I have an extraordinary amount of admiration for Joe Biden. He is, in so many ways, everything that is good and right about politics in the United States. The given Biden narrative is that he’s gaffe-prone — that he tends to wander off message, sometimes into dangerous territory. But it seems to me that if that is true, it’s a problem not with our Vice President, but with a political and media establishment who don’t know what to do with people who are sincere. Because that’s really Joe Biden’s strength: sincerity.
Just to offer a couple of examples: in 2010, at the signing ceremony for the Affordable Care Act, Biden turns to President Obama and he says — loudly enough for the microphones to pick up — this is a big fucking deal! And in 2012 — just a couple of weeks ago — he goes on Meet the Press and gets ahead of the President on gay marriage, saying that he was “absolutely comfortable” with men marrying men and women marrying women.
Both of these incidents were hailed as gaffes of the highest order — the first because Biden was less politic and more blunt than he might have been when people were watching, and the second because he broke ranks with his boss and put himself in a position where he was driving the narrative (as the media was so fond of putting it). But neither of these were gaffes in the sense that Biden misspoke or mischaracterized the facts, his positions, those of the administration, or those of his opponents. Instead, they were gaffes because Biden spoke from a place of conviction, plainly and straightforwardly, without a thought for how the pundits would twist it apart.
He was, in both cases, sincere.
At any rate, this is all by way of preamble for talking about Joe Biden’s most recent bout of sincerity. Last Friday (May 25th — right before Memorial Day), he addressed the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) seminar and his remarks were extraordinary. They were unprecedented, as Rachel Maddow put it, for any President or Vice President — pretty much ever. Maddow characterized them as being off script. But I don’t actually think that’s accurate. They were absolutely on script for Biden — delivered with all his conviction and courage — and absolutely pitch perfect for a room full of veterans and their family members who were full up on sympathetic words, but lacking in sincere ones.
Here, watch the video (sorry about the ad!). Then we’ll talk.
What’s so striking to me about Biden’s remarks is that he’s upfront about saying that he doesn’t know how his audience feels. That nobody can know how they feel. At the end of the speech, he tells his audience that he and his family care deeply about the sacrifices you’ve made for this country. But, he continues, that doesn’t fill the black hole. And though he talks extensively and personally about his own experience with loss and grief, he doesn’t offer it as anything but analogy. He proffers some advice, clearly and obviously from the heart. But he doesn’t ever seem to presume that he can walk in his audience’s shoes.
The other thing that strikes me is a revealing moment in the midst of Biden telling his personal story of loss. He says that:
It was the first time in my career — my life — I realized someone could go out and — I probably shouldn’t say this with the press here but — no, but it’s more important, you’re more important than them — for the first time in my life, I understood how someone could consciously decide to commit suicide.
The suicide thing made a lot of news — but whatever. The real story here is that he stops and acknowledges the presence of cameras and mics, and then tells them to buzz off, that even in the midst of an election season, his audience is more important.
Both of these moments strike me as gaffes, or off-script moments, from the perspective of twenty-four hour news. The former because it goes against the narrative, established by Bush (and every other president who has ever sent troops to die), that they are capable of offering real sympathy, and because it puts the executive branch in the position of being vulnerable — less able to comprehend what’s going on than the people they govern. And the latter, because it suggests that politicians don’t ordinarily, as a matter of course, believe that their audience is more important than the cameras.
But these aren’t gaffs. Neither of them. They are Joe Biden doing what Joe Biden does best: being frank and straightforward about his feelings and his convictions; and connecting with his audience in such a way that he is not dictating to them what he thinks they need, but asking them to claim it — whatever it is.
There’s a thing that could be said here about the real, substantive difference that this suggests between the two camps as we move into the presidential general election. Obama and friends come to their audiences with an open hand — ask them what they need. Whereas Romney, as he did the other week at that charter school in West Philadelphia, comes with a closed fist, and dictates policy as though he is the expert.
But that’s all really beside the point. The point here is that Joe Biden is something of an aberration in American politics. But he’s an amazing aberration. Here we have a guy who has made it to the second highest office in the land without ever confining himself to making only calculated remarks in public. Sure, like every politician, he’s played the game. But his ability to be frank, and to accept the reputation that comes with it, does him credit.
I mean: can you imagine Mitt Romney giving a speech like that? Or even Bill Clinton?