What do Yasser Arafat, Jon Stewart, and Joe Biden have in common?
Well, let’s see. Yasser Arafat, the carbuncle who used to run the Palestinian Authority, had a gift for saying what Americans wanted to hear in English and what his own murderous constituents wanted to hear in Arabic. The Western press played along for the most part, pretending that translations weren’t available.
Jon Stewart, the talented and liberal host of the comedy news program The Daily Show, employs a slightly different tactic where he levels blistering and earnest political attacks and then insists no one should take him seriously because he’s just a comedian. As he famously put it in a 2004 CNN debate, “The show that leads into me is puppets making crank phone calls.” And yet, many of the liberal journalists atop the commanding heights of the media establishment see Stewart as their titular deity.
And then there’s Vice President Joe Biden. There’s the Joe Biden who belches boring, scripted platitudes familiar to anybody who follows politics.
And then there’s the other Joe. Crazy Joe. Wacky Joe. The Joe who punctuates his marathon-length run-on sentences with semaphore flashes of his enormous teeth, warning, “I can’t turn off my mouth!” This Joe is like the crazy relative at Thanksgiving who makes everyone feel unsafe by building a replica of Devils Tower with his mashed potatoes while loudly insisting that if only we had all switched to a macrobiotic lentil diet, the alphabet would have twice as many vowels.
Biden has outdone both Stewart and Arafat, because he never acknowledges the fact that there are (at least) two Joes. While Stewart often has to run across the border to Comedystan to defend himself, and Arafat had to speak in an entirely different tongue, Biden switches back and forth seamlessly between the two personalities.
This in and of itself is not a new observation. Biden has been the subject of gentle mockery for decades. The number of Bidenisms more suitable for a sitcom’s wacky-neighbor character is too big to count. Remember his response to the 9/11 terror attacks? While the towers were still smoldering, then-senator Biden turned to an emergency meeting of his staff and said, “Seems to me this would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran.”
The staff reportedly reacted like they wished he’d get back to the bit about the all-lentil diet.
Even President Obama, whose “first presidential decision” was tapping Biden to be his running mate (that should have been a red flag right there) has gotten in on the act. During his first address to Congress, Obama declared, “Nobody messes with Joe!” the same way jocks yell, “Nobody messes with the water boy!” All that was missing was a noogie from the commander-in-chief.
What’s different now is that the two Bidens seem not only to be merging, but to be gaining influence inside the White House.
Biden, like a lot of eccentrics, loves to play with trains. What makes him different is that he prefers real ones. As a senator, he famously rode Amtrak to get home to Delaware. And because he failed to understand that what worked for him might not work for everyone, he’s funneled billions of dollars to a passenger-rail system that cannot survive in the market. If he had the same response to a great plate of chicken wings, he’d want a subsidy for that too.
Biden’s real passion is high-speed rail, which wastes money at two to three times the speed of conventional passenger rail. Never mind that high-speed rail would destroy our freight-rail system, which is the best in the world (and quite green), or that it would crush state budgets with federally imposed white elephants. Biden has convinced the president that this is the only way to “win the future.” Obama made that case during his last State of the Union address. And just the other day, while campaigning in Florida, Biden told reporters that he and Sen. Bill Nelson (D., Fla.) and the president are “focused on literally — it sounds like a trite phrase — but literally winning the future.”
Thank goodness they’re not just figuratively focused on winning the future. They’re quite literal about it. Charlie Sheen talks about winning figuratively, but not our Joe — and not the president of the United States, apparently.
And that’s what’s so dismaying: People are taking Joe seriously. Don’t be surprised if after the next terrorist attack, the president proposes giving Iran a brand new high-speed rail system.
— Jonah Goldberg is editor-at-large of National Review Online and a visiting fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. © 2011 Tribune Media Services, Inc.