Happiness is a thing called Joe

Barack Obama’s selection of Joe Biden as his running mate is underwhelming for many reasons, but it affords an opportunity to review a few of the moments that might have provided all the embarrassment a normal man would have needed to escape from public life. Michael Crowley profiled Senator Biden for the New Republic in October 2001, opening with a memorable scene:

It’s a bright early October morning on Capitol Hill. Joe Biden is bounding up the steps of the Russell Senate Office Building, wearing his trademark grin. As he makes for the door, he is met by a group of airline pilots and flight attendants looking vaguely heroic in their navy-blue uniforms and wing-shaped pins. A blandly handsome man in a pilot’s cap steps forward and asks Biden to help pass emergency benefits for laid-off airline workers. Biden nods as the men and women cluster around him with fawning smiles. Then he speaks. “I hope you will support my work on Amtrak as much as I have supported you,” he begins. (Biden rides Amtrak to work every day and is obsessed with the railroad.) “If not, I will screw you badly.”

A dozen faces fall in unison as Biden lectures on. “You’ve not been good to me. You’re also damn selfish. You better listen to me…” It goes on like this for a couple of minutes. Strangely, Biden keeps grinning–even fraternally slapping the stunned man’s shoulder a couple of times. When we finally head into the building, Biden’s communications director, Norm Kurz, turns to me. “What you just witnessed is classic Senator Biden.”

Crowley also pointed out one of Biden’s characteristic verbal tics, emphasizing the disparity between his jocular tone and his serious intent:

In an odd verbal tic, he routinely interrupts himself to offer the assurance that he’s “not being facetious.” He opened his May 17 tax cut speech by saying: “I find this the single most fascinating debate I have been involved in in 28 years. I sincerely do. It is not a joke. I am not being facetious.” Or when the anti-terrorism bill came up on CNN’s “Crossfire” last month: “In full disclosure, I wrote that bill. I’m not being facetious.” When “Crossfire” host Bill Press offered Biden the avuncular assurance that “it’s really a great bill,” Biden pressed on: “No. No. I’m not being facetious. I’m not being facetious when I say that.”

San Diego Union-Tribune blogger Chris Reed recalls Biden’s 1988 response in Claremont, New Hampshire to a question about his law school record from a man identified only as ”Frank.” Biden looked at his questioner and said: ”I think I have a much higher I.Q. than you do.”

Biden of course couldn’t leave it at that. He is not known for his concision or care with the facts. He added that he ”went to law school on a full academic scholarship — the only one in my class to have a full academic scholarship.” He also said that he ”ended up in the top half” of his class and won a prize in an international moot court competition. Biden still wasn’t done. In college, Biden said, he was ”the outstanding student in the political science department” and ”graduated with three degrees from college.”

Reed then turns to Biden’s subsequent statement on this exchange. At Syracuse College of Law, Biden graduated 76th in a class of 85. He acknowledged: ”I did not graduate in the top half of my class at law school and my recollection of this was inacurate.” Just a slip of memory.

As for receiving three degrees, Biden conceded: ”I graduated from the University of Delaware with a double major in history and political science. My reference to degrees at the Claremont event was intended to refer to these majors — I said ‘three’ and should have said ‘two.”’ His arithmetic was off.

As for his undergraduate preeminence in the political science department — well, that was somebody else. But one of his professors thought he fit the bill. ”With regard to my being the outstanding student in the political science department,” the statement went on, “my name was put up for that award by David Ingersoll, who is still at the University of Delaware.” Professor Ingersoll had it right!

As for his claim that he went to school on full academic scholarship: ”My recollection is — and I’d have to confirm this — but I don’t recall paying any money to go to law school.” Reed cites a Newsweek report that Biden had gone to Syracuse ”on half scholarship based on financial need.” About that moot court competition, however, Biden may have nailed it. Biden said he had won such a competition, with a partner, in Kingston, Ontario, on Dec. 12, 1967. So there.

The 1988 campaign also gave us Biden’s infamous appropriation of Neil Kinnock’s life — and his speech reflecting on it — as Biden’s own. An article by Walter Shapiro on the subject provided this helpful background:

During his first months at Syracuse University Law School, in 1965, Biden failed a course because he wrote a paper that used five pages from a published law-review article without quotation marks or a proper footnote. Since Biden was allowed to make up the course, the revelation was front-page news only because it kept the copycat contretemps alive.

Shapiro also speculated why Biden’s confession to plagiarizing Kinnock’s speech might not put the affair behind him. “With a rambling and disjointed opening statement,” Shapiro observed regarding Biden’s press confernece, “Biden failed to reap the benefits of public confession, even though he called himself ‘stupid’ and his actions ‘a mistake.’ Part of the problem is that he contradicted himself by also insisting that it was ‘ludicrous’ to attribute every political idea.”

Crowley’s TNR profile concludes with a striking example of Biden’s foreign policy sophistication. In the wake of 9/11, in a meeting with his staff, Biden experienced an epiphany:

Biden launches into a stream-of-consciousness monologue about what his [Senate Foreign Relations] committee should be doing, before he finally admits the obvious: “I’m groping here.” Then he hits on an idea: America needs to show the Arab world that we’re not bent on its destruction. “Seems to me this would be a good time to send, no strings attached, a check for $200 million to Iran,” Biden declares. He surveys the table with raised eyebrows, a How do ya like that? look on his face.

Perhaps we can agree that the man and the moment have met.

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