Books & arts
The president-elect lacks a silver tongue and makes for poor TV. That may be an asset
During the Obama years, the Onion, a satirical online newspaper, carried a series of articles about a man it referred to as “Diamond Joe” and “The President of Vice”. It featured headlines like “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway” and “Biden Huddling With Closest Advisers on Whether to Spend 200 Bucks on Scorpions Tickets”.
The real Joe Biden, then vice-president, was a teetotaling and avuncular elder statesman, not a hair-metal-loving party animal. But the caricature of him as a regular guy drew on an element of truth. The now-president-elect, the son of a second-hand-car salesman, will be the first president since Ronald Reagan to lack an Ivy League degree, having finished near the bottom of his class at both the University of Delaware and Syracuse University’s law school.
And this is reflected in his use of language. In his speech, he is such an everyman as to defy parody. “Saturday Night Live”, which has featured impersonators for every president since Chevy Chase’s Gerald Ford, has yet to settle on a memorable Joe Biden. Forced to name Bidenisms, you might single out “malarkey”, his favoured disparagement for humbug, or “Here’s the deal”, to signal that he’s about to cut the malarkey. His favourite vocative is the folksy “Folks...”. In his first debate with Donald Trump, perhaps the most arresting thing he said was (to his constantly interrupting opponent) “Keep yappin’, man.”
He is, it is true, known for gaffes, though these are often overstated. Competing with Barack Obama for the Democratic nomination in 2007-08, Mr Biden praised his future boss as “the first mainstream African-American” to run for the presidency, “who is articulate and bright and clean”. (A gap before “who” made clear that he did not mean previous African- American candidates lacked cleanliness, just that they had been less “mainstream”.) While vice-president, he stood just a bit too close to a microphone as he said “This is a big fucking deal” into Mr Obama’s ear at the signing ceremony for their health-care reform. He once asked a wheelchair-bound state senator to stand and be recognised.
These bloopers give the impression of a mouth running faster than a brain. Mr Obama was famous for long, thoughtful pauses; not so Mr Biden. His campaign speeches, like his questions as a longtime Senate committee chairman, tended to ramble. He once mystifyingly called a young student who asked a tough question a “lying, dog-faced pony soldier”. Accused of corruption by a voter in Iowa, a bit of hotheaded “Diamond Joe” came out: he called the man a “damn liar” and challenged him to a press-up contest. And he mused that, were they in high school, he would “beat the hell” out of Mr Trump.