Barack Obama is finally ready for the dreaded 3 a.m. telephone call. Now he can answer it and hand the phone to Joe Biden.
By the time Joe hands it back - after spinning a tale to Vladimir Putin or Mahmoud Ahmadinejad about who said what to whom, the crisis will be over. (One way or the other.) Joe starts talking and figures he’ll eventually think of something to say. Sometimes he does, and often wishes he hadn’t.
The early arrivals in Denver are having fun recycling the rich trove of Bidenisms. Joe’s the most garrulous member of the U.S. Senate, which is no small distinction. He was once timed taking eight minutes to ask an uncomplicated question of a witness that needed only a simple “yes” or “no.” The Gaffe Patrol is ready for him.
His most often recycled “gaffes” are about race, naturally, the media’s reigning obsession in this campaign. No. 1 “gaffe” was Joe’s describing Barack Obama as “articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” Which he is, of course, but Joe forgot which century we’re in and that such an intended compliment is almost as egregious as telling a beautiful woman she’s “beautiful.” Mr. Obama might not have been amused, but he wasn’t offended. Joe escaped with a full grovel.
The commentariat was almost as offended by Joe’s reassurance to Southern Democrats that they shouldn’t take him for the Northeastern liberal wimp that some people think when they think Democrat. “You don’t know my state,” Joe said. “My state was a slave state. My state is a border state. My state is anything but a Northeastern liberal state.” The subtext was not necessarily that Joe yearns for a return to slavery, just that Southerners shouldn’t write him off as a Yankee milkleg. If Southern Democrats weren’t offended, who else had a right to be?
Joe elaborated on his down-home theme four months later in South Carolina, with an apology in behalf of Delaware. “Delaware fought beside the North only because we couldn’t figure out how to get to the South. There were a couple of states in the way.” Actually, there was only one, Maryland, and as blue as Maryland has become most any Marylander of that day would have been happy to give anyone a ride to Virginia to join Stonewall and Marse Robert. But geography and history are as ancient Greek to the Ivy-educated worthies of press and tube, who so disdain the past that they can rarely identify all four grandparents. You might have thought Joe was applying for membership in the Sons of Confederate Veterans.
All this Gaffe Patrolling is unfair to the man who would be Barack Obama’s vice president. Joe’s not a bad sort, and if he sometimes forgets to engage his brain before he turns on his mouth, that only makes him endearing. Besides, he’s well within the Democratic tradition. Think Hubert Humphrey with not as much to say. Newspaper columnists, on the other hand, usually get to go over their remarks once or twice (or thrice). Joe’s a blogger without benefit of Internet.
The party tradition of exuberance will get a test when the Democratic National Convention opens Monday a century to the year since William Jennings Bryan was nominated in Denver for a third time, 12 years after he set a Chicago convention on fire with his Cross of Gold oration (… “you shall not press down upon the brow of labor this crown of thorns, you shall not crucify mankind on a cross of gold.” Barack Obama’s most memorable lines, about wanting to be “a citizen of the world,” or that he’s “the man we have been waiting for,” is pretty mild stuff. Near beer, not 40-proof moonshine.
Enter Joe Biden, from whom the Obama campaign has extracted solemn promises to keep his tongue under tight control. Giddy with his new celebrity, Joe means to be the greatest bare-knuckle brawler since John L. Sullivan went 75 rounds with Jake Kilrain in 105-degree heat in Richburg, Miss., in 1889. We haven’t seen the second banana so excited since Dan Quayle jumped on a fire truck for a ride down Bourbon Street when he was chosen by George H.W. Bush in New Orleans in 1988.
Political conventions, as H.L. Mencken observed, fall somewhere between a hanging and a revival meeting. They’re somewhere between a suspended sentence and evensong now, but this is No. 16 for me, and I wouldn’t miss the party.