A Little Learning . . .
Is a Bidenesque thing.
Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
The campaign for the 1988 Democratic presidential nomination offered a glimpse into the soul of Joe Biden. Asked by a prospective voter where he went to law school, Biden responded with a tirade that, had the claims been true, would have been bizarre. But as most of them were outright lies, it qualifies as one of the strangest political statements on record:
I think I probably have a much higher IQ than you do, I suspect. I went to law school on a full academic scholarship--the only one in my class to have a full academic scholarship. . . . I won the international moot court competition. I was the outstanding student in the political science department at the end of my year. I graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school, and 165 credits--only needed 123--and I'd be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours.
Got that? Joe Biden wants you to know he is a very smart man.
Two decades later, Biden is just a heartbeat away from the presidency, yet he still exudes the same conspicuous insecurity, the same burning desire to prove his intellectual credibility. These days, his method of choice is cramming his speeches with snippets of borrowed wisdom. His desire to prove his book smarts can lead to awkward mix-ups, as when Biden used a quote at the White House jobs summit that seemed like a threat against a member of the cabinet: "[R]emember your college days, having to study the essayist Samuel Johnson? And one of the favorite quotes I remember, Mr. Secretary, was 'There is nothing like a hanging to focus one's attention.' "
More often the quotes piled upon quotes just make for a mess. In one November speech, delivered to military families at a memorial service at Fort Lewis, Washington, Biden cited in quick succession Thomas Jefferson's description of Meriwether Lewis, the poet William Cowper's thoughts on grief, William Shakespeare ("Cowards die many times before their death. The valiant never taste death but once"), Meriwether Lewis himself, and finally, as Biden put it: "and I might add, for all of you who stayed behind, the famous quote, 'Those also serve who stand and wait.' "
This last one, from John Milton, appears to be a particular Biden favorite. He has said it to Czech troops and their families in Prague, Romanian military families in Bucharest, the families of "brave Polish soldiers" in Warsaw, and U.S. soldiers stationed at Camp Bondsteel in Kosovo. The quote also got pulled out aboard the USS Ronald Reagan, at Whiteman Air Force Base in Missouri, and at a welcome-home ceremony for the XVIII Airborne Corps at Fort Bragg. One can see how the highbrow line would be tempting to Biden. It would be so much more convenient, though, if the verse didn't come from a sonnet about Milton's blindness. (Biden would also stand a better chance of projecting familiarity with Milton if he did not, in several of the same speeches, refer to troops killed in action as "fallen angels.")
So maybe the veep never quite managed Paradise Lost. No matter. Shakespeare, Maya Angelou--the Sage of Wilmington quotes them with equal ease. He is especially fond of William Butler Yeats, or at least his poem "Easter Sunday 1916" (as the vice president always terms Yeats's "Easter, 1916"). Biden apparently deemed one verse--"All changed, changed utterly: / A terrible beauty is born" in the Yeats; in Bidenese, "The world has changed; it has changed utterly. A terrible beauty has been born"--applicable in 2009 to graduates of Wake Forest and Syracuse universities, attendees at the Progressive Governance Conference in Vina del Mar, Chile, and world leaders assembled at the 45th Munich Security Conference--all of whom were surely fascinated by Yeats's thoughts on the Irish uprising.
Biden's affinity for poetry reaches far beyond the familiar giants. In Kiev, he lauded the "great Ukrainian poet, Shevchenko." In Tbilisi, he busted out "a verse from maybe Georgia's most famous poet" (never identified). In Beirut in May, Biden said: "A famous Lebanese poet [Khalil Gibran, who wrote mostly in English and in America] wrote the words--and I want to get them exactly right--'Progress lies not in enhancing what is, but in advancing toward what will be.' " According to prepared remarks posted on the White House website, in Sarajevo in May Biden cited "the English author Rebecca West," who "once wrote that entering Sarajevo was like 'walking inside an opening flower,' " and concluded his remarks with the recitation of 28 lines of verse from a young Sarajevan exile to the United States, Hajat Avdovic. (The poem was published in the Spring 2009 issue of We the Writers, the literary magazine of the Academy of American Studies--Avdovic's high school in Long Island City.)
A little philosophy? Who better to cite at a summit on urban policy in Chicago than Aristotle, who, "over two millennia ago . . . recognized the defining advantage of cities. He wrote, and I quote, 'Men come together in cities in order to live; they remain together in order to live the good life.' That is as true today as it was then." Never mind that Aristotle's point in the Politics was basically the opposite--that men move beyond their local "villages" to form broader political associations, translated as "city" but also "society," with roughly the connotation of today's "nation." Oh well--it sounded nice.
Biden also dabbles in theology. In May, he quoted a line from G.K. Chesterton ("It's not that Christianity has been tried and found wanting; it's been found difficult and left untried") that must have struck its audience--the American Israel Public Affairs Committee--as an odd an-alogy. (Biden was likening Christianity to the Middle East peace process.)
Of course, Biden's pretensions generally escape factchecking by the press. Biden's erstwhile rival, Sarah Palin, has come under fire for including in her memoir observations falsely attributed to Plato that were ripped from quote websites. Fair enough. But what about Biden? In multiple speeches, he has credited "the poet Virgil" with the aphorism "the greatest wealth is health." And sure enough, Virgil is credited with the quote in thousands of Google hits, QuoteGarden.com, and even boxer shorts for sale on Amazon.com. But good luck finding the phrase anywhere in the Latin poet's actual writings. A search of the phrase (or even similar terms)--in English and Latin--in databases of Virgil's poetry yields nothing. Richard Tarrant, a professor of Latin at Harvard, says: "I'm not familiar with the quote (which sounds like something my mother used to say), and offhand I would doubt that it comes from Virgil." Two classicists at Cornell, while unable to prove that the poet never said anything like it, "doubt whether this quote comes from Virgil." One, Barry Strauss, adds: "It sounds more like a fortune cookie than a poet."
Our vice president is also fully capable of misinterpreting America's founding documents in the service of adding lustre to his speeches. Before the Munich Security Conference in February, Biden said:
But the very moment we declared our war of independence, at that moment we laid out to the world the values behind our revolution and the conviction that our policies must be informed, as we said at the time, by a "decent respect for the opinions of mankind." Our Founders understood then, and the United States believes now, that the example of our power must be matched by the power of our example.
In context, this line from the Declaration of Independence says only that Americans ought to carefully explain our actions to the world, not that we should do what world opinion asks of us. In Biden's hands, Jefferson's confident assertion of American righteousness becomes an endorsement of policy-making by "global test." Well, we always knew Biden wasn't a strict constructionist.
Biden's desire to show off is also in tension with his carefully calibrated political persona: Mr. Blue Collar, Son of Scranton. Indeed, Biden is fond of littering his speeches with tidbits from his hardscrabble youth: "We don't think--as my grandpop would say--the Recovery Act is the horse that can carry that sleigh alone, but it is, in a sense, the down payment." This is Joe Biden from "little ol' Delaware," who draws economic insight from the view out his train window: "And as that bridge as you go over, on Amtrak, into New York, through Newark, says, 'Newark makes what the world takes.' We ain't making what the world takes." (The bridge actually crosses from Pennsylvania into New Jersey, and says: "Trenton Makes, The World Takes." But you get the point.)
This more avuncular Joe Biden may seem an odd fit with the erudite Virgilian and reader of Khalil Gibran, but in fact the two form the single tale that animates Biden's quest for approval (and the underlying narrative of nearly all his public statements). Whatever the occasion, the vice president's subject is always Joe Biden: the poor boy whose smarts have brought him to the greatest heights of intellectual achievement.
It was to embellish this tale that Biden famously borrowed from a speech by British MP Neil Kinnock when running for president in 1987--not only plagiarizing clever lines, but actually appropriating details of Kinnock's life to make his own biography seem more compelling. It is for the sake of this story that Biden so often paints implausible scenarios of which he is inevitably the star--most famously fabricating a confrontation in the Oval Office in which he schooled George W. Bush on the nature of leadership. This is the Biden who, speaking at the presidential palace in Bucharest in October, said:
You know, I was telling the--I was telling the president, he and his country have made me look very good. I argued very, very strongly that Romania be admitted into NATO on the first round, as you'll remember. I was--and I tried to the very end, as chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee. Now look how smart I was.
Jesse Helms was chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee during the first round of NATO expansion in 1999, as Richard Lugar was when Romania was admitted in 2004. But look how smart Joe Biden is.
Behind all his feigned erudition, that, ultimately, is the vice president's sad cri de coeur. After all this time, and after all he has accomplished, he still has a chip on his shoulder. Biden's speechmaking-by-Bartleby.com is all part of the same effort: to show, by appealing to the intellectual giants of the past, that he is familiar with them, inspired by them--and perhaps even one of them.
And what it most reveals is Biden's priorities as vice president: more self-serving than public service. What, one wonders, would Aristotle say about that?
Meghan Clyne is the managing editor of National Affairs.