My Defining Joe Biden Memory

I don’t want to seem to be piling on, although nobody deserves it more.

I don’t know what was going on in Joe Biden’s mind when he made his stupid “clean and articulate” comment. If it wasn’t racism it certainly was (utterly unwarranted) condescension.


But it brought back for me what was, for me, the defining Joe Biden moment. I happened to be there in the Senate Press gallery to witness it when it happened.

This was back before the ’92 Presidential campaign and I had come down to Washington to observe a genuine profile in courage: then-Senator Bob Kerrey was scheduled to make a speech taking on what was then an explosive political issue, the flag-burning amendment.

The silly unnecessary amendment was sponsored mainly by Republicans whose disdain for the dignity of the Constitution led them to seek to exploit it with a demagogic amendment designed not to address some profound threat to the Republic, or expand the parameters of Constitutional liberty but rather to use the Constitution with all the cheap exploitive symbolic scorn of flag burners: to score cheap symbolic political points against those, mainly Democrats they could label “unpatriotic” if they opposed it.

I have no inclination to burn a flag and don’t share the politics of those who do, but do agree with the Supreme Court that even abhorrent expression is protected by the First Amendment. To me the Constitution is more important than the flag, indeed for me the Constitution is the true achievement and symbol of America. The Constitution is the flag.Long may it wave. Desecrating the Constitution with petty politics is far worse than desecrating the flag.


Alas some cowardly Democrats had co-sponsored the Amendment and some other equally cowardly more machiavellian Democrats had agreed to vote for an anti flag burning Bill (as opposed to Constitutional amendment) on the purported grounds that by voting for an anti-flag burning bill they would deflect an anti-flag burning Constitutional amendment. (This alas, is still Hillary Clinton’s all too careful position).

Among those on the Senate floor the day they were debating the flag-burning bill was Joe Biden, one of the machiavellian cowards, who in typically slippery way was supporting the anti-flag burning bill on the grounds it would deflect the anti-flagburning amendment (but allow him to go on record as brave defender of the flag).

The big moment of the day, one of the best political speeches I’ve ever heard was delivered by Bob Kerrey, a Vietnam Vet who eloquently made the case that he and his fellow soldiers were fighting because they believed in freedom of expression, for a principle not for a piece of cloth.

I know there are some problems in Kerrey’s Vietnam past, I know some consider him flaky, but that stirring speech earned my admiration ever after. It’s a genuine shame the Democrats nominated Kerry not Kerrey in ’04.


But to return to the Biden moment. Just before Kerrey was about to get up and make that speech–opposing both a flag burning amendment and a flag burning bill–Biden wandered over to Kerrey’s desk on the Senate floor and looking particularly unctuous and oleaginous, conspicuously schmoozed him up, put his hand on his shoulder in a comradely way, as if to say to all who were watching that he might well be with Kerrey’s principled position, and that his own unprincipled stance was just a charade.

Either that or he was hoping that somehow Kerrey’s political courage might rub off on him. It was probably my imagination but I thought I saw Kerrey involuntarily shrink from Biden as if from the clammy grasp of uriah Heep the unctuous villain in David Copperfield who keeps proclaiming how “‘umble” he is.

The spectacle of Biden trying to associate himself with a genuinely courageous man while, in sponsoring that idiot anti-flag burning bill, he was in effect stabbing Kerrey in the back still remains in my mind as one of the most repellant political moments I’ve glimpsed. Particularly when set against the ringing clarity of the speech Kerrey was about to deliver.


There was something in Biden’s posture that day–his attitude, his smarm, that condescension–that one heard and felt again in his “clean and articulate” remark about Obama. The lesser man attempting to condescend to the greater. It had the feel of Biden treating Kerrey’s brave stand for principle as some quirk Biden was being–in his more mature, seasoned way–indulgent of.

It’s hard to articulate but it left me feeling unclean just from watching it.


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