Slate France: Why you should care about Joe Biden

Slate France: Why you should care about Joe Biden

I have a post at Slate France today, about tonight’s Vice Presidential debate and about why despite efforts to dismiss him, or dismiss the role of the VP, Joe Biden matters.  Publié sur Slate France aujourd’hui, mon article sur le sujet des débats vice-présidentielle, dont le premier sera ce soir. Bien que les gens aiment écarter la position de VP, et surtout le souvent comique Biden, j’insiste qu’il est très important.

Cette semaine, les Démocrates ont néanmoins une chance de se racheter avec le débat vice-présidentiel qui oppose, ce jeudi 11 octobre, le grand-papa du parti et actuel vice-président, Joe Biden, à la nouvelle star républicaine Paul Ryan.

Habituellement, tout le monde se fiche de ce débat, sauf en 2008, quand les gens étaient fascinés par l’idée de voir comment Sarah Palin, dont on connaissait l’état dramatique d’impréparation, s’en sortirait face à Biden. C’est une erreur, car il y a des chances que l’on entende encore parler de l’un ou l’autre de ces types dans quatre ans.

Nous entendrons certainement encore parler de Ryan, qui est suffisamment jeune pour postuler à la présidence pendant les vingt prochaines années s’il le veut –et suscite, selon l’outil CNN Insights, dix fois plus de conversations sur Facebook que son homologue. Qui est pourtant, à 70 ans, loin d’être «fini», comme l’écrivait début septembre John Heilemann, journaliste politique chevronné du New York Magazine, qui pense qu’il pourrait se présenter en 2016 lui aussi, même si cela signifierait qu’il pourrait rester en poste jusqu’à 78 ans s’il l’emportait et était réélu.

Vous pouvez lire l’article entière ici.  For those who don’t speak French, I’ve included an English translation below the jump.

It’s debate time in America. Yes, I know, it was also debate time in America last week, when President Obama and Mitt Romney went head to head in Denver. Most people fell asleep – serious discussions of real policy issues will do that – or, if they were cheering for Obama, fell into hysterics when he lost.

This week, though, the Democrats have a chance to redeem themselves. It’s the Vice Presidential debate, starring the grand-daddy of the Democratic party and current VP Joe Biden, and hotshot Republican newcomer Paul Ryan. Usually, no one cares about the Vice Presidential debate (2008 was an exception, because people were fascinated to see how Sarah Palin, by that point known to be woefully unprepared, would do against Biden). But they should, because chances are, we’ll be hearing from one or both of these guys again in four years’ time.

We’ll almost certainly be hearing from Ryan again, who is young enough to run for President for the next twenty years if he wants to. And as for Biden, who is almost seventy years old, veteran political journalist John Heilemann of New York Magazine thinks he might run for President in 2016, too, even though he’d be in office until the age of 78 if he won.

Biden has a big mouth. And he has a tendency to stick his foot into that big mouth, rather often.

“Gaffe machine” is a term that sometimes gets thrown around when talking about the Vice President, because he really does have a gift for blurting out ill-advised words, phrases, or whole ideas, in public or on the record. In a recent New York Magazine profile, Heilemann laid out the list:

Just in his current job, he has made sport of [Supreme Court Chief Justice] John Roberts’s botched job in administering the oath of office to Obama (drawing the stink eye from the president); proclaimed in the midst of the swine-flu pandemic panic, “I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places right now”; referred to women lacrosse players as “gazelles,” to a Wisconsin custard-shop manager as a “smartass,” to a candidate for the House as a candidate for the Senate, to the Irish prime minister’s living mother as deceased, to the current century as the twentieth, to tea-party Republicans as “terrorists,” and to himself and Gabrielle Giffords [the Arizona Congressman who was shot in the head last year] as “both members of the Cracked Head Club”; made fun of Obama for his reliance on teleprompters; declared that “the president has a big stick”; and, the pièce de résistance, pronounced the passage of health-care reform “a big fucking deal.”

That’s a pretty impressive collection of brainfarts in just three-and-a-half years in office.

Since he was chosen as Barack Obama’s running mate in 2008, Biden’s approval ratings have been steadily fine. Not good, just fine: in May, 42% of Americans had a favourable view of him, and 45% had an unfavourable view. I’m in the favorable camp, especially when you compare Biden to the Republican Vice Presidential nominee, Congressman Paul Ryan. Would I rather our Vice President was less gaffe-prone, less distracting, less a target for ridicule and eye rolls? Absolutely. His most recent gaffe – he told a majority Black audience that anti-regulation Republicans want to “unshackle” Wall Street, and “put y’all back in chains” – was cringe-inducing, and coverage of it ate the news cycle for at least a day.

It makes you wonder what kind of gaffe he could commit during a debate, and in fact, those of us who play political drinking games think there are good odds he’ll say something that will make us spit out our drinks in surprise.

All that said, I like Joe Biden. I like that he’s a human being in addition to being a politician. I don’t particularly like it when he commits a gaffe, but I sometimes like what those gaffes reveal about him.

On last month’s anniversary of the September 11th attacks, Biden spoke at the crash site of United Flight 93. The plane was meant to hit the US Capitol building in Washington, DC, and instead crashed in a field in Pennsylvania after passengers attempted to regain control of the plane from the hijackers. Forty passengers died when Flight 93 went down.

Biden’s speech, which he gave in front of an audience made up in large part of the families of those passengers, was breathtaking. And that was partly because Biden knows exactly what it’s like to lose your family suddenly, tragically, and have to choose between shutting down or putting your life back together and moving on. When Biden was barely thirty, his wife and baby daughter died in a car accident that also nearly killed his two young sons. Biden had just been elected to the US Senate and despite the tragedy, he went to Washington and served thirty-six years there. He eventually remarried and had a daughter with his second wife, now the Second Lady. It’s a story that defies comprehension, writes David Kurtz, the Managing Editor of Talking Points Memo. “I know everyone says you do what you have to do. But that’s not really true. You don’t. You could curl up in the fetal position, if not literally then emotionally, and shrivel up,” Kurtz wrote after Biden’s speech last week. “I’m more certain that that’s what I would do than I am confident I would find a way to persevere. But Biden has been through it.” Kurtz is right; Biden has “seen hell and been back.” And when he spoke to the men and women who lost loved ones on United Flight 93, he knew what he was talking about:

My hope for you all is that as every year passes, the depth of your pain recedes and you find comfort, as I have, genuine comfort in recalling his smile, her laugh, their touch. And I hope you’re as certain as I am that she can see what a wonderful man her son has turned out to be, grown up to be; that he knows everything that your daughter has achieved, and that he can hear, and she can hear how her mom still talks about her, the day he scored the winning touchdown, how bright and beautiful she was on that graduation day, and know that he knows what a beautiful child the daughter he never got to see has turned out to be, and how much she reminds you of him. For I know you see your wife every time you see her smile on your child’s face. You remember your daughter every time you hear laughter coming from her brother’s lips. And you remember your husband every time your son just touches your hand.

Biden barely made it through the speech without tears, and tears are one of the things that endear him most to me. There are plenty of politicians who claim to feel strong emotions and plenty who pretend to do so (most of those few politicians are men, since women in politics can’t get away with such “feminine” behaviour). But Biden is one of the few whose emotions are genuine enough to result in public tears.

At this year’s Democratic National Convention, when his son Beau nominated him to once again be the party’s Vice Presidential nominee, Biden was visibly moved to tears, and took a few moments to collect himself. In a line of work where so much of what we see is feigned, exaggerated, and choreographed, Biden’s tears are a display of genuine emotion, and that is awfully refreshing. As Beau was introducing him to the screaming crowd, calling his father his hero, the Vice President appeared to be making a real effort not to cry. It didn’t work. He cried, and he cried real tears.

I suppose that’s why, as much as I groan when I hear about Biden’s gaffe of the week (it’s not really that frequent, even though it feels like it), I don’t actually mind them that much. Because they are, I think, just like his tears. They’re authentic. The A-word is popping up a lot these days, in part because Biden and Obama are up against Mitt Romney, a man who is often likened to a humanoid robot and who has a great deal of trouble sticking to just one position on any given issue. His authenticity is such that sometimes he is to humans what carob chips are to chocolate. But, as the President himself noted recently, “authentic” is “an overused word. And these days people practice being authentic.”

Joe Biden, on the other hand, seems to practice holding in his authenticity, and he frequently fails. It is inconvenient, but it is also somewhat inspiring: after four decades in Washington, Biden is still gaffe-happy, still letting the people and the press catch more than occasional, larger than advisable glimpses of his real personality.

So, if he runs in 2016, we can expect him to stick his foot in his mouth during his campaign, and if he wins, during his time in office. But imagine President Joseph Robinette (yes, really, Robinette) Biden Jr. as leader of the free world. He would do a great job, I have no doubt, but if his time as Vice President is anything to go by, he’d also be terribly entertaining. He’d go on the record calling the Senate majority leader “Senator Butthead.” He’d go to the UN and make a joke about Ban Ki Moon-ing someone. But he would be a historic choice. Because finally, and for the first time, America would have a president who hails from an underrepresented minority, one to which I belong: people who sometimes forget that you’re not supposed to drop the F-bomb while your mic is on.


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