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.”
According to Kenneth Vogel, the reporter, the elder statesman of the Democratic party thanked God that one of his audiences was mostly female. “He also said he didn’t care about the press, that Obama has a ‘sixth sense’ and Delaware Gov. Ruth Ann Minner has ‘the most incredible story in American politics,’ that he and Barack Obama had ‘the most incredible opportunity . . . since Franklin Roosevelt.’ And he choked up a handful of times, once wiping away tears after proclaiming that having a chance to be vice president pales in comparison to representing Delaware in the Senate.”
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.