“It would be so much better for me as a comedian if Mitt Romney wins….And Paul Ryan’s a great target, because there’s this giant disparity between the way they portray him and the way he actually is. That’s great for comedy….Pundits keep saying he’s an intellectual, that he’s so much smarter than Sarah Palin. Well, yeah—he knows that the queen of England doesn’t actually run the country. But as far as I can tell, he’s got only two ideas: that rich people should stop paying taxes and poor people should look for food in the woods. If he’s the smartest guy alive and Palin is the stupidest woman alive, how come they have the exact same views on everything?”—Bill Maher, “Comedy 2012: Why Romney is Comedy Gold,” Rolling Stone, September 13, 2012
As with so much of what he says, there’s just enough truth in this statement by comedian Bill Maher to take every word of it as gospel truth—until you remember what he’s left out.
Longtime readers of this blog know that at least three of my posts have taken Mitt Romney to task as an ideological trimmer and an avatar of greed. I have no doubt that, once in the Oval Office, he’ll provide fodder of some kind to comedians and cartoonists. (If Garry Trudeau is thinking of a pithy image to evoke the nominee, the way he used a lit hand grenade to summon up Newt Gingrich, a weathervane would do very nicely.)
I also have no quarrel with the notion that Paul Ryan is not quite the intellectual that the Tea Party has cracked him up to be. And if Romney is ever the least bit tempted to pull a “team of rivals” approach in stocking his Cabinet with primary also-rans such as Michele Bachmann and Rick Perry: Well, I’ll have to contradict Elvis Costello—clowntime most definitely will not be over.
But if all of these GOP figures seem multitudinous, as they indeed are, they have to be. They must mass together simply to have a remote chance to compete with the Democrats’ not-so-secret comic weapon, Joe Biden. In the midst of ongoing economic distress and governmental gridlock, he can still be counted on to provide unintentional levity. As Thomas Jefferson remarked, in a rather different context, about his ideological rival in the early republic, Alexander Hamilton, he is “a host unto himself.”
You’ve hardly finished typing “Joe Biden” into Google when one of the first results you’ll see is “gaffes.” That’s because the most common question on Washingtonians' minds, as headlined in a memorable “Huffington Post” piece by Carol Hartsell and Ross Luippold, is, “What Will the Vice President Say Next?”
More recently, though, the verb in that last question needs to be revised. Now, people will wonder, “What Will the Vice President Do Next?” Case in point: A recent campaign stop in Ohio. According to a report in The Weekly Standard, the veep planted a big wet one right on the lips of a female supporter who cracked wise about Clint Eastwood’s empty-chair improvisation at the Republican Convention.
(The Standard report indicated that the supporter “swooned.” That could be astonishment at Biden’s impromptu manliness, or just the fact that she had gotten a taste of the fried cheese he had just eaten at Antone's Italian Grill.)
The last coherent Biden speech may well have come all the way back in 1988, during his initial short-lived run for the Presidency. Perhaps not coincidentally, that address—a virtually word-for-word copy of a speech by British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock—ended up knocking him out of the race when the “borrowing” (i.e., plagiarism) was discovered.
When left on his own—a dangerous prospect—Biden can mangle an excellent point. His mockery of Romney’s statement about “unleashing Wall Street” would have been mighty effective, until he made that little remark that such a policy would “put y'all back in chains."
Biden’s gaffes are so wide-ranging that they make one wonder what subject he passed in school. Consider:
*Geography: At the same appearance where he made his “chains” remark, Biden urged the crowd to help Obama win North Carolina again. The only problem was that he was speaking in Danville, Virginia.
*Mathematics: In Athens, Ohio (what is it with him and this state, anyway?), Biden noted, in October 2008: “Look, John [McCain’s]'s last-minute economic plan does nothing to tackle the number-one job facing the middle class, and it happens to be, as Barack says, a three-letter word: jobs. J-O-B-S, jobs." (Dan Quayle couldn’t have said it better.)
* History: In an interview with Katie Couric in September 2008, the then-Vice Presidential nominee noted: "When the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television and didn't just talk about the, you know, the princes of greed. He said, 'Look, here's what happened.'" Only two problems: 1) FDR wasn’t even President when the crash occurred in October 1929, and 2) the President’s medium during the early part of his Presidency was radio, not TV (then more than a decade away from common use).
* Health: Appearing on the Today Show in April 2009, discussing swine flu: “I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. … When one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation, suggesting they ride the subway."
Sometimes a comment transcends all categories, springing from what can only be thought of as the planet Bidenworld. Who can ever forget his explanation for the surge in the polls enjoyed by his then-primary opponent, Barack Obama? “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man." I’m surprised that massive amounts of African-Americans didn’t fix him with a stare and ask, “Since when am I not clean?”
Look, there’s a certain amount of slack that any candidate should be cut, simply because of the exhaustion of traveling and constant exposure in the public eye. And, judging by a Mark Bowden profile, “The Salesman,” two years ago in The Atlantic, Biden seems to be practically worshipped in Delaware, where they kept returning him to office for more than three decades.
Still, the sheer vast number and variety of Biden’s remarks lead one to agree with David Letterman’s quip: “Joe Biden is living proof that people can give up sensitive information without being tortured.” For Maher not to take note of this rich comic history is ample proof of his unfitness for his own profession.
(Photo of Maher by David Shankbone, November 2007, at the PETA screening of I Am An Animal: The story of Ingrid Newkirk and PETA; official portrait of Biden from 2010.)