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Second Thoughts

The surprising non-embarrassment that is Joe Biden.

There are two Democrats running at the top of the ticket this year, and only one of them is President Barack Obama. When Joe Biden’s name first came up, in 2008, as a possible running mate, I told everyone I knew that it would never happen. When Obama did choose Biden, I braced myself for disaster. But Biden turned out to be the right guy for the job. People don’t appreciate what a surprising outcome this is.

My reasoning back in 2008 was grounded in observable fact. Biden’s 1988 presidential campaign had collapsed after it was revealed that his seemingly heartfelt testimonial about being first in his family to go to college had been lifted from a speech by the British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. The personal nature of the subject matter made Biden look like a phony, and, soon after, it came out that Biden had also gotten busted for plagiarism when he was a law student.

Biden returned to the Senate and, as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, presided over the confirmation hearings for Clarence Thomas. That Thomas was confirmed in spite of his shaky legal qualifications and the persuasive allegations that he’d subjected his employee Anita Hill to sexual harassment (while heading the federal agency that investigates such allegations) must be judged, at least in part, as the fault of Biden himself. Fearful of being branded a racist and squeamish about probing Thomas’s personal life, Biden ended up with the worst of both worlds: The hearings became a media circus and Thomas carried into the Court a newly acquired bitterness about liberals that probably pushed him further to the right.

Biden’s subsequent stewardship of the Senate Committee on Foreign Relations restored his reputation by playing to his strengths as a practical-minded coalition-builder who did his homework. He played a key role in persuading President Bill Clinton to intervene in the Balkans conflict, and he urged President George W. Bush, early in the Iraq war, to effectively partition the country into Sunni, Shiite, and Kurdish territories, a creative solution that may yet prove the only way to resolve that country’s political divisions.

By 2007, Biden’s rehabilitation was so complete that a presidential run once again seemed plausible. He was certainly more experienced than John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, or Barack Obama. But, on the very day he announced his candidacy, Biden was quoted in The New York Observer describing Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” He never really recovered from this disastrous start. After staking his candidacy on the Iowa caucus, Biden came in fifth and departed the race.

Obama chose Biden because his blue-collar background was thought helpful to reach the white working class and because his foreign policy background was thought helpful to shore up Obama’s relative lack of experience in that area. Weighing heavily against these factors was that Biden could be counted on to say foolish things on a regular basis. About that part, I was right.

During the 2008 fall campaign, Biden wandered off-message repeatedly, opposing, for instance, clean-coal technology and the AIG bailout, both of which Obama ultimately supported. In an interview with Katie Couric, Biden said, “When the stock market crashed, Franklin Roosevelt got on the television”—even though in 1929, the president was Herbert Hoover and the mass medium in use was radio. At an Ohio appearance, Biden spoke of “a three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S.” Pretty soon, conservatives were complaining that the press was imposing a double standard. Whenever Republican vice presidential nominee Sarah Palin said something stupid, it was major news; whenever Biden said something stupid, it got much less play.

After Biden became vice president, the verbal missteps kept coming. The day after Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens administered the oath of office to him, Biden called him “Justice Stewart,” confusing him with Potter Stewart, who had died more than 20 years earlier. Later in 2009, while the Obama administration was trying to take precautions about the H1N1 virus without spreading panic, Biden blurted out on NBC’s “Today,” “I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places right now,” and mentioned specifically “a confined aircraft.” Again, conservatives cried foul. Former Vice President Dan Quayle, they said, would never live down his insistence at a spelling bee that “potato” had an “e” at the end. But Biden could say all sorts of dumb things and get off scot-free.

Why were Palin and Quayle mocked when Biden is not? The knock on Palin, who had no national political experience, was that she was too ignorant of public affairs to be vice president. Biden is obviously knowledgeable; he could hardly fail to be after serving 36 years in the Senate. The knock on Quayle derived mainly from his comic inability to master the mother tongue (mangling, for instance, the United Negro College Fund’s slogan, “A mind is a terrible thing to waste,” into “What a waste it is to lose one’s mind. Or not to have a mind is being very wasteful”). Biden is plain-spoken—sometimes to a fault.

According to Jonathan Alter’s The Promise: President Obama, Year One, Obama experienced buyer’s remorse after choosing Biden but changed his mind six months after the election and started giving him a major role in foreign policy. Domestically, he’s had a lot of say on budget matters. Although Biden is known to have strong opinions (he’s pushed aggressively for troop withdrawal in Afghanistan), his chief role is as intermediary with foreign leaders and members of Congress. The role of diplomat is an unexpected one for someone whose major fault is not knowing when to keep his mouth shut. But, according to Alter, the qualities that make Biden look, from afar, “like a windy, gaffe-prone glad-hander” make him seem, to other politicians, like “an irrepressible Labrador.” Biden is not a stupid man. He’s a smart man who often says stupid things. When you know him, apparently, you don’t feel inclined to hold that against him.

Perhaps Biden’s greatest asset as vice president is that his liabilities are so different from those of his predecessor. A secretive man who obtained way too much power, Cheney always said precisely what he meant to. Biden, by contrast, is gregarious, undisciplined, often indiscreet, and plainly subordinate to his commander-in-chief. Maybe America sees this change as too refreshing to find fault. 

Timothy Noah is a senior editor at The New Republic. This article appeared in the April 5, 2012 of the magazine.