The Democrats have the killer ticket for aught-eight. But just who Joe Biden and John Kerry might kill with their lethal tongues is not yet clear.
Who is more articulate than Joe Biden? Who brighter than John Kerry? With a rare capability to insult everyone at once, Biden-Kerry would wipe the convention clean. Nobody would attract media attention like the Delaware Punch and the French Connection.
Every time Joe and John unbutton their lips, the notebooks and cameras zoom in for another episode of “Can You Top This?” Joe and John are perpetually drenched in the “free media” so coveted by the consultants and campaign wiseheads.
Some of the wiseheads are grumbling that this hasn’t been a week to make benefit for the glorious U.S. Senate (as Borat might put it), with the honorable members applying sharp elbows to get to the floor first with resolutions demanding irresolution in the face of national peril. Joe Biden, who flaps his tongue faster than any senator since Hubert Humphrey but with none of the occasional substance of the man they called “Senator Motormouth,” blew off his thin presidential chances before he had even kicked away the starting block. John Warner, complaining that he had to do something to assuage “Vietnam guilt” to enable him to sleep and preen better, wrote the winning resolution abandoning the dog soldiers in Iraq. John Kerry blew off what was left of his Senate gravitas just by continuing to be himself.
Whether it’s Joe sneering at clerks at 7-Eleven for being new immigrants from India, or John sneering at the GIs for being dumb enough to get stuck in a miserable hovel in Iraq instead of being smart enough to windsurf above his own villa in France on a rich wife’s nickel, both men know how to slip on the ice and land on Page One. Joe, better than anyone else in the Senate, has learned that it’s not what you say, but how you say it, that’s the secret of making a pratfall.
When you start your day getting quoted saying something monumentally dumb, that Barack Obama is “the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” you can count on taking the pratfall on the Drudge Report and making a belly whopper on Page One, the evening newscasts, and every Internet blog between here and there. You can also count on pols cleverer than you rubbing your nose in it for the next 72 hours, or until one of your rivals does something even dumber.
“Being Joe,” as Obama described him, he spent the rest of the day setting himself up for the high-tech media lynching and subsequent round of groveling penitence. He apologized to every black face he could find, from the Rev. Jesse Jackson, who had never before been accused, even by a straggler from the Ku Klux Klan, of being inarticulate, to Al Sharpton, who for all his shady reputation is one of the sharpest wits in pulpit or politics. Jesse Jackson was his pointedly self-righteous self (“I don’t know whether it was an attempt to diminish what I had done in ‘88 or to say Barack is all style and no substance”), and Al Sharpton mocked him back: “I told him, I take a bath every day.” Joe even apologized to a porter on the Metroliner on his way home to Delaware, which itself had once suffered from a Biden gaffe. Trying to make the point that he would run well in the South, Joe once proudly reminded everyone that “Delaware was one of our slave states.”
Joe insists, no doubt accurately, that he meant neither slur nor slander of Barack Obama. Neither did Trent Lott, with his over-the-top birthday tribute to the late Strom Thurmond, mean to slur anyone but his artless remarks cost him his job as majority leader. You might think that senators, who are forever telling everyone who will listen (and people who try to avoid listening) what deep thinkers and artful speakers they all are, would be better spoken than to frame a compliment as an insult.
Joe was actually no harsher on Barack Obama than he was on Hillary Clinton and John Edwards in his critique of the Democratic field in his remarks to the interviewer from the New York Observer. But a man who can’t tame a wagging tongue will find the road to 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue to be one of bumps and grinds. It’s a killer.
Pruden on Politics appears Tuesday and Friday.