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January 31, 2007

Bye Bye Biden

I know all the other blogs have it, but I don't think you can repost Joe Biden's description of Barack Obama enough:

“I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

The first. What's about Oprah? Or Harold Ford? Or, uh, Martin Luther King Jr.?

Defend Biden how you will, ascribe the most generous meaning to his words possible, assume it's just a genuine compliment with unfortunate resonances. This guy's not a rookie. He's not an amateur. He's not new to political campaigns. If, after approximately 112 years in the political spotlight, he's still making gaffes like this one, then that alone eviscerates the rationale for his candidacy.

Update: Josh Marshall writes:

I think at this point you have to say that Biden suffers from what one might with real generosity call chronic racial grandpaism. That is to say, the penchant for making comments that are not only racially offensive but also extremely silly and the sort of things that are sometimes excused or at least passed over from men, say, over 80 on the reasoning that they're from a different era and why get into it. Actually, the clock has probably even run out on that excuse when you figure that a man who is 80 today was forty in 1966. But however that may be, excuses that fly in the retirement community or family reunions just doesn't cut it in a man who aspires to the presidency.

January 31, 2007 in Election 2008 | Permalink


Oh well... I'm sure he meant "first African American" in the best, most possible way. Di we really think Biden was going to work out? Seriously? :)

Posted by: weboy | Jan 31, 2007 12:21:17 PM

I made a similar comment at the Carpetbagger Report, but it's relevant here too: “Clean” could easily be just an unfortunate, reflexive choice of words. Nice and bright and clean — short, vapid, positive adjectives. An instance of bad speaking, but neither a demonstration of ill will nor of true stupidity. And the same for “first” — how many blacks have been in the Senate, three? He's obviously not the first, but he is still pretty exceptional.

However, that’s just playing Devil’s Advocate. “Articulate,” which I didn't notice on a first read of quote, looks to me like Biden really, really wants to shoot himself in the foot, so who am I to argue.

Posted by: Cyrus | Jan 31, 2007 12:26:10 PM

Or, heck, Frederick Douglass?
Articulate (i.e. to the white majority)? Check.
Bright? Check.
Clean? Check.
Nice-looking? Check.

(Storybook? Check.)

Posted by: Warren Terra | Jan 31, 2007 12:30:17 PM

No disrespect whatsoever, Ezra, but I think the people who are writing about this aren't being charitable enough to Biden. I'm not a Biden booster, but my reading of his remarks in the context of the interview is that he was referring to presidential contenders (thus excluding Oprah, Harold Ford, and MLK). By "mainstream," he's referring to African-Americans with widespread approval among people of all races (thus excluding, I suspect, Al Sharpton and Jesse Jackson, though, as Atrios notes, with Jackson it might be debatable). There's also the punctuation possibility, as Josh Marshall's correspondents note.

The first person to pick up the phone and call Jason Horowitz -- who, I think, didn't interpret the remarks as quite as derogatory as others have, or else he would've given them more prominent play -- can settle this.

I'm glad, though, that you didn't jump on the "clean" bit like other people who should know better. By "clean," it seems clear to me he's talking about someone without any scandals in his past, not remarking on Obama's physical cleanliness. Even Biden's not dumb enough to say something like that.

Under other circumstances, a lot of the people writing about this would bemoan how difficult it is for people to run for President without their words (maybe) being taken out of context, overscrutinized, and so forth. Pronouncing the demise of his candidacy may be the accurate political forecast, but I'm not sure it's the correct result, and, by being a bit less eager to read Biden's remarks in the worst possible ways, the people writing posts like these could potentially help head off that incorrect result.

Posted by: Ankush | Jan 31, 2007 12:37:39 PM

I assume "candidate" should have been in that sentence, but it's politically tone-deaf at the very least and yet another instance of "he's so articulate!" discrimination at worst.

Posted by: Nicholas Beaudrot | Jan 31, 2007 12:58:36 PM

I agree with Ankush's analysis. I read "the first mainstream African-American" as distinguishing him from actual past Presidential candidates, ie. Shirley Chisholm and Al Sharpton.

Jesse Jackson had some mainstream appeal, but no one, himself included, considered his campaign platforms mainstream at the time.

Posted by: Headline Junky | Jan 31, 2007 1:02:16 PM

P.S. Yes to politically tone deaf, and yes to Biden's a dinosaur who's been fossilized in the Senate and should remain there until archaeologists deem him ready for excavation.

Posted by: Headline Junky | Jan 31, 2007 1:04:55 PM

Biden doesn't deserve any charity for this. He's a US Senator! As Ezra points out, he has been in the public eye since he first criticized the Louisiana Purchase.

There is a huge difference between over-analyizing Hillary's words from a few days ago and recognizing that Biden, whatever his beliefs, just said something incredibly stupid.

Further, whether Biden was referring to Black presidential candidates solely or not, what he said was derogatory. He's using Obama's race to belittle him: "It's not that Obama is all that great, it's just that he's the first African-American who meets these few extremely basic requirements for a serious presidential run." Meaning, of course, that if Obama was fully Caucasian, nobody would pay any attention to him, because the standards for White people are higher.

Screw Biden. All he's really been good for for a while is a vote for Harry Reid. He needs a good primary challenger.

Posted by: Stephen | Jan 31, 2007 1:08:13 PM

Nicholas (Nick?):

I agree it would've been clearer if he had said "candidate," but assuming the context of the Obama remarks in the Observer piece track how the comments came up in the actual interview -- an eminently fair assumption, I think -- then the word "candidate" wasn't necessary. He was talking about Edwards, Clinton, and Obama -- all candidates.

As to the "articulate" thing, I (honestly) appreciate your sensitivity to what are often covert, perhaps unconscious forms of discrimination in the way that people use language when they talk about African-Americans. But come on: EVERYONE talks about how well Obama speaks, going back to his 2004 DNC address. It's not necessarily racist or otherwise offensive to say Obama is "articulate"; in this instance, it happens to be the case that he has a reputation for being an excellent public speaker, regardless of race.

Posted by: Ankush | Jan 31, 2007 1:11:51 PM

Sorry, peeps but Jackson and Chisholm WERE mainstream candidates. Rep Chisholm was re-elected to Congress multiple times and garnered tons of press coverage when she entered the presidential race. Jackson has gotten more people registered to vote than Biden has in his decades in the Senate. And I'd rather listen to Al Sharpton talk about the weather than get my ears assaulted by Biden's moronic blathering on the Sunday talk fests.

Posted by: CParis | Jan 31, 2007 1:24:27 PM

If you want to examine the index case of racial grandpaism, look up the collected works of "Edinburgh, Duke of". Is it incriminating for me to say they're hilarious?

Posted by: Marshall | Jan 31, 2007 1:29:39 PM

If indeed Biden drops out, then lucky for us.

He should, but then again, he do a lot of things.

Posted by: ice weasel | Jan 31, 2007 1:33:56 PM

I'm sure it just came to Biden while he was shaving.

Posted by: ChristianPinko | Jan 31, 2007 1:54:49 PM

Regardless of context and commas, Biden used the word "articulate" to describe Obama. I thought the racial implications of that word were common knowledge, by now.

Posted by: PapaJijo | Jan 31, 2007 1:59:48 PM

Honestly, at 12 comments and counting, I think this may already be beaten to death; but I just have to add that there's just no way to construe Biden's comment in a positive way - it's patronizing, backhanded and more than a little dismissive of all the courageous men and women who've made the path that Obama now walks down. Obama is not a "first" unless and until he's elected President - and that's including the current Senate seat he holds (which was held by Carol Mosely Braun, herself a Presidential candidate in the past). That he's not "first" is what's so positive, I'd argue, about his run - he's a part of, a next step, a further piece in the puzzle. Biden just gave away the black vote. And that, really, should be that.

Posted by: weboy | Jan 31, 2007 2:03:07 PM

I have to say--I read the quote and thought it was obvious that Biden meant "the first mainstream African-American [Presidential candidate]".

I would consider that a fair statement.

Posted by: SamChevre | Jan 31, 2007 2:08:08 PM

I'll throw my hat in with the "it was almost certainly not intended as the insult people are taking it as, but was absolutely a shockingly dumb way to phrase it" crowd. Will it end Biden's presidential run? Probably, not that it had much chance anyway. Should it? Tough to say, though as I said Biden has no business in the race to begin with.

Posted by: Ben | Jan 31, 2007 2:14:05 PM

Huh, I see "articulate" has already been discussed quite a bit today. I should reading blogs earlier in the morning.

Posted by: PapaJijo | Jan 31, 2007 2:21:55 PM

I agree with Ankush. I also agree with others that Biden should have been more careful, that these comments will cause him more grief than good, and that he could have made similar points with different words and accomplished his goals.

I disagree on one point with Stephen, that the reference to race should be taken as implying that we have higher standards for whites. We've had lots of articulate, mainstream white candidates, but to date (despite what CPairis says about folks like Chisolm being "mainstream," and what weboy says about Mosely Braun being a similar case), we haven't had a significant black candidate with those qualities, certainly not in such copious degree. He is the first, and that he's black is important. I agree with Stephen that Biden intended to imply that if Obama were white it wouldn't be such a big deal, and I think Biden is probably right about that. He's discounting Obama, as Stephen says, but not because we have higher standards for whites, rather because in applying the same standards he wouldn't be the big story he is.

On the merits of Biden's criticisms of Obama and the other candidates, I think he makes some good points about their Iraq proposals, which was his focus. They don't seem realistic to me at all. Popular, but not realistic. Biden's own plan at least takes into account the real problems in Iraq. Unfortunately, his plan doesn't seem highly realistic either. It will interesting to see how his presence in the race, assuming it persists, will affect the Iraq issue. Candidates who all hold the same views will give each other a pass on that, but Biden won't.

Posted by: Sanpete | Jan 31, 2007 3:00:11 PM

I wonder if an articulate and bright Bush will ever run for President?

Posted by: apm | Jan 31, 2007 3:42:46 PM

"I think the people who are writing about this aren't being charitable enough to Biden."

He's running for president (or was). That's not an office they hand out as a matter of charity.

The point is, even if he meant well, and just misspoke, he's just demonstrated that he lacks the competence to be president.

Posted by: rea | Jan 31, 2007 4:04:47 PM

Listen to the actual audio:


via TPM. Dumb choice of words.

Posted by: John I | Jan 31, 2007 4:14:50 PM

I wonder if an articulate and bright Bush will ever run for President?

This would necessitate the actual existence of such a creature, so no.

Posted by: litbrit | Jan 31, 2007 4:49:07 PM

It does get annoying, though, that the PC police comes out in force against a statement that certainly wasn't intended to be offensive, probably didn't reflect underlying carelessness about RACIAL issues, and only reflected carelessness about WORDS if you wanted to get offended or are so paranoid about Democrats blowing the presidency again that you're willing to jettison someone at the first sign of a flaw.

When I read it, I took it to mean what he probably meant it. This is the first African American presidential candidate who has a real chance of winning. Sharpton is neither clean, nor nice looking, nor mainstream. I would argue that outside of certain liberal circles, Jesse Jackson is not mainstream, either. Has he ever been elected to anything? Can you be a mainstream political candidate for President if you've never held elected office?

Whatever, Biden is undesirable for plenty of other reasons, and if this puts the nail in the coffin, so be it, but people really need to stop calling things that aren't even offensive "gaffes", because they're afraid that other people might find them offensive by reading way too much into it. Isn't this the game the Republicans have been playing with Democrats for decades? Why are we helping them play it?

Posted by: spike | Jan 31, 2007 5:12:55 PM

CParis, I guess I should clarify what I mean by mainstream. Yes, both Chisholm and Jackson got mainstream media coverage. But their campaign platforms were pretty far out of the mainstream. That's why I was a big Jesse Jackson supporter, despite his anti-Semitic gaffes which make Biden's comment look statesmanlike.

As for Chisholm being a meltiple term congressperson, the same is true of Dennis Kucinich, but I don't think anyone would make the case that he's a mainstream candidate.

Posted by: Headline Junky | Jan 31, 2007 5:47:02 PM

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