Had American television viewers been perched instead on the edge of a therapist’s couch or the end of a polished zinc bar at 2am, it would still have qualified as an exceptionally candid and cathartic exchange for anyone to witness.

By the shallow standards of most political discourse in the media, the interview between Vice-President Joe Biden and newly ensconced talkshow host Stephen Colbert on Thursday night was an extraordinary moment of television that could yet prove a defining moment of the 2016 election race.

In 15 minutes that felt like more like 50, the two men shared their experiences of losing close relatives, their innermost coping mechanisms and, in Biden’s case, its impact on his ability to function in public life.

These are taboos that are rarely broached in front of strangers at the best of times, but the vice-president, whose eldest son Beau died of cancer in May, is at the centre of fevered speculation about not just whether he can keep it together in the limelight of his current job, but whether he will run for president.

The grieving process has already been an unusually public strain on the nation’s heartstrings. Beau’s mother and younger sister were killed in car crash in 1972, which badly injured the young boy and his brother Hunter. Biden Sr brought the two boys up while commuting daily from his home in Delaware to his job in the US Senate.

After discussing his own similar experience of helping his mother cope after his father and two brothers died in a plane crash, Colbert posed the question much of the US is asking: is the vice-president ready to place his broken heart in the public gaze even more? The answer was hesitant, raw and seemed to suggest not.

“Look, um, I don’t think any man or woman should run for president unless, number one, they know exactly why they would want to be president, and [number] two that they can look at folks out there and say ‘I promise you, you have my whole heart, my whole soul, my energy and my passion to do this’, and I would be lying if I said I knew I was there,” said Biden.

“I am being completely honest. No one has a right in my view to seek that office unless they can give it 110% of who they are, and I am optimistic, positive of where we’re going, but I find myself … sometimes it just overwhelms you.”

Choking up, Biden revealed how the constant reminders of Beau’s death were a strain even on the largely ceremonial duties of his current job, describing a recent encounter with a fellow military veteran in Iraq.

“It was going great,” recalled the vice-president. “All of a sudden, a guy in the back yells, ‘Major Beau Biden. Bronze Star, sir. Served with him in Iraq.’ And all of sudden, I lost it. How could you … I shouldn’t be saying this, but you can’t do that.”

At first, the interview appeared to provide an answer to the question many are wondering: why is the vice-president taking so long to decide whether to enter a race that has already begun and becomes harder to catch up with every passing day?

It may not have been intended this way, but it provided a compelling reason to rule out a campaign against Hillary Clinton that many Democrats (and Barack Obama) remain deeply divided over.

But as video clips of their moving and inspiring discussion of grief echoed around the internet on Thursday, another thought still lingered.

Here, in one interview, were also many of the reasons Biden is urged to run. In a week where Clinton’s advisers have discussed using focus groups to help work out how their candidate can appear more spontaneous and authentic in public, here was a masterclass in how to connect with the American public in a deeply personal way.

Discussing the death of a close family member and debating what one’s policy priorities would be in the White House are, of course, wildly different challenges. Clinton’s many supporters often fondly recall her own displays of emotion toward the end of her first run for president and wonder if there are dual standards in place for men and women in public life. There are also deep, unanswered questions about what he would bring in political terms that Clinton does not already offer.

But if the challenge for Democrats is to find a way of connecting with suspicious voters on a visceral level, to prove their authenticity so that tough political messages can be transmitted without the baggage of the past, this was hard to beat.

A Joe so regular, he is actually called Joe; whose loss was felt by all and whose twinkly eyes and flashing smile suggested his win would be one for all Americans. He might as well have been in your living room.

This article titled “Biden’s stirring words about son’s death prove he is anything but an average Joe” was written by Dan Roberts in Washington, for theguardian.com on Friday 11th September 2015 18.00 UTC

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