‘Folks, I can tell you, I’ve known eight presidents, three of them intimately.’ So said then vice-president Joe Biden in 2012. A month earlier, he had assured a crowd in New York that President Barack Obama could, in Teddy Roosevelt’s famous words, ‘speak softly but carry a big stick’ when it came to international relations. ‘I promise you,’ he said. ‘The president has a big stick.’ The crowd started laughing at the double-entendre. Joe wasn’t joking. ‘I promise you,’ he repeated, gravely.
That is just Joe being Joe. The 46th president is someone who quite often has no idea what he is saying. Curiously, everybody seems relieved about that. We’re told Biden’s presidency will mark a ‘return to normalcy’. Really it will mark the triumphant return of the gaffe-prone president.
For decades, Biden’s verbal blundering has been the stuff of legend. His presidential campaign of 1988 died because he plagiarized a Neil Kinnock speech. As a senator, he was called ‘the gaffe machine from Delaware’. Or as the Washington Post once put it: ‘Joe Biden isn’t a gaffe machine. He’s the Lamborghini of gaffes.’
Biden’s boobs come in different forms. He can be unnecessarily revealing: ‘I’d rather be at home making love to my wife while my children sleep.’ Or stunningly thoughtless: ‘Stand up Chuck! Let ’em see ya!’ he once called out to Sen. Chuck Graham, a wheelchair-bound paraplegic. Or accidentally racist, which is hilarious because the party he now leads is so very PC. In 2008, in another muddled attempt at praising Obama, Biden added: ‘I mean, you’ve got the first sort of mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.’ Later that year, Biden introduced him as ‘the next president of the United States, Barack America’.
Not since George W. Bush has America had a president who can be relied upon to say something ineffably silly. Bush’s misspeaks ranged from the ungrammatical (‘Rarely is the question asked: is our children learning?’) to the mysterious (‘I couldn’t imagine somebody like Osama bin Laden understanding the joy of Hanukkah’) to the surreal (‘I know the human being and fish can coexist peacefully’). Americans now fondly recall these ‘Bushisms’ just as they already talk about ‘Bidenisms’.
What about Trump, you say? Surely he was the dumbest of them all? Well, yes and no. Trump was eminently capable of looking and sounding stupid. But his four years as president were surprisingly light on gaffes. His Twitter ejaculations could be amusingly wrong or odd: ‘Covfefe,’ he once tweeted. He also got his wife Melania’s name wrong. ‘Melanie is feeling and doing really well,’ he wrote after she came out of an operation.
He did suggest injecting bleach as a cure for COVID and reportedly wanted to fire nuclear weapons at bad weather. Unlike Bush and Biden, however, he never got into that regal-gone-wrong habit of saying stuff he definitely didn’t mean. He never said: ‘I know how hard it is for you to put food on your family.’ That was Bush. Nor did he say that the most important issue facing the middle class was ‘a three-letter word: Jobs. J-O-B-S. Jobs’. That was Biden.
We shouldn’t mock. Joe Biden has suffered from a speech impediment since childhood. Yet his tendency to, as he would say, mouth his shoot off is more extraordinary than a mere stammer. And it isn’t actually a weakness in 21st century American politics. People warm to Biden’s bizarre verbosity. He’s always spouting cod-Irish phrases such as: ‘God love you, holy mackerel!’ That makes him authentic, apparently. Biden’s rhetorical inadequacies remind voters of that simpler pre-Trump time when we vaguely expected politicians to say the right thing — and found it shocking or funny when they didn’t.
In recent weeks, Biden’s nervous advisers have been keeping him tightly on script. His speeches are teleprompted and often shortened. That is a mistake. Give the people what they want. Let the Gaffe Lamborghini take itself for a spin on the White House lawn.