The Magazine

A Little Learning . . .

Is a Bidenesque thing.

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