals of their cringe-inducing parents.
That he ended up on the ticket with Obama anyway was a stroke of fate that had a lot to do with his ability to reassure white, working-class men - a constituency Democrats have found necessary at times, but never inspiring.
If Biden thought that bit of good fortune would, at last, put him in a position to succeed Obama, he was wrong. After eight years, both the president and his party turned to Clinton instead.
That should have been the end of his run - especially since Biden was grieving the loss of his son Beau, the second child he'd had to bury. By deciding to seek the presidency a third time, at an age that would make him the oldest major-party nominee in history, Biden risked going out as a joke rather than a statesman.
It would have been easy for Biden to change his message during this year's early primaries, when it seemed his campaign was going nowhere, when most of his rivals were paddling madly to the left.
There was no shortage of self-appointed strategists telling Biden that his only hope was to ride that ideological tide on to fortune.
Biden knew himself better than they did. As he said the other night onstage, he simply disagreed with his rivals and he was willing to lose because of it.
There was no electoral calculation there that made sense - no cynical choosing of one lane over another. It was a principled last stand for which we never gave Biden the credit he deserved.
And so here he is, at 77, his face creased by heartbreak, his speech interrupted by a childhood stammer that's now returned. A Trump campaign ad calls him "past his prime", and I doubt Biden would seriously disagree.
But Biden is a plodder. No one's going to put his face on T-shirts or dorm-room posters. He personifies no crusades for social justice - unless you count winning one for the over-75 set.
What Biden embodies, instead, is the wisdom of a far less exciting politician, Calvin Coolidge: "Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence." (Look up the rest of it - it's one of the finest and most profound passages any US president ever spoke.)
Our best political epics are often about characters who hang in long enough to find themselves perfectly cast for the moment. Lyndon Johnson had been in national politics for a quarter-century before he rose up to oppose the bigotry of his native south. Ronald Reagan had been considered too extreme for two decades - until he found himself staring down the Soviets in the last, dramatic act of the Cold War.
So it is with Biden, who is all that now stands between us and a country we can barely recognise. What the US most needs in a leader right now - decency, compassion, perspective - happen to be the very things Biden brings to the table, some of them innate and others painfully learned.
A staggering kind of perseverance - the same quality that got him past that stutter and through the tragic loss of a wife and children, and over the embarrassment of stinging defeats and ridicule - has brought Joe Biden, at long last, to the moment for which he might be ideally suited.
If that's not inspiring, I don't know what is. (© Washington Post)
Matt Bai is a journalist, author and screenwriter.