Sunday, February 25, 2007
Weekend Edition: Joe Biden Outside the Mainstream of America
“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.”
—Three-time U.S. Presidential hopeful and election speech plagiarist Senator Joe Biden, describing fellow Senator and Presidential hopeful Barack Obama
“I take a bath every day.”
—Articulate, bright, mainstream African-American former Presidential candidate Al Sharpton
For the record, I have Al Sharpton’s autograph.
Now, before you spit out your coffee—Al Sharpton is a very divisive character, what with pleading guilty to tax evasion, not to mention perpetrating the Tawana Brawley hoax, which ruined innocent lives and for which he never apologized—let me explain how that happened.
I was leaving a mid-town Chinese restaurant one night shortly after Sharpton had ended his Presidential campaign. On my way out between big glass fish tanks and the red-jacketed waiters I passed by a table where a woman had just excused herself to go to the bathroom and the man who remained seated was exuding an unnatural amount of charisma.
It was Al Sharpton—big hair, big ring and big presence.
I’m a soft touch for celebrity—in particular musical (one day I will relate the Sting autograph story here) and political. So I stopped and asked him to sign my train schedule.
This he did, taking out a big pen of his own and signing with a flourish. As I left to hustle to Grand Central he was being surrounded by a flock of other diners who apparently took advantage of the break in his private dinner to metaphorically kiss his very real, outsized, gold ring. Whatever you think of him, as I said, the guy exuded charisma.
He was also, I can vouch, physically if not ethically quite clean.
So, when Joe Biden seemingly stratified an entire race of Americans into those that are mainstream, clean and articulate as opposed to those that are not, I found the ensuing media and political debate about whether Biden meant what it sounded like he meant to be extremely silly.
Of course he meant it. What else could he mean?
Now, this is not a political blog, although I have written about Joe Biden before (see “Weekend Edition: Say it Ain’t So, Fighting Joe” from August 20 of last year), when he was campaigning against, of all things, Wal-Mart.
Wal-Mart bashing was popular at the time, and Biden had lashed into what is, by any standards, one of the most successful enterprises the world has ever seen—one that has created more jobs and reduced prices for more Americans than Joe Biden could even imagine, if he had the brains to comprehend such things, which he clearly does not.
The fact that Biden has created no jobs himself to speak of despite endless years of seat-warming down in Washington made his remarks even more ridiculous than they were on the face of it, which was the point I made at that time
However, when Biden’s description of Barack Obama—“mainstream” and “articulate” and “clean”—appeared, they surprised even me, given that they are racial code words not usually associated with a liberal Democrat like Biden.
Biden’s lame attempt at damage control—“I have no doubt Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton and the rest know exactly what I meant,”—did nothing to assuage the issue, particularly when Sharpton came out with the best line of the whole mess:
“I take a bath every day.”
Destroyed Presidential campaign aside, what does all this mean about Joe Biden? Personally, I think it means he is simply a product of his age.
For Joe Biden was born in Pennsylvania in 1942 and grew up in Delaware, which was one of 17 states whose public schools were officially segregated until the 1954 Brown vs. Board of Education Supreme Court decision forbade segregated schools.
I'm not saying Biden attended a segregated school, nor do I know a thing about his family life; but racism back then was out there in every day American life—not hidden beneath the surface as now.
For those of you too young to know what it’s like when racism is right out front in every day life, I recall my parents stopping at a Howard Johnson’s ice cream counter during a family drive in New England sometime in the early 1960’s.
We got in line and my sisters and I debated what flavors to get when a hubbub arose that I did not comprehend until we got back in the car and my parents explained what had happened. What had happened was, a white man with his family got upset that a black man was served ahead of him, and he made his displeasure known to other people in line as well as the lady behind the counter.
I am not making that up. It was my first lesson on racism in America.
Does this mean Joe Biden and other 64-year olds are, by definition, racist? Not at all. But the fact that he used those code words the way he used them, and was entirely clueless how loaded they would appear at the time he used them, means, in my opinion, he is simply a product of his age.
The good news is things have changed since then—not just about race, but also about personal stigmas. Indeed, the demystification of Biden’s racial code words reminds me of something that took place at my own house just a couple of years ago.
John was a family friend of ours and a State Representative we’d helped over the years; he was a good guy at heart, but extremely insecure and, in private, a macho guy who loved to make fun of gays then serving with him in the legislature. And he always had bad dates with women we set him up with. Naturally, we figured he was gay and urged him to come out of the closet before his next campaign, just to stop the rumors flying around town and to get on with his career.
He insisted he was not gay, and although it didn’t figure into the election, he lost.
One Saturday shortly afterwards, John came over to the house as he had done many other Saturdays, to have tea with my wife. Usually they talked politics. This day, he wanted to tell us something. He wanted to tell us he was gay.
It was, for him, a huge deal. His hands trembled and his voice was husky as he told us. Then he cried, we hugged him, and my dog Lucy, who had always loved John more than any other visitor to our kitchen, put her head on his knee and accepted him as she always had done. When John was ready, we called upstairs to our older daughter, who had known him since she was a toddler.
“John wants to tell you something,” we said. When she came bouncing into the kitchen dressed and ready to go out and meet friends, he said nervously and quietly: “I’m gay.” He was still holding his tea cup, and still trembling with emotion.
“Oh, okay,” she said. She kissed him on the cheek. “I gotta go.” And she ran out the door.
To an eighteen year old, what John had told her had none of the shock, the emotion, the power that it had to John’s peers. Her complete indifference to it amazed him at first—then he laughed. It was for him an enormous relief.
When Joe Biden called Barack Obama “mainstream” and “articulate” and “clean,” I think anybody of a certain age, who grew up before the mainstreaming of African-Americans, does, despite Biden's insistence to the contrary, know “exactly” what he really did mean by those words even if they do not agree with him.
The good news is that those who grew up after that time, particularly since the falling of borders across the world and the tremendous globalization of the world’s economies, most likely reacted as our eighteen year old did to the news that her former state legislator was gay: they didn't get what those loaded words meant once upon a time.
That’s even better news than this: Joe Biden has no chance to be President.
I Am Not Making This Up
© 2007 Jeff Matthews
The content contained in this blog represents the opinions of Mr. Matthews. Mr. Matthews also acts as an advisor and clients advised by Mr. Matthews may hold either long or short positions in securities of various companies discussed in the blog based upon Mr. Matthews' recommendations. This commentary in no way constitutes a solicitation of business or investment advice. It is intended solely for the entertainment of the reader, and the author.
Posted by Jeff Matthews at 12:48 PM