The Magazine

A Little Learning . . .

Is a Bidenesque thing.

Dec 21, 2009, Vol. 15, No. 14 • By MEGHAN CLYNE
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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.