Everybody’s piling on Joe Biden, and it’s not quite fair. Of course, a presidential campaign, like life, is unfair. We have John F. Kennedy’s word on that. Maybe we should give ol’ Joe a break. He’s our only source of campaign humor, if not exactly the sharpest wit.
Even The Washington Post, now in full-battle dress to protect Democratic interests, thinks it’s OK to pick on ol’ Joe. Writes Post blogger Alexandra Petri: “He inspires the sort of discomfort one feels upon introducing one’s fiance to Grandpa after he has had a Scotch too many.”
One’s fiance should just grin and bear it. But one never knows, as Fats Waller famously asked, do one? A lot of Joe’s malapropisms, blurts and boners — the remarks the press, eager to display a foreign-language skill, inevitably calls “gaffes” — are just the sort of thing that endears Joe to a lot of other grandpas. The vice president, after all, is constitutionally harmless, like a wart in an embarrassing place on the body politic.
It’s certainly true, though, that Joe has overdrawn the unlimited checking account President Obama gave him on inauguration day. The president’s dilemma, and it is a true dilemma, is what to do about the second banana. He knows he couldn’t trust Joe at the funeral of the president of Volta, upper or lower, and foreign funerals are the default preserve of veeps. But he can’t indulge himself by bouncing Joe off the ticket, either.
The suggestion from some Republican worthies that the Democratic ticket could be cured of foot-in-mouth disease by recruiting Hillary Rodham Clinton is an indulgence of mischief, meant to needle the president. (As if on cue, the White House rose to the bait, firing back at Sarah Palin.) The last presidential candidate who blinked was George McGovern, who relieved Tom Eagleton in 1972 in the wake of revelations that Mr. Eagleton had once submitted to electric-shock treatments to clear the fog between his ears.
Mr. Obama’s defense of Joe this week, that he’s only guilty of something called “phrasing distractions,” was no doubt meant to be mild scolding, and Joe should button his lip when he feels the urge to spill and splurge. Joe has been around long enough to know that a politician, Democrat or Republican, liberal or conservative, never gets a pass to mention race without genuflecting first toward Al and Jesse, and maybe Maxine Waters, too.
“Slavery is nothing to joke about,” says Doug Wilder, the former Democratic governor of Virginia.
Joe just can’t quit talking about slavery, perhaps a reflection of Delaware’s curious Civil War history. Delaware flirted mildly with secession before its legislature voted unanimously to stay in the union, and it contributed troops to both Union and Confederate regiments. Delaware’s congressmen needled Abraham Lincoln mercilessly throughout the war. The Emancipation Proclamation didn’t apply to Delaware and the four northern slave states, and the legislature didn’t get around to freeing its slaves until it adopted the 13th Amendment eight months after Appomattox. Joe, a native Pennsylvanian, has continued the Delaware tradition of ambivalence (or at least inadvertence).
He once told “Fox News Sunday” that “my state was a slave state, my state is a border state.” And he curried South Carolina favor reminding an audience in Charleston that Delaware was “a slave state that fought beside the North. That’s only because we couldn’t figure out how to get to the South. There were a couple of states in the way.” Well, only Maryland, actually, but Joe’s point is clear enough.
Joe has been mostly harmless and nearly always entertaining, like Yogi Berra but without Yogi’s shrewd philosophical insights. He once told a Democratic caucus that “if we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there’s still a 30 percent chance we’re going to get it wrong.” Borrowing the essence of Teddy Roosevelt’s most famous remark, he assured skeptics of Mr. Obama that “I promise you, this president has a big stick.” He described Mr. Obama as “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”
Joe usually means well, even if he doesn’t show it. He’s not as smart as Paul Ryan, but he’ll help the Republican ticket, too. So a little compassion is in order. Rudolph W. Giuliani says Joe may not have the “mental capacity” to be president, but even if true he wouldn’t be the first prospective bumbler in chief in the office that John Nance Garner called “not worth a warm pitcher of spit.”
It’s important to keep first things in mind. “To err is human, to forgive divine,” as the 17th-century poet Alexander Pope reminds us. Or maybe the 20th-century philosopher Mae West said it better for our times: “To err is human, but it feels divine.”
• Wesley Pruden is editor emeritus of The Washington Times.