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Archive for Friday, February 9, 2007

Biden gets points for candor

February 9, 2007

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Delaware Sen. Joe Biden, who is either the ninth or 90th Democrat to announce a presidential candidacy, is truly God's gift to political writers because he provides such a verbal cornucopia.

He has barely begun to formulate a thought, and it's already tripping off his tongue without any editing in between. (Maybe he's better suited to be a blogger than a candidate.) The odds are that he won't be in the race long enough to require extended scrutiny, so it seems wise right now briefly to examine the remark he made about Barack Obama: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."

I think this is what Biden was intending to say: Obama has charisma and a good personal story - assets that give him a serious shot at becoming the first black president. But this is what Biden, by his verbosity and phrasing, seemed instead to be implying: No other previous black candidates (Congresswoman Shirley Chisholm, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, former Sen. Carol Moseley Braun, and the Rev. Al Sharpton) were articulate or bright or clean.

Nice move, Joe.

Biden inadvertently uttered a truth when he implied that Obama, unlike most of his predecessors, was at least "clean." It happens to be a matter of record that Jackson fathered a love child, Sharpton championed a young black girl who made false rape charges against a white guy (Sharpton was successfully sued for defamation as a result), and Moseley Braun lost her 1998 re-election race amid accusations of financial improprieties. But for Biden, there was no percentage in implying (albeit unwittingly) that those who preceded Obama lacked cleanliness.

Biden has already apologized (a modern ritual), and gone on "The Daily Show With Jon Stewart" to show that he has a sense of humor about himself (another modern ritual). All told, not a great first day for a new candidate. But I have some sympathy for Biden, as well:

We typically complain that political candidates are too scripted, too wedded to talking points and the message of the day. We plead for "authenticity." Yet if candidates do something spontaneous and authentic or unexpected, they risk being savaged by the 24/7 scrutiny that voters now expect as their birthright.

One can argue that Biden will need to choose his words more carefully if he expects to be a serious candidate, yet still give him a few points for defying the narrow dictates of modern political discourse and instead being true to his authentic, loquacious self.

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