‘Speak up and speak out,” Vice President Biden urged a women’s-rights group on Wednesday. And then he told those present about the time he’d smashed a boy’s head into a doughnut-shop counter.
One day, Biden recalled, back when he was a child, his sister identified a boy who had kicked her off her bicycle. Incensed by the news, “Joey” took matters into his own hands. He went home and retrieved his own bike, and then rode back to the store in which the culprit had been spotted. Inside, he remembered, the boy was “leaning down on one of those slanted counters.” And so, sensing an opportunity for revenge, Biden “walked up behind him and smashed his head next to the counter.” For good measure, he then told the boy and his father: “If you ever touch my sister again, I’ll come back here again and I’ll kill your son.” This parable, Biden concluded, demonstrates the need for Americans to fight for their rights.
When this story first began to career around the web, it was met with a certain mock horror and a good deal of “imagine if . . . ” grumbling. My first reaction, however, was “good!” — not, of course, because I endorse pushing children into tables (although I can’t say that I’d be at the front of the line to condemn Biden for having done so) but because it was so extraordinarily refreshing to hear a politician talk like a normal human being. Here we have a public figure admitting that he lost his temper, acknowledging that he sought an eye for an eye, and conceding that, although he knows that he shouldn’t be, he is perhaps a little proud of his transgression. As someone who laments the insipidity of modern political life, I can only honestly say, “Bravo.”
In so many delicious and deserved ways, Biden has become a figure of unyielding fun. And yet, if there is one thing of which he cannot be accused, it is aridity. This is a man who is usually willing to talk about his present and his past; who is colorful in language and blunt in assessment; who seems to feel no great need to temper the idiosyncrasies within his behavior; and who is unwilling to permit either the niceties of high society or the shallowness of the 24-hour news cycle to blunt his pugnacious side. Upon hearing that Biden had once again put his foot in it, conservatives were quick to focus in on what I will concede is a salient question: “What would have happened if this had been a Republican?” Others, meanwhile, used the reports to put flesh on the bones of what they consider to be a double standard. All in all, the criticism rings true. If Rick Perry had admitted to beating up a child, one can only imagine that MSNBC would have written an opera about it. But, by focusing on the hypocrisy of the media, the Right has missed an opportunity.
Whether they are in or out of the public eye, human beings tend to discern the reactions that their conduct provokes and amend and structure it accordingly. Because Biden has been given a free pass for so long now, he has become accustomed to speaking with an almost inconceivable candor. Thus has he hyperbolically warned a large group of African Americans that the Republican party wishes to put them in “chains.” Thus has he felt sufficiently at liberty to observe aloud that a disproportionate number of 7-Elevens in Delaware are managed by immigrants from the Indian subcontinent. And thus, unashamedly but a touch inadvertently, has he so often been able to cut through the usual diplomatic restraint and to provide the colorful phrase or trenchant observation that the moment requires.
Now, is it “unfair” that Biden is accorded a greater latitude than are most others — even, we might acknowledge, others in his own party? Certainly it is. But how we deal with this imbalance matters. Instead of hoping to see Biden punished for his lapses, we might hope instead that he be ignored. Which is to say that we should hope for more, not fewer, Joe Bidens, and we should wish, eventually, to create a social environment in which the authenticity and whimsy of others might flourish a little more easily.
In her original post at the Daily Beast, Olivia Nuzzi noted that Biden’s most recent remarks “were particularly unbound.” To which we might ask: “By whom were they bound in the first instance?” It is a pronounced irony of the modern world that we began to brutally narrow the range of acceptable opinions at the exact same moment that we started to pat ourselves on the back for our tolerance, our broad-mindedness, and our acceptance of diversity.
We live, increasingly, in an age of contradictions. On the one hand, we have managed to shed almost all of the codified bigotry from the national escutcheon. (Whatever problems remain, the days of racial segregation and legal misogyny are thankfully over.) And yet, on the other, we seem increasingly to regard anyone with remotely heterodox views as dangerous and unpredictable, and to expect the eccentric and the ignorant to apologize for their transgressions. This, alas, has real costs, for, whatever excuses may be credibly recruited to explain why Bill Maher should no longer be welcomed at Berkeley, it remains the case that all purification processes represent a tradeoff — however firmly their architects may believe that they are on the side of the angels. Every joke ultimately has a butt. Every victory yields a loser. Honesty is always going to offend somebody. Bluntness can be deemed to be a vice as well as a virtue. One man’s passion is another’s madness.
A few years ago, a comedy troupe called “Whitest Kids U’Know” produced a mock campaign commercial for a spoof candidate named “Clint Webb.” Webb, played by the actor Trevor Moore, is an attractive, besuited young man who claims to be running for a seat in the Senate. Rather than sticking to the usual platitudes, however, Webb tells viewers everything about himself — the good, the bad, and the ugly. “I have a short, cropped haircut,” he explains, “a pretty enough yet accessible-looking wife, and a newborn baby that I’ve dressed in a suit to prove to you that I mean business.” “For the last 15 years,” he confesses, “I have lived my life in such a bland, uncontroversial, and repressed manner that it’s almost unnatural.” Why? “Because I’ve been preparing to be your representative since I was a child.” Later, he admits to having “enlisted in the military for the minimum amount of time in a position that would never see combat.”
Unlike Joe Biden, there is no way in hell that Clint Webb would tell a room full of donors that they seemed to be “the dullest audience I have ever spoken to.” Nor would he ask the vice president of Harvard’s student body, “Isn’t it a b*tch? This vice president thing?” Or try to tamp down swine-flu panic by suggesting that his audience stop traveling, or tell the president of the United States that he was “f—ing surprised!” that the two of them were becoming friends, or inform Vladimir Putin “I don’t think you have a soul” — or even, for that matter, make a normal human mistake such as this:
Look, John’s last-minute economic plan does nothing to tackle the number-one job facing the middle class, and it happens to be, as Barack says, a three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S, jobs.
Worst of all, Clint Webb would never admit that life is complex, that there are no easily recognizable bright lines between standing up for your sister and exacting revenge, and that, sometimes, even the men who go on to be vice president let their humanity get the better of them.
— Charles C. W. Cooke is a staff writer at National Review.