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 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.