Magazine March 23, 2009, Issue

Pumping Up Joe

(Ismael Roldan)
When you can’t give your vice president an ice bath . . .

Here’s how I handle a crying baby: I unwrap it a bit — babies always seem too tightly swaddled, in my opinion — and then I take it outside, into the cold. As the cold air hits the baby’s skin, its tiny internal thermostat kicks in, and all the energy formerly devoted to crying and fussing gets channeled into the life-preserving mammal’s instinct to keep warm. The poor little thing exhausts itself, nods off, and pipes down.

I mean, that’s how I would handle a crying baby, if I had kids. (You somehow knew I don’t, didn’t you?) It’s a trick I read about a few years ago, when I started researching 19th-century methods for handling the insane. Apparently, the most popular — and least cruel — approach was the ice bath: plunge the nut into icy water, let his internal temperature drop, pull him out, and as his body furiously cranks up the heat, the result is an exhausted, peaceful collapse. No more screaming, no more frothing, no more insane and irritated rambling.

Which brings us to Vice President Joe Biden, who is a candidate for the ice bath if I ever saw one. And it’s clear, as the Obama administration approaches its third month, that President Obama agrees with me.

“Nobody messes with Joe,” cooed President Obama in his recent address to Congress, announcing that he has assigned his not-quite-sane vice president the task of overseeing the spending of the almost $800 billion stimulus package. “With a plan of this scale,” the president said, “comes enormous responsibility to get it right.” To weed out “wasteful spending” and eliminate “broken promises.” In an $800 billion spending spree. Written in ten days. Passed, unread, by Democrats.

Love it or hate it, one thing we can all agree on: The stimulus package is a big, greasy pile of industrial sausage — chock full of wasteful nonsense, hilarious left-wing 1970s retreads, graft, payola, foolish wish-fulfillment, and pointless grandiosity. It’s not a bill; it’s a smash-and-grab. It stimulates nothing except contempt. So when President Obama assigned his gaffe-prone, meddlesome, garrulous, and irritating second the tiring, exhausting, doomed ice bath of a job — to supervise the unsupervisable, to clean up the toxic spill that is the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act — I have to admit, I started to like our interesting new president.

Obama was just doing the smart thing: handling the talent. That’s something we do out here in Hollywood, and it refers to managing the people you need — like actors, who are often insane or wicked or both — in as smoothly efficient a way possible. Gifts; flattery; fraudulent, made-up awards like the People’s Choice or the Golden Globes — these are the Hollywood equivalents of the ice bath: safe, non-pharmaceutical ways to tire out troublesome, unfireable people who have, or had, a certain usefulness.

 “Nobody messes with Joe,” Obama purred, and behind him, beaming, Nutty Joe threw back his head and laughed and nodded, as if to say, Yes, yes, I’m known as a tough character. This is the same Joe who had been in Congress for almost 40 years, with all of the hackery and go-alonging that entails. This is the same Joe who made so many odd comments and silly observations on the campaign trail that even Time magazine’s official courtesan to the Obama administration, Joe Klein, had to notice. 

Nobody messes with Joe. It’s always alarming when someone compliments you in a way that targets with laser-like precision the sweet spot of your vanity. It’s right up there with Have you lost weight? and You’re the only one who can really understand Excel as perfect examples of manipulative flattery. 

Nobody messes with Joe? Let me go out on a limb here: Everybody messes with Joe. But that’s what “Nobody messes with Joe” really means when you’re handling the talent. The chief difference between Vice President Joe Biden and a 19th-century lunatic (maybe, in fact, the only difference) is that it’s sadly against the law to pick up a sitting vice president and plunge him into icy water until his eyelids get heavy. But President Obama has done the next best thing: He has flattered a man deeply susceptible to flattery, saddled him with a job no one could possibly succeed at — indeed, one that his boss (Obama) and his boss’s bosses (Reid and Pelosi) don’t really care about at all — and in one elegant twist ensured that Vice President Joe Biden is going to be one exhausted little baby.

I can see it now: “I’d really like to be part of the team that crafts Iraq policy,” asks the vice president, who has been categorically wrong on Iraq policy for the past six years. “Um, how’s that stimulus-package waste stuff going, Joe?” responds the canny president. “Got the whole $800 billion sorted out?”

Meeting over. Not bad. Memo to self, in re: how to handle Biden: Inflate, then exhaust.

When Joe Biden heard those lovely, soothing words — Nobody messes with Joe — his head bobbed in violent agreement, his teeth flashed, and his face erupted into a wide, laughing grin. Nancy Pelosi, to his left, laughed uproariously too. In a moment, the entire chamber was rollicking with guffaws. Nobody messes with Joe.  Big laugh line. Poor Joe. He’s the only guy in town who can’t hear the icemaker.

In This Issue

Articles

Politics & Policy

Pumping Up Joe

Here’s how I handle a crying baby: I unwrap it a bit — babies always seem too tightly swaddled, in my opinion — and then I take it outside, into ...

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