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Joe Biden, Truth-teller

From The Scrapbook

Oct 17, 2011, Vol. 17, No. 05 • By THE SCRAPBOOK
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Joe Biden has gotten his share of mockery​—​not least in these precincts​—​for his tendency to yack a little too much. Indeed, it’s such a commonplace observation that the vice president now publicly kids himself about it, in much the same way that Ronald Reagan used his age to humorous advantage (“I’m not going to exploit, for political purposes, my opponent’s youth and inexperience”).

So The Scrapbook is inclined to rush to Mr. Biden’s defense this week in the aftermath of his observation to NBC’s David Gregory:

Many of [the American people] are in real trouble, an even larger percentage have stagnant wages, and a significant majority .  .  . believe that the country is not moving in the right direction. That is never a good place to be, going into reelection. Whether it’s your fault or not your fault: It’s almost, sometimes, irrelevant.

When Gregory asked Biden whether a Republican nominee could defeat President Obama for reelection next year, the vice president replied, “Oh, absolutely, absolutely. It’s strong enough to beat both of us.”

These remarks have been greeted with delighted wonderment on the right​—​there he goes again!​—​and deep consternation on the left: Biden is giving aid and comfort to the enemy! 

The Scrapbook, however, chooses to be neutral in judgment. The vice president’s words speak for themselves, and it is difficult to argue with what he says: The economy is in a tailspin and unemployment remains high; polls confirm that Americans think the country is moving in the wrong direction; the combination of these factors undeniably imperils Barack Obama’s reelection.

Indeed, so far as The Scrapbook is concerned, the problem here is not what Biden said​—​which seems obvious now, and could change in the next 13 months​—​but the reaction to Biden’s words. For once, a politician has answered a question with a candid appraisal, devoid of self-protective verbiage. We are so accustomed to partisan spin and language-as-smokescreen that we are surprised and indignant when someone actually says what
everybody knows. 

The Scrapbook is not in the habit of comparing American politics unfavorably with the customs of our European friends, but this is one instance where the Europeans have the upper hand. A French politician, assessing a defeat, would never insult his listeners by denying what has happened, or changing the subject. On federal election nights in Germany, the major party leaders will gather with journalists in a television studio and assess the results with shocking objectivity. Members of Britain’s parliament will disagree publicly with party colleagues; dissenting cabinet members resign on principle.

Such candor is not a sign of weakness or irresolution, in The Scrapbook’s view, but democratic maturity. So it speaks to the interesting political times in which we live that Joe Biden​—​yes, good old garrulous, motor-mouth Joe​—​comes off as the grownup in this minor political episode. 

Et tu, Tutu?

Across The Scrapbook’s desk the other day passed a landmark in the annals of political correctness. Tutu: Authorized tells the story of Desmond Tutu, the Anglican archbishop of Cape Town who became a celebrity of the 1980s antiapartheid movement. It is crammed with photos, in color and black and white, of Archbishop Tutu helping, hugging, and exhorting the poor. It has testimonials to “the Arch,” as he is jauntily called, from Jimmy Carter, Richard Branson, Jackson Browne, Bob Geldof, Harry Belafonte, and Carlos Santana (whose short biography identifies him as “a Mexican-born American rock icon”). There is also a narrative of Tutu’s life put together by the journalist Allister Sparks, with the help of Tutu’s daughter, and the ghostwriter of Tutu’s children’s book Desmond and the Very Mean Word. There are two testimonial introductions​—​one from Bono, one from the Dalai Lama. They constitute a nihil 

obstat from Rev. Tutu’s church, by which we mean not the Church of England but the Church of the Great and the Good. 

The Scrapbook is as happy as anyone that South Africans need no longer endure apartheid, and considers  Tutu’s role in that transformation a positive one. It was not, however, unambiguously positive. Tutu was better at opposing the West’s complicity in apartheid than he was at understanding why the West was inclined to worry about communism when it looked at the African National Congress. His labeling of the apartheid regime as unjust was based on expertise; his more recent labeling of the Gaza blockade as a war crime is based on groupthink. It is not The Scrapbook’s aim to dredge up his failings. If complacent bloviation accompanied his genuine courage, he is not the first person of whom that can be said. He is only human.

What is galling is the reluctance of his publisher, HarperOne, to admit that. The Scrapbook was struck by the way the word “authorized” is used not just as a description of the book but blazoned right across the cover as a kind of sales pitch. Back in the 1980s, when the Rev. Tutu was speaking truth to power and his backers among the 1968 generation were assuming their positions at the commanding heights of government and society, the claim of a biography to be “authorized” was totally out of fashion. It reeked of a corrupt bargain whereby some plutocratic eminence (or his estate) bartered a collection of vital archives to an on-the-make scholar in exchange for a favorable report to posterity. It was the sort of fuddy-duddy indulgence that the likes of Carter and Geldof and Santana promised to do away with.

While the moral stakes of dismantling apartheid were clear, the right course of action was not. If it had been, there would have been a Nelson Mandela on every street corner. At the height of the Cold War, South Africa was a complex and delicate problem. The word “authorized” in Tutu’s biography constitutes a promise to the reader that he will encounter none of that complexity. Can you imagine the howls if some anti-Communist activist of the 1980s​—​Vladimir Bukovsky, say, or Armando Valladares​—​were the subject of a don’t-you-dare-say-anything-skeptical-about-him biography like Tutu: Authorized? “Authorized”—the word is worth a thousand pictures.

Street People

Looking at photos of the motley crew of Wall Street protesters last week, The Scrapbook was reminded of Marion Magid’s deathless quip about an earlier generation of such “activists.” Norman Podhoretz memorably told the story in his 2002 Francis Boyer Lecture at the American Enterprise Institute:

One day in the year 1960, I was invited to address a meeting of left-wing radicals. For my sins​—​sins of which I have been repenting for more than three decades by now​—​I was a leading member of this then tiny movement. The main issue around which it had first begun to coalesce was nuclear disarmament. But the subject on which I had been asked to speak was a new one that had barely begun to show the whites of its eyes. It was the possibility of American military involvement in a faraway place of which we knew little​—​a place called Vietnam.

Accompanying me that evening was the late Marion Magid, a member of my staff at Commentary magazine, of which I had recently become the editor. As we entered the drafty old hall on Union Square in Manhattan, Marion surveyed the fifty or so people in the audience, and whispered to me: “Do you realize that every young person in this room is a tragedy to some family or other?”

As Podhoretz went on to point out, it may have been a “bedraggled-looking assemblage” there that night, but appearances can be deceptive. 

No one would have dreamed that these young people, and the generation about to descend politically and culturally from them, would within the blink of a historical eye be hailed as “the best informed, the most intelligent, and the most idealistic this country has ever known.” These words, incredibly, would emanate from what the new movement regarded as the very belly of the beast: from, to be specific, the mouth of Archibald Cox, a professor at the Harvard Law School and later Solicitor General of the United States. Similar encomia would also ooze unctuously out of parents, teachers, clergymen, artists, and journalists.

More incredible yet, the ideas and attitudes of the new movement, cleaned up but essentially unchanged, would within a mere ten years turn one of our two major parties upside down and inside out. In 1961, President John F. Kennedy famously declared that we would “pay any price, bear any burden,” and so on, “to assure the survival and the success of liberty.” By 1972, George McGovern, nominated for President by Kennedy’s own party, was campaigning on the slogan, “Come Home, America.” It was a slogan that almost perfectly reflected the ethos of the embryonic movement that I had addressed in Union Square only about a decade before.

Sentences We Didn’t Finish

‘Mr. Netanyahu has also undermined Israeli security by burning bridges with Israel’s most important friend in the region, Turkey. Now there is also the risk of clashes in the Mediterranean between Israeli and Turkish naval vessels. That’s one reason Defense Secretary Leon Panetta scolded the Israeli government a few days ago for .  .  . ” (Nicholas D. Kristof, New York Times, October 6).

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