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The Veep Is a Creep

One of the questions those snide man-on-the-street interviewers always ask to demonstrate the public’s appalling political ignorance is the name of the Vice President of the United States. It’s the sort of general knowledge that any enfranchised citizen should possess, and we always wince when watching the videotapes of all those public school graduates who aren’t even embarrassed to admit their ignorance, but these days we can hardly blame anyone who does not share our obsessive interest in politics for not knowing the answer. Vice President Joe Biden — which is the correct answer to that trick question, in case you were wondering — is such an inconsequential public figure, and so assiduously ignored by the media, that he’s not a household name.
The man is an utter boob and a heartbeat away from the presidency, however, and sometimes even the most deliberately unseeing media are obliged to take notice. On Tuesday the vice president had to deal with such routine chores as reading some tele-promptered compliments at a swearing-in ceremony and saying some anodyne remarks during a White House summit on carefully unspecified forms of “violent extremism,” and on both occasions he managed to provoke unfriendly coverage from even the friendliest media.
The swearing-in ceremony for new Defense Secretary Ashton Carter should have been a deeply-buried brief in most newspapers, but the lowly scribes assigned to the affair wound up with some prominenst placement after Biden spent an uncomfortable amount of the proceedings rubbing the shoulders, whispering in the ear, and seemingly smelling the hair of the wife of the man being charged with the nation’s defense. No less an administration stenographer than the Associated Press found that “VP’s Odd Move Gives Pause,” the cheekier New York Post described it as “snuggling,” and the unabashedly conservative PJ Tatler was frank enough to call it “creepy.” The New York Post recalled that Biden elicited a similar discomfort among the object of his interest and all onlookers at the swearing-in for Delaware Sen. Chris Coons, whose young daughter is shown in a photograph in an apparent state of discomfort during the Vice President’s kiss on the cheek, and quotes one of innumerable “tweeters” using the term “creepy.
At the White House summit Biden provoked an even pricklier discomfort by attempting to endear himself to a largely Muslim and African crowd with some talk about how about how some of his best friends back in hometown of Wilmington, Delaware, are Somali. He told the crowd that “if you ever come to the train station you may notice that I have great relations with them, because an awful lot of them are driving cabs, and are friends of mine,” and even the Associated Press couldn’t help but admit that the audience “responded with muted, uncomfortable chuckles.” This obligated a recollection of Biden’s famous gaffe from his 2006 senatorial campaign about the Indian-American ownership of convenience stores and donut shops, although they were kind enough to neglect mention of his 2008 observations on rival presidential candidate being a “clean, articulate” African-American. or numerous other similar embarrassments.
The long history of Biden’s boobish behavior was too much for even such an impeccably liberal publications as Talking Points Memo, where a young writer from the sisterhood was allowed space to wonder “Why Does Creepy Uncle Joe Biden Get a Pass From Liberals?” The author admits she feels badly about giving succor to her conservative opponents who have long complained a media double-standard that protects Democrats from public scorn, and worries that she might be a “bad feminist,” but to her credit can no longer hide her dismay that Biden is not such a national laughingstock that even those man-on-the-street interviewees know his name. She notes some other little-noted instances of Biden’s creepiness toward women, rightly calls him out on his foul language to mark to the occasion of Obamacare being signed into law, although she probably thinks it diminished an otherwise august event, and generously concedes that a Republican guilty of the same offenses probably would have drawn more scorn.
We have no doubt that Spiro Agnew, Dan Quayle, Dick Cheney, and even a vice presidential contender such as Sarah Palin would all agree. Agnew did what Maryland politicians, usually Democrats, have always done, but was brought done mostly by the class resentments of those “nattering nabobs of negativism” that he railed against. Quayle once misspelled the word “potato,” and was scolded by an older man that he was no Jack Kennedy, and his reputation as a fool never recovered. Cheney was too obviously smart to be caricatured as dumb, so he was instead portrayed as the evil genius behind the dumb president. We’re still not sure how Palin’s reputation for saying stupid things came about, although Tina Fey did do a very convincing impersonation of her saying very stupid things. None of them were nearly so boobish as Biden, and even the Darth Vader-ish public image that the press managed to hang on Cheney is quite so creepy, and yet all would have been easy answer to those man-on-the-street interviewers.

— Bud Norman

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With All Due “R-S-P-E-C-T”

We long ago lost track of Dan Quayle’s whereabouts, but we hope he’s on a golf course enjoying a cocktail and a slight chuckle of sweet vindication.
For the benefit of younger readers, we should explain that Quayle served as Vice President of the United States during the late 20th Century and was best known for having once misspelled the word “potato.” The incident occurred at a public school spelling bee, where Quayle affixed an extraneous “e” to the end of the word when reading it off an incorrect card provided by the professional educators who had organized the event, and it was endlessly replayed in the news, on late night comedy shows, and in countless conversations. Ensuing widespread ridicule, much of it coming from people who would go on to spend the internet age calling one another “loosers” on astoundingly illiterate comment boards, effectively ended Quayle’s career in public life. A few apologists for Quayle argued that it could have happened to anyone whose every public utterance is being videotaped for posterity, but they could not dissuade the public from the media’s aggressively promulgated view that Quayle was the dumbest person who ever lived.
This vaguely-remembered chapter in American history was brought to mind last Thursday when President Barack Obama, once touted by the very same media as the most brilliant person who ever lived, publicly misspelled the word “respect.” The incident occurred at a White House tribute to the great soul singer Aretha Franklin when Obama made reference to her classic hit “R-S-P-E-C-T,” leaving out the same “e” that Quayle had inadvertently added to “potato.” Lexicographers will find both errors equally objectionable, although we think Obama’s is more egregious because it not only got the title of a fine soul song wrong but left out of the mnemonic notes..
Obama’s many apologists will argue that it could have happened to anyone whose every public utterance is being videotaped for posterity, and they will have a point, but there’s no need for it. The gaffe will not be endlessly replayed on the news, the late night comics won’t heap on ridicule, the internet conversationalists will concede they don’t know how to spell the word, and the president’s critics will find more substantive examples of why the president is the dumbest person who ever lived. Like the president’s numerous other comic malapropisms, ranging from the 57 states that he’d claimed to have visited to his apology to Austria for not speaking Austrian to his morbid pronunciation of “corpsman,” and other similar non-teleprompted howlers uttered with a frequency George W. Bush himself could not keep up with, this inconsequential error will be politely overlooked.
Still, the incident is worth at least briefly noting. There’s the galling double standard regarding how such gaffes are treated when made by a Democrat such as Obama rather than a Republican such as Quayle, for one thing, and this should be more widely recognized the public. That same double standard applies to the news and entertainment media coverage of far more important matters, and the public has often fallen for similar unfair accounts of who is stupid and who brilliant.
Former Alaska governor and vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin was even more effectively ridiculed to the margins of public life than was Quayle, and her public prediction that Obama’s weakness would provoke Russian President Vladimir Putin to invade the Ukraine was offered as proof as her extraordinary stupidity. Republican presidential nominee Mitt Romney’s claim that Russia was a “geo-political foe” elicited the same sort of snickers, along with the sneering conclusion that the right was still stuck in an outdated Cold War mindset that had been oh-so-jingoistic and gauche in the first place. Contrasted with sophisticated and nuanced view that all the world’s problems had been Bush’s fault and that electing a more apologetic person of a darker hue would immediately set things right, the Republicans naturally seemed quite ridiculous to an electoral majority in the past two presidential elections.
The consequences of this deception are now clear even to such formerly reliable Obama supporters as The New Republic, which has come around to warn that Obama must “respond intellectually” to Putin’s predicted incursion into Ukraine. The magazine’s criticisms are carefully phrased, but basically it argues that Obama should stop regarding Putin as an insufficiently placated potential friend and start regarding him as a geo-political foe. A headline writer at The Boston Herald goes even further, conceding that “Romney was Right.” Meanwhile, over at The New York Times, which once reacted to Obama’s habit of saying “you and I” even when “you and me” is called for by attempting to re-write the time-honored rules of grammar on his behalf, their snarkiest columnist is even making snide reference to the “R-S-P-E-C-T” blunder to launch into the bigger blunders on the world stage. When a Democratic president’s mistakes are so catastrophic that such sympathetic media are forced to acknowledge it, something is seriously awry.
Excuses will eventually be made, of course, and in the end it will all be nothing more than an opportunity remind a forgetful public how that stupid Dan Quayle once misspelled the word “potato.” Here’s hoping that somehow things work out in the Ukraine and Iran and the islands of the Pacific and the American economy and all the other places where the American public was assured of who’s stupid and who’s brilliant, but we also hope that Palin and Quayle can share a cold cocktail on a warm golf course somewhere and share that satisfying chuckle of vindication.

— Bud Norman