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Joe Biden: From Punchline to Statesman (Sort of) in the Hands of the New York Times

Here's a must-read for any student of creative writing or obit writer tasked with turning a late-night comedian's punch line into a statesman. The New York Times has done it today in their front page profile of the hapless Joe Biden. Writer Mark Leibovich, either checking a box for an overzealous editor or currying favor (or repaying a debt) to the Biden team writes what can only be called a laughable panegyric to the Veep who even partisan hack John Stewart has described as "your crazy uncle." Those in the know, Leibovich, avers, are noticing "the influence Biden appears to be wielding," influence which has gone unnoticed to everyone else until now. But a close reading of the story reveals a slightly more, uh, balanced view. For each clause that giveth there's a clause that taketh away.

Read on....

Giveth: "Top aides say it has become customary for Mr. Obama to solicit Mr. Biden’s opinion..."

Taketh Away: "...at the end of meetings. But his views by no means always carry the day. At one January meeting to discuss the budget, Mr. Biden railed that the government was in no fiscal shape to pursue a health care overhaul this year — to the dismay of many present and others who heard about it." It goes on to say that Biden not only backed off but that Obama "disagreed strongly with the view."

Translation: Obama feels obligated to call on Biden, but does it only as an afterthought, after the discussion is done, and only as a courtesy - and for good reason, since Biden isn't on the train anyway.

Giveth: Obama "has come to see Mr. Biden as a useful contrarian in the course of decision-making.

Taketh away: "Rahm Emanuel, the White House chief of staff, said that 'when there’s group-think going on, the vice president tends to push the envelope in the other direction.'"

Translation: Biden is a loose cannon. "Pushing the envelope in the other direction" has never been considered a compliment, not something you want folks - especially your putative allies - to say about you.

Giveth: Obama took time from his busy day to show appreciation for Joe for this article.

Taketh away: Obama says that Joe is "willing to say what's on other people's minds" or things they've only said privately. He's willing, in Obama's words, "to help stir the pot."

Translation: Again, you never want to be the person the boss describes - in any context - as the one who helps stir the pot, especially when your boss is the leader of the free world, and has no shortage of pot-stirrers.

Giveth: Biden's colleagues in the administration "describe him with fondness."

Taketh away: "But they also acknowledge that the verbose vice president has struggled to adjust at times to working within a White House that prizes discipline...During the fall campaign, Mr. Obama’s aides — usually David Axelrod, the media strategist, and David Plouffe, the campaign manager — spent considerable time on the phone with Mr. Biden and his staff over remarks that they had deemed unhelpful."

Translation: It's not really fondness.

Interspersed among the rest of this article billed as "Biden Discovers a Role of influence" is the fact that he's "an odd fit... a loose cannon in a laser-guided message machine." It says that Biden, "is inclined to throw notions on the table and think out loud, which contrasts with Mr. Obama’s more deliberate, restrained style."

Finally, there's this ringing endorsement (not) of Joe's relative strengths and weaknesses from Obama top adviser David Axelrod:

“I think the strength outweighs the weakness to a large degree."

"I think"? "To a large degree"? You can take that to the bank - but only if it's federally insured.

All in all, the piece really does make for great reading. It tries -- really, really tries -- to be a tribute, but in the end, Leibovich was tasked with writing the obit for the class doofus.


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This page contains a single entry from the blog posted on March 29, 2009 3:30 PM.

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