Well, nothing like having your life’s thesis eroded in a matter of months. I’ve devoted years of my life and owe the lion’s share of my four-figure fortune to one truism that I had studied to believe was unimpeachable: Our Vice Presidents don’t have a useful thing to say.
I have to admit that I was wary of Joe Biden’s selection as Barack Obama’s running mate. The man had been in Washington for nearly 36 years. He knew the game.
But then I remembered his highlight reel. The Indian convenience store joke. Barack Obama as the “clean, articulate” Negro, months before he called his running mate “Barack America.” And just days after his nomination telling the paraplegic Missouri State Senator to “stand up, Chuck, let ‘em see you!”
He had unlimited potential to be as bad as the job required, and then some. Sure, he had his moments of sense and clarity, but even a broken clock is right twice a day. And in his mid-60s, about to be promoted from a position voters had returned him to six times, he was no more likely to suddenly take up tact than he was mixed martial arts.
I don’t know what we’re going to do now. I mean, Squeaky Fromme is out, but she’s probably not going to want to complicate her life with this kind of drama again.
I felt fine for the first months of the Obama Administration when he was laughed at and marginalized. You could practically hear Obama grab his temples with thumb and middle finger and shake his head when his Vice President panicked a nation and sliced the already-hobbled travel industry’s hamstring by declaring that as long as there’s swine flu he wouldn’t encourage anyone to get on a plane, or when he conjectured about FDR’s televised response to the stock market crash–in 1929, before television, and before FDR was President.
Obama had himself and his entire staff to put the Administration’s best foot forward. It was his Vice President’s job to regularly put a bullet in the other one. That was his place, and his expectation.
It was both disappointing and alarming then when he insisted on loudly expressing his opinions in an Obama Administration that enthusiastically encourages their Vice President to express his opinions. That’s what almost every President asks of his Vice President, with the same sincerity that the rest of us commonly deploy, “Let’s have dinner sometime” or “Let’s stay in touch.”
I should have known, though. For all his caricatured buffoonery, Joe Biden has always been a force of nature, for good or ill, and the kind of jocular duffer who will get a couple of scotches in him and let you have it, with the smile never leaving his face.
Ask Rudy Giuliani. The GOP’s early anointed for 2008, “America’s Mayor” was tagged and bagged by Super Tuesday. For all the long-winded rhetoric his opponents pummeled him with, the most lacerating, reductive, and memorable broadside came from the other party, when Biden said, “There’s only three things he mentions in a sentence—a noun, a verb, and 9/11.” The Giuliani campaign was notably less tumescent after that rabbit punch.
It was never realistic to expect that Biden was going to be an ineffective clown for the administration. In fact, he’s turned out to be a very effective clown. While the Obama team is timidly swinging at the health care piñata and letting themselves stumble into the tried-and-true superpower strategy of an entrenched war in Afghanistan, Biden isn’t bashful about asking anyone why their baby is ugly or about that unpleasant odor they brought into the room with them.
And Newsweek suggests that the Vice President is more disciplined than he appears and is asking the difficult questions that Obama won’t ask for fear of exposing his own position.
Biden exudes what we all aspire to with age and experience: The moral authority and self-assuredness to scold, threaten, and condescend when necessary, always with a signature smile and a big slap on the back.
All useful skills, of course, but Biden may be at his most effective wrestling that snarling Cthulhu that is the U.S. Congress, and especially the Senate, where Biden served for longer than most Americans have been alive.
Some compare his efforts to those of Lyndon Baines Johnson when he was JFK’s Vice President. Johnson, though, found himself sawed off at the knees when he assumed the Vice Presidency. He had been the most powerful Senate Majority Leader in history—his arm-twisting was the stuff of legend; he could corner you in a hallway or the cloakroom and, before you realized what happened, you’d promised to vote for his bill to have Vice President Nixon dragged onto the floor of the Senate and pelted for two hours with rotting melons.
When he assumed the Vice Presidency, though, he attempted to preside over the Senate with the same brusque authority he’d wielded as Majority Leader, and the Senate bucked. From that point forward, Johnson was sulky and sullen (Kennedy complained about LBJ’s “damn long face” when he came to meetings), and an even more unhappy Texan to hold the office than the one who would liken it to a “warm bucket of piss.”
Biden’s liaison role is more akin to that of McKinley’s first VP, Garret Augustus Hobart. While lacking LBJ’s and Biden’s legislative experience, Hobart’s easy-going charm and bonhomie worked wonders with men from both sides of the aisle. His weekday afternoon “smokers” were the stuff of legend in Washington and no small portion of McKinley’s legislation was passed by lawmakers entertained, fed well, and liquored up at the hands of Gus Hobart.
That might be Biden’s biggest gift to the President if he’s able to meaningfully communicate with the reptilian likes of David Vitter, Mitch McConnell, James Inhofe, and Richard Shelby.
In any event, Biden is taking what Hobart, Walter Mondale, Al Gore and, in his own way, Dick Cheney started in rendering the Vice Presidency meaningful. As an American, I know that’s a very good thing for our country.
As a Vice Presidential historian, it depresses the hell out of me.
As long as he continues dedicating train tunnels as automobile tunnels and misidentifying Supreme Court justices, though, I suppose there’s at least a shred of hope that Veeps won’t be an anachronism by the time our next printing goes to press.