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).