Joe Biden: Taking the Measure of A Great, Great Man


Quite interesting, completely well-done, and somewhat sickening profile of Vice President Joe Biden in the new Esquire. Esquire is a master of this sort of courtier encomium about politicians, and has been admirably bi-partisan about it, at least during the age of McCain.

I'll let a series of excerpts with asides tell the tale; the tale of a man; a man they call Joe Biden; a man who after long struggle finds himself in exactly the place he belongs, thanks to his strength of character and mental acuity. That this is considered the proper way for a serious magazine in America to think about and discuss Power says a sad lot about America.

The true artists of democracy are never cynical. They are what they are, full of the moment, and when they grow full to overflowing they make us quiver with that old impossible dream — that now is the time, that revelation is finally at hand, that we are about to crash into the end zone and steal home and unfurl all our great potential like the wings of angels. That's how it feels on the buses and planes this last headlong week before the election.

……But the truth is, he's always been hard to pigeonhole. No on busing, yes on civil rights. No on the first Gulf war, yes on the 2003 invasion of Iraq. No on partial-birth abortions, yes on stem cells. No on the surge but yes to support for Israel, yes on the 1994 Crime Bill ($10 billion for prisons, $13 billion for cops, sixty new death-penalty crimes), yes on a whole host of harsh drug laws — the federal asset-forfeiture law, the RAVE anti-Ecstasy act, the drug czar.

How do you summarize that?

Indeed, what a nimble and noble mind, drifting above ideology, thought, and sense to pick the positions that a small-state Democratic politician largely needed to pick to survive as a political hack. (I wonder if author John H. Richardson really means that those last two points are meant to be in opposition, to present him as an expansive dialectical mind? They are both signs of mostly mean-spirited control-freak pandering, and make Biden directly complicit in the ruination of tens of thousands of innocent lives. But he's so uncynical about it all!)

And dig this Biden-eye view of the historical moment when Quixote chose Sancho:

Biden flew to Minneapolis for a secret meeting with Obama. For three hours, they talked alone in Obama's hotel room. "We were very, very candid with one another," Biden says, "and the one thing I can tell you is we both said, 'This won't work unless we both agree in building a relationship that we'll be absolutely straightforward and candid.' "

At that point, Obama laughed. "I know you'll be candid," he said. "Are you prepared for me to be?"

"Absolutely," Biden answered.

Another point of agreement came when Biden told Obama he had no desire to be a "quasi-executive" like Dick Cheney. The country had had quite enough of that in the last eight years, thank you. "He made it very clear to Barack from the first time they spoke that he wasn't seeking any portfolio," Axelrod says. "All he wanted to do was be a valued counselor on the big decisions."…………

A few days later, Obama called for his answer.

"What do you think, Joe?" he asked.

"Yes," Biden said.

"Are you sure?"

They joked about it. Was the job too small? Was he too big?

Biden's response was unequivocal. "No. I know the role of a vice-president."

When they hung up, Obama called Axelrod. "He said, 'I'm going to go with Joe. They're all good, they all have virtues, but he's the best mix for me right now. And he'll be a good guy to have around in the next four or eight years.' "

If this is accurate as to the tenor and tone of the meetings and decisionmaking–which I completely doubt–than the lack of any apparent sense of irony, absurdity, and indeed, some intelligent cynicism, on the part of the two men taking on their current role actually kind of frightens me. These sound like men who really believe they can, and ought to, do all they intend–a scary, scary belief in a politician.

The rest of it gets even sillier–a couple of hundred words about Biden and his cute granddaughter–who wants to be president some day!–cooing over each other; the part intimating that if not for a completely innocent mistake about Neil Kinnock speech attribution that surely Biden would have been 41st president of the United States–but you kind of get the picture.

It is all so completely inside Biden's own head, so obviously exactly the way he wants to think about and present himself, including the way it deals with his defeats and foibles, that one has to respect the writer's skill as psycho-biographer. But ultimately, this article is a skilled and devoted act of a courtier, not a journalist, and the last sort of thing Americans need from their writers on politics.