Friday, Jan. 20, 2012 | 2 a.m.
RENO — Even a raging wildfire has a hard time quieting Vice President Joe Biden.
Known for his long-winded speechifying, Biden had just captured the attention of his audience inside the Galena High School gymnasium Thursday when the fire began to close in.
He’d had to work hard to get there. His plane had been diverted to a naval air field 80 miles away. Wind gusts up to 100 mph had made it impossible for Air Force Two to land in Reno. As a motorcade rushed him to town, his staff worked to keep bored audience members nearby so the chairs would be filled when he finally arrived, two hours behind schedule.
Northern Nevada was a mess: a 15-car pileup choked traffic north of town, tractor-trailers blown over in the wind blocked the highway south of town and the brush fire had just ignited in the hills south of the high school.
Finally Biden appeared, bent over the lectern, fingers clasped in front of his face. He kept his voice low, conveying practiced emotion as he folded himself into the working man’s persona that might appeal to Nevadans suffering through the recession.
The room was silent as he repeated one of his favorite campaign stump stories about his father making the “longest walk a parent can make” to tell his children he would have to move away from them for a year in order to find work.
He described the pain a parent feels when they realize they don’t have the money to send their children to college.
“There is nothing worse for a parent than to know that they can’t help,” he said, speaking barely above a stage whisper. “They can’t help.”
But before Biden could pivot to a description of what the Obama administration wants to do to help with the cost of college, a cadre of Secret Service agents jogged up to the stage to alert Biden that the building was being evacuated as the fire pushed toward the high school.
“Uh, guys?” Biden said when he returned to the microphone. Some in the audience laughed. One audience member whined “No!” when it became apparent the vice president would be cut short.
“Here’s the deal,” Biden continued. “As we were riding in, I watched a bunch of fire trucks drive by. Apparently you have a fire in the nearby hills.”
Concerned about evacuating the building, as well as what Biden’s motorcade would do to traffic from the hundreds of evacuees fleeing the fire, Biden’s staff told him he could speak for five more minutes.
Biden, however, isn’t known for brevity and he already felt bad for being late. His visit to Reno also was meant to energize Democrats, who will caucus Saturday to formally nominate Obama as the party’s candidate.
“Let me answer any question anybody asks,” he shouted.
He then launched into an extended answer to a question about the Stop Online Piracy Act as nervous audience members left the gymnasium to see a giant column of smoke towering over the school.
After saying the administration is working to negotiate a compromise on SOPA, he pivoted back to the reason for his visit. “Ask me about college,” he implored.
Secret Service had given him five minutes, but Biden went on for another 17. He sung the praises of community colleges. He reminded students that college is worth it even if they have to borrow to get there. At one point he literally jogged away from agents moving in on him from the edge of the stage to get one last question on the Dream Act, which would give immigrants brought to the United States illegally as children a pathway to citizenship by attending college or entering the military.
“The president and I are absolutely, positively, foursquare, for the Dream Act,” Biden said to cheers. “It makes no sense not to educate everyone in this country who is here with a college degree.”
As agents shifted uncomfortably, Biden promised to wrap up after that question.
“Did the fire marshal really say to go?” he asked the agents, who nodded emphatically. The audience, growing nervous themselves, started to chatter.
By this point the fire had exploded to nearly 3,000 acres, consumed several homes and forced the evacuation of a nearby elementary school. Most of the students at Galena had already left after taking morning final exams.
The fire was still several miles away, but high winds continued its spread. The highway out of the fire area was clogged with traffic.
However, Biden couldn’t leave without reminding the audience of the original theme of the Obama campaign. Thus, he launched into five minutes on how optimistic he is about the future of America and what makes the country great.
“Think different,” he bellowed. “Challenge orthodoxy. Challenge authority!”
To the relief of agents, he finally reached the end of his remarks.
“Do what you can,” Biden said. “Beg, borrow, don’t steal. But figure out how to get to college.”
With that, Secret Service pulled him out the door, into the smoky air and whisked him away to his next stop, in Los Angeles.