“Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. on Pennsylvania Avenue after the president’s ceremonial swearing-in.”
Published: January 25, 2013
“WASHINGTON — President Obama had just finished taking the oath and the Marine band played “Hail to the Chief” and the cameras panned to children waving little flags. Inaugurations are momentous things.
And then, after the benediction, I opened an e-mail from my friend Matt, who had extracted another unalienable truth from the proceedings:
“Biden is a testament to the transforming power of successful hair plugs.”
Well yes, he is, though the hair plugs are not a new Biden phenomenon. What’s telling here is that at a spectacle so potent and on a stage so crowded, the eye would be so naturally drawn to the goofball understudy. In that sense, Matt represents a cultural wave.
“Transforming” is the key word. In a few short months, the motor-tongued, muscle-car-loving heartbeat-away hell raiser has been transformed from gaffe-prone amusement to someone whose star shines as brightly as his teeth. He is the subject of viral C-Span videos, sitcom infatuations and an “autobiography” of his Onion-inspired alter-ego, “Diamond” Joe Biden, “The President of Vice.” (In his spare time, Mr. Biden also helped avert the fiscal cliff, is spearheading the White House plan to reduce gun violence and might even run for president in 2016.)
We might sit at the dawn of the second Obama term, with Hillary in waiting, Republicans in therapy and Congressional approvals in sub-cockroach and colonoscopy territory. But for whatever reason, the perfect flower of this peculiar moment grows from the earthy core of Joseph Robinette Biden Jr.
He may not be the most popular politician in America. Mr. Biden’s approval rating stands at 49 percent in the latest New York Times/CBS poll; not bad, but still a shade lower than his boss’s (51 percent). Mrs. Clinton trounces him in early surveys of Democrats eyeing the prospective field for 2016. Yet Mr. Biden wins in a landslide in an unscientific snapshot of comic appreciation, cult appeal and of-the-moment awesomeness. The White House recently received a petition from citizens insisting that a new reality show be created featuring the vice president (2,482 signatures at this writing).
Here is one theory on why. In 1968, Vice President Hubert H. Humphrey spoke of something he called “The Politics of Joy,” a slogan he adopted to accentuate his trademark zest and enthusiasm as he ran for president. In fact, the notion was dreadfully off-pitch given the war, assassinations and upheaval of the day, and Mr. Humphrey took some ridicule for it.
Mr. Biden, however, represents an updated standard-bearer for the politics of joy, said Joel K. Goldstein, a law professor at Saint Louis University and an expert on the United States vice presidency. (Disclosure: I quote Mr. Goldstein whenever possible, just so I can type the words “expert on the United States vice presidency,” which never fails to amuse me.) While these are not exactly joyous times either — politicians are often reviled and voters are no picnic — Mr. Biden is the one major Washington figure who consistently evokes a sense of thrill in what he is doing.
Through receiving lines, pro forma thank-you calls and random glad-handing, he conveys an aura that he would rather be doing nothing else. The video of Mr. Biden swearing in newly elected members and greeting their families in the Old Senate Chamber this month provided 86 minutes of viral eloquence on this.
“Spread your legs — you’re going to be frisked,” Mr. Biden ordered the husband of the new North Dakota senator, Heidi Heitkamp, after he was instructed by a photographer to put his hands at his side. Ms. Heitkamp cracked up, and Mr. Biden then explained — helpfully! — that when someone says “drop your hands to your side” to “somebody in North Dakota, they think it’s a frisk.” Now better informed, the Heitkamps went on their way.
Mr. Biden also told the brother of the Republican senator Tim Scott that he could “help with” his “pecs.” As everyone knows, Mr. Biden is a fitness god. And not in that trendy P90X Paul Ryan way. “There’s gym strong and there’s old man strong,” explained the “Saturday Night Live” Biden, played by Jason Sudeikis, last October. “When the Amtrak breaks down during my morning commute, I strip down to my tighty-whiteys” and push it “all the way to Washington!”
Can’t really see Mitch McConnell doing that, can you? Indeed, the Biden Moment is also born of contrast. Would The Onion put a shirtless John Kerry washing a Trans Am in the driveway of the State Department? Speaker Boehner wearing a ponytail at the Inauguration? Harry Reid getting banned for life from Dave & Buster’s restaurants (“following dozens of complaints from wait staff and numerous incidents”)? Actually those last few might be pretty funny.
“THIS ISN’T HAPPENING. This isn’t real.” — Leslie Knope.
It really is, it really is! Or at least sitcom real. That was actually Mr. Biden, the real V.P., standing before Leslie, the civic-possessed character played by Amy Poehler, on a recent “Parks and Recreation” episode. Leslie’s fiancé, Ben, surprised her by setting up the meeting with her mega-crush/idol during a trip to Washington. (In an earlier show, Leslie had declared that her ideal man would “have the brain of George Clooney and the body of Joe Biden.”)
“You must be Leslie Knope,” Mr. Biden says. “Welcome.”
“You’re … my name just came out of your mouth,” Leslie swoons.
“Well, yeah, it did,” he replies.
Leslie stammers, clutches the V.P., demurs on his nonexistent offer of Hillary Clinton’s secretary of state job. She caresses Mr. Biden’s face. Nonplused but still welcoming, his reaction is perfect.
“You’re very handsome, by the way,” Leslie adds, clutching his arms. Walking out, she turns sharply to a Secret Service agent. “Don’t let anything happen to him, you understand me?” she says firmly. “He is precious cargo.”
The scene was shot in two takes last July and was broadcast a few days after the election in November. Ms. Poehler praised Mr. Biden on the NBC Web site for keeping his composure “while I harassed him and invaded his personal space.”
Personal space invasion is also a big part of Mr. Biden’s repertory. His relentless flirtation with the mother of Senator John Barrasso at the swearing-in was particularly for-the-ages: it included Mr. Biden touching her face, resting his hand high under her arm during the photo pose, throwing his arm around her at various times, speaking about two inches from her nose and pulling her close for another hug while the two of them posed for a special photo. “I’m 90 years old,” Louise Barrasso told him, to which the V.P. said, “I’ll tell you what, 20 years from now, when I show my kids this picture, you will have to come and sign it.” He gave her one last peck on the cheek and a “God love ya.”
One of the keys of Mr. Biden’s comedic appeal is his willingness to play along. “A smart politician just goes with it,” said Ted Widmer, a historian at Brown University and a former speechwriter for President Bill Clinton. Mr. Widmer said the vice president’s embrace of the Onion’s fixation on him shows a level of acceptance that other politicians can learn from. “These things can’t be stopped anyway,” Mr. Widmer said. “It’s a virus, out of control. So you might as well participate and have fun. It shows a quality of humanity.”
This was on shiny display last week — like a showroom Corvette — as The Onion released its e-book autobiography of Mr. Biden. The Onion Biden — a k a “Diamond” Joe Biden — participated in a Reddit “Ask Me Anything” thread to promote “The President of Vice.”
To top that, the vice president himself — the real precious cargo! — tweeted in, declaring “#imavetteguy” to his Onion alter-ego. This was later re-tweeted by the president’s account.
Personally, my favorite image from the whole Biden Moment occurred during a brief interlude at the end of the Senate swearing-in parade. When there were no more senators left to initiate, photos to mug for or moms to hug, Mr. Biden stood at the front of the chamber looking out at the emptying room. For a split second, he looked lost, maybe even sad. He folded his hands at his waist, twiddled his thumbs and then, with his eyes twinkling again, put out a last plaintive call: “Anyone else want to be sworn in as a Senator today?””