It should have been a big week for Joe Biden and it was—for the wrong reasons.
The vice president was credited with smoothing the way to Arlen Specter’s conversion when the Pennsylvania senator fell off his elephant on the road to the Pennsylvania GOP primary. Sitting side by side on the Acela train speeding between Washington and Wilmington—next stop, Specter’s Philadelphia—and talking repeatedly by phone, Biden persuaded the all but excommunicated Republican that he could find sanctuary in the Democratic Party.
Biden’s week should have concluded with the focus on that political tour de train. Instead, the cable chatter and YouTube hits wallowed in his tongue-tripping on the “Today” show, where he said that because of the possible flu pandemic, he was advising his family to avoid confined spaces like commercial airplanes and subways.
Anyone who knows Biden has a pretty good idea of how this happened. Matt Lauer asked him if Americans should stop traveling to Mexico. The official advice was to postpone nonessential trips there. Instead, Biden, in full foreign-policy mode, offered up an answer that wouldn’t feed xenophobia by singling out Mexico. Whatever his motive, his blooper was easily recognized as such, at worst tweaking public apprehension across the country.
Although the statement was quickly corrected, the official clarification—that Biden had merely advised family members to stay off public transportation if they were sick—was transparently incredible. The explanation was also plainly at odds with the president’s own instinct, which Biden generally shares, to admit mistakes. (It’s also something that tends to sit well with the public; JFK soared to his highest approval rating when he took responsibility for a far graver blunder at the Bay of Pigs.)
What was lost in the Biden-battering was any sense of perspective. What will matter more next week, next summer, or in the annals of the Obama administration—Biden’s slip of the tongue or his deftness in facilitating Specter’s conversion? Yet the media has a prefabricated box—labeled “gaffe machine”—into which it insists on forcing the vice president.
The tendency to stereotype knows no partisan boundaries. The Democratic grandee Clark Clifford famously dismissed Ronald Reagan as “an amiable dunce.” Similarly, a network correspondent (who’s no liberal) told me in 1984 that Reagan was “in way over his head.” The box didn’t quite fit the man who subsequently reformed the tax code and made peace with Gorbachev. Likewise, John Kerry had his box—“flip-flopper”—not because of what he did, but because he artlessly explained how he voted “for” an $87 billion Iraq War appropriation, which raised taxes on the wealthy, before he voted “against” one that did not. And, of course, Al Gore was a “serial exaggerator” for claiming he had invented the Internet. (Except that he said no such thing.)
The press can’t resist the temptation to stereotype, and today’s Republicans, with little else to say, have embraced the tactic reflexively. Thus they derided Barack Obama as a “celebrity” lightweight who substantively wouldn’t amount to much in the White House. Oops. Now Biden is the favorite target. Karl Rove, who should be able to recognize a lie when he sees one, called the vice president a “liar” after Biden recounted an Oval Office conversation with then-President Bush. When Bush told him, “I’m a leader,” Biden said he responded: “Mr. President, turn around and look behind you. No one is following.”
How could Rove so adamantly assert that this never happened? He may have been Bush’s brain, but was he Bush’s shadow, too, present at every meeting (even those too dark for shadows)?
It’s true that loose lips can launch media blips. But the easy clichés of reductionist journalism distort and devalue our public life—and the truth itself. So in fairness to Biden, it’s worth noting that he is an authentic person, not Sanforized, and a vice president who’s already proved his worth.
Even before Arlen Specter switched, Biden was a key player in persuading Specter and his two moderate Republican colleagues, Olympia Snowe and Susan Collins, to break the GOP filibuster and pass the $787 billion economic recovery package. He’s leading the Middle Class Task Force that’s listening to Americans in hearings around the nation, focusing on issues like green jobs and college affordability, and shaping the administration’s agenda for the next chapter of change. He’s a constant, critical influence in forging a new foreign policy to restore America’s standing in the world. He was a realistic voice on Afghanistan, questioning the dangers of overcommitment and resisting the siren song of re-creating that country as a model democracy in our image. The President’s decision to scale back our objectives there is partially a tribute to Biden’s advice.
Biden’s verbal slips won’t sink ships—nor will they trick us into a fraudulent war or compromise our values by launching a regime of torture. But his experience and judgment will continue to pay dividends. As the former chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee—who was on the committee for the confirmation of every sitting Supreme Court Justice but one—he’ll be an important force in the selection and confirmation of the next justice.
Biden is irrepressible; at some point, he’ll say something off-key again. I suspect the president weighs these occasional outbursts against Biden’s considerable contributions not only to the nation but to Obama’s own political fortunes. Biden helped win over blue collar voters and made a real difference in carrying Pennsylvania and Ohio.
It would be nice if the media could muster similarly mature assessments. The press endlessly obsessed over Al Gore’s sighs in the first presidential debate of the 2000 election, helping George W. Bush get enough votes to plausibly purloin the prize. Whose “gaffe” was more consequential—Gore’s or the press’s? So let’s stop squeezing Joe Biden into a one-dimensional box. The occasional Bidenism may land him in lukewarm water. But we ought to judge him for who he is and what he actually does. When Senate Republicans look across the aisle at Democrat Arlen Specter, I’m sure they understand exactly what I mean.