An August 26, 2008, Politico story began: “During his first full day of solo campaigning, newly minted Democratic vice presidential candidate Joe Biden showed some of the flashes of the hyperbole, exaggerations and quips that Republicans are hoping to use to paint him as a loose cannon.”
He also proclaimed that Michelle Obama’s convention speech was “the most remarkable speech I have heard in my life” and prophesied that it would propel the Obama-Biden ticket to victory.
Now, on the standard-issue Biden-o-Meter that I have been carrying around like a post-apocalyptic Geiger counter, measuring the parts per billion of asininity, some of these comments don’t even move the needle. Still, it was pretty good for a day’s work, especially considering that Biden had already given the gaffe-watch industry some much-needed stimulus when he introduced his running mate for the first time as “Barack America.”
And these statements do capture at least one band in the glorious rainbow that is Biden-speak, specifically its use of the utmost superlative and the exaggeratedly hyperbolic. Governor Minner, at least according to her Wikipedia page, does have a nice rags-to-riches background, but is hers really the “most incredible story in American politics”? (The Republican presidential candidate at the time had spent years being tortured in a bamboo tiger cage while refusing to take early release.) I went back and read Michelle Obama’s convention speech. It, too, was nice. But I don’t think the myriad books written about the 2008 election need to be rewritten to account for the way her remarks catapulted the ticket to victory. Biden’s rhetoric often sounds like a stoned teenager talking about food. “Dude, these Cheetos are the best-tasting things ever!”
The word “literally” has taken a beating in the Age of Biden. He’s often proclaimed that Obama had the opportunity “literally to change the direction of the world” (which, if possible, might help fulfill that promise to lower sea levels). Biden announced that “before we arrived in the West Wing, Mr. Boehner and his party ran the economy and the middle class literally into the ground.” His speeches are “literally” festooned with “literally”s, like hundreds of tethers to the hot-air balloon that is his head.
The standard joke is to quote the scene in The Princess Bride when Inigo Montoya tells Vizzini, “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.” The problem is that Biden insists that he does know what it means. One of his favorite ways to emphasize his seriousness is to say, “and I mean literally, not figuratively,” as if “literally” meant “I’m really serious” and “figuratively” connoted some effeminate lack of conviction. He says JFK’s “call to service literally, not figuratively, still resounds from generation to generation.” He told students in Africa, “You are the keystone to East Africa — literally, not figuratively, you are the keystone.” “The American people are looking for us as Democrats,” he has said. “They’re looking for someone literally, not figuratively, to restore America’s place in the world.” Speaking at a rally for Senator Patty Murray, he said, “I have now gone into 110 races around the country, and everywhere I go I see ordinary people who play by the rules, get everything right, paid their mortgage, showed up in their school helping their kids, made sure that they did everything they could to save to get their kid to college, took their mom and dad in when they needed help and hoped to save a little bit of money so they wouldn’t have to rely on their own kids when the time came.” Here’s the kicker: “And all of a sudden, all of a sudden — literally, not figuratively — they were decimated.” If they were literally decimated, Biden doesn’t just see ordinary people, he sees dead people. But only one for every nine among the living.
Let’s give the poor word some smelling salts and ask it to get back in the ring for a moment. It is literally absurd to say, “This is a guy who walks and talks like someone who grew up in Scranton,” as David Wade, Biden’s spokesman at the time, told Politico in defense of his boss. (It’s also not literally true that Biden grew up in Scranton; he left town at the age of ten.) As part of my research for this article, I visited Scranton — not literally, mind you, but literally enough in Joe Biden’s America. Statistically speaking, Scrantonites are not more likely than, say, residents of Muncie to instruct a wheelchair-bound man, “Stand up, Chuck, let ’em see ya.” In 1929, there were a handful of experimental television sets being developed in discrete locations around the country, but literally none of them were in Scranton. Which explains why very few Scrantonites believe, as Biden explained to Katie Couric, that FDR, who was sworn in as president in 1933, went on national television after the stock-market crash of 1929 to reassure the American people.
The Wade defense — he’s authentic! he’s real! he literally talks like a real American! — is an explanation much of the press corps uses to rationalize why they don’t care about Biden’s gaffes. I doubt that all of them believe this, but clearly some do. And those who do are revealing that they hold the American people in remarkably low regard. It’s a frightening prospect, really, that large numbers of pols, flacks, and hacks in Washington think we live in a nation of Joe Bidens. Not least because Joe Biden is crazy.
Now I don’t mean Joe Biden is literally crazy, just figuratively (although sometimes it is very easy to imagine him at the mental hospital, dressed in stained white PJs, standing on a card table and explaining how the shortage of lime Jell-O is “literally the greatest outrage to be visited on mankind” since the orderlies took away his fern). Biden’s logorrhea dementia is the most popularly diagnosed malady in political life since Bill Clinton’s priapism. As a Senate committee chairman, he would often exhaust nearly all of his question time rhetorically wandering off like an Alzheimer’s patient in the snow, only to come to his senses at the last second and ask an angry question of the stunned witness or nominee. The poor fellow in the hot seat would usually be caught off guard thanks to the soporifically mesmerizing power of Biden’s enormous teeth, which he flashed throughout his sentences like a semaphore to alert the audience: “I can’t stop this thing!”
Biden makes up a lot of things, too. And like many eccentrics, he is fond of playing with trains, only his aren’t toys, they’re billion-dollar boondoggles.
As part of my research, I read Biden’s seminal essay “Why America Needs Trains” in Arrive — the in-flight magazine, figuratively speaking, of Amtrak’s Northeast-corridor travelers. You might wonder how he landed the cover, until you remember that he, more than any other public figure, is responsible for pouring billions of dollars into white elephants on rails, largely because riding the train to Delaware is part of his shtick. While zooming past the homes of ordinary Americans at 50 miles an hour, Biden has explained, “I would look out the window and hear their questions, feel their pain.” So he hears voices too.
It’s interesting to speculate about why Biden is like this. Hillary Clinton has told Biden that “I think you and Bill were separated at birth.” She apparently intended it as a compliment, though one can certainly understand why Mrs. Biden, at least, would be eager for some clarification.
Apparently what Hillary meant is that both men are charmers and happy talkers. But the similarities go beyond that. Both men were the products of difficult childhoods and both were determined to show up their detractors. Not only did Biden have a terrible stutter as a child, he was born to privilege yet had to grow up middle-class because of his father’s disastrous business decisions (though in his own telling, it often sounds like life for young Joe was Dickensian; it wasn’t).
That’s all probably true. But Biden also seems driven in no small part by a staggering intellectual insecurity. The figurative evidence room is full of examples. The most notorious comes from Biden’s 1988 bid for the Democratic presidential nomination. He had been hounded about his law-school record and plagiarism problems (among other things, he copied five pages from a law journal for a 15-page paper and then claimed it was a footnoting error), and he was asked a question about his academic record by a resident of New Hampshire.
He responded: “I think I have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect.” He went on:
I went to law school on a full academic scholarship, the only one in my class to have a full academic scholarship. In the first year in the law, I decided I didn’t want to be in law school and ended up in the bottom two-thirds of my class and then decided I wanted to stay, went back to law school, and, in fact, ended up in the top half of my class. I won the international moot-court competition. I was the outstanding student in the political-science department at the end of my year. I graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school and 165 credits — only needed 123 credits. And I would be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours.
Most of these statements were outright lies. Biden graduated from college with just one degree, not three. Yes, he did win a moot-court competition, but he graduated 76th in his class of 85. He wasn’t the outstanding political-science student. And why is he still talking about how many credits he graduated with? Who does that?
Biden’s intellectual insecurity can be found in his relentless (mis)use of brainy quotations from Internet sites. His speeches are often a rhetorical version of The Love Boat with special guest appearances from Aristotle, Milton, Yeats, Plato, and various unnamed poets who, we are nonetheless assured, are famous. As Meghan Clyne documented in The Weekly Standard, he often misses the point of the lines he delivers, as when in a nod to Milton he called soldiers slain on the battlefield “fallen angels” — which, strictly speaking, would suggest that the U.S. military is in open rebellion against God. Sometimes he just doesn’t quite get his audience, as when he dropped a truth-bomb from G. K. Chesterton: “It’s not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it’s been found difficult and left untried.” He was speaking to AIPAC, the Jewish pro-Israel lobby. He also has been caught repeatedly using a fake quote from Virgil. But that’s forgivable. We’ve all been burned that way at some point. As Thomas Jefferson famously said, “Some quotes on the Internet are not reliable.”
The best example of his incessant need to work the refs of history, however, remains his penchant for the grandiose exaggeration. This is a real problem for the White House because his hyperbole has the unintended consequence of opening legitimate accomplishments to ridicule. The most famous recent example is his declaration that the raid on Osama bin Laden’s compound puts all other military operations to shame. “You can go back 500 years. You cannot find a more audacious plan. Never knowing for certain. We never had more than a 48 percent probability that he was there.” He went on: “Do any one of you have a doubt that if that raid failed that this guy would be a one-term president?#…#I’m telling you, man, this guy is not only smart as hell, he is absolutely ready to make the decision and stand back and live with it. No whining.”
The Normandy invasion, the raid on Entebbe, the Inchon landing, Gallipoli, the capture of Adolf Eichmann? Cakewalks! My favorite part is the “48 percent certainty” bit. Where does this number come from? Do people in the White House actually believe they can predict the future (never mind military operations in Pakistan) with that kind of granular precision? These are the same people, recall, who had to discover on the job that there’s no such thing as shovel-ready jobs. Where was their supercomputer crystal ball for that stuff?
Notice as well Biden’s measure of what qualifies as bravery: This was a courageous operation because it risked Obama’s reelection effort. The White House immediately compounded this shamefulness by citing the success of the mission as a reason to back Obama’s domestic agenda. “On immigration reform, he keeps pushing to get it done,” explained White House spokesman Jay Carney in a pathetic effort to clarify the point. “And I think that that was reflected in his approach to dealing with Osama bin Laden.” Then, in this year’s State of the Union address, Obama openly yearned for an America that cooperated as obediently as the SEAL team that took out bin Laden. If the White House didn’t care about politics going into the operation, it’s obvious politics is all they cared about coming out.
One reason we were told Biden was an inspired veep choice was that he lent the ticket “gravitas.” But as Mickey Kaus quipped at the time, “He doesn’t have gravitas. He has seniority.” Indeed, nobody in Washington save Biden himself thinks the man has gravitas. That’s why it was funny when Obama emasculated him like a quarterback razzing the waterboy during his first address to Congress. “Nobody messes with Joe!” he yelled, stopping just short of turning around and giving Biden a noogie.
Another argument, one made by Obama himself, was that Biden, with his years of legislative experience, would prove extremely useful corralling Republicans in Congress. Where’s even the figurative evidence for that? Yet another argument was that Biden would offer sage counsel on foreign affairs. This was an interesting theory given Biden’s record. He opposed Reagan’s defense buildup, hailed Mikhail Gorbachev’s “pragmatic” leadership almost until the moment the Soviet Union disappeared, opposed the first Gulf War, supported the second — an interesting fact given the central role opposition to the war played in Obama’s election — bragged about being the real author of the PATRIOT Act, and has always and everywhere claimed credit for successes whether he had anything to do with them or not (one notable exception: He opposed the operation to get bin Laden). “For all Biden’s twaddle about doctrines and concepts,” Andrew C. McCarthy wrote in National Review in 2008, “there is a simple technique for divining this foreign-policy solon’s bobs and weaves: Consult the polls and the calendar.”
In an interview with Esquire magazine, David Axelrod explained that while Obama had high hopes for Biden as an emissary to Republicans and admired his foreign-policy acumen, the real reason he picked Biden was that the two just get along so well and see eye to eye with each other.
Aha. Now we’re on to something. After all, this is the president who claimed he would lower the seas and has authored two autobiographies. This is the president who complained of having to campaign in all 57 states (“I think [I have] one left to go,” he added). This is the president who recently got burned with a fake Internet quote about Rutherford B. Hayes’s hating the telephone, and who proclaimed that America built the “intercontinental railroad.” This is the president who once tried to sell his health-care reform by noting that “UPS and FedEx are doing just fine, right? It’s the Post Office that’s always having problems.” Who once told Jake Tapper, “You’re absolutely right that John McCain has not talked about my Muslim faith.” Who tried to preemptively condemn judicial review of Obamacare as “unprecedented.” Who is quoted, in Richard Wolffe’s book Renegade, as saying, “You know, I actually believe my own bulls***.”
When you have a straight man like that, you need a special kind of sidekick to make the team work. And good ol’ Joe is certainly special.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online, a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute, and the author of The Tyranny of Clichés. You can write to him by e-mail at JonahsColumn@aol.com, or via Twitter @JonahNRO. This article appears in the April 30, 2012, issue of National Review.