Posted: Feb. 1, 2007
By Celia Cohen
Almost as soon as U.S. Sen. Joseph R. Biden Jr. filed his papers for the presidential race, he was caught shooting from the lip once again, this time getting himself gummed up in the uneasy dialogue that has plagued this country since the Framers, revered as they were, wrote enslaved African-Americans into the Constitution as three-fifths of a person.
One Civil War, four Constitutional amendments and an assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. later, it still has not been put right.
The furor over Joe Biden is not exactly a "macaca" moment, not least because he was not trapped in YouTube hell as former U.S. Sen. George Allen was, eternally belittling an opposition campaign worker of Indian descent.
Instead, Biden fell to the old-fashioned printed word, which has much less of a sting, when he was quoted Wednesday in the New York Observer on Barack Obama, his rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, saying, "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."
Biden was not trying to be demeaning and apologized, but it was another one of those times that his words ran away from him and he should have known better. He certainly has had the practice.
It is unimaginable that Biden, making his rounds among his fellow senators, would remark to Joseph I. Lieberman, "Some of my best friends are Jewish," or come upon Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barbara Boxer and say, "Hello, girls!"
Yet he called Obama, a Harvard Law grad, "articulate."
As Chris Matthews observed Wednesday evening on "Hardball," his political talk show, "It is kind of a patronizing term from a white guy."
The irony is, Joe Biden "gets" race relations.
He knew how much it meant to soothe the troubled history in Delaware, once sardonically described as a northern state with a southern exposure, to have an African-American judge on the federal court here, and he was responsible for seeing Gregory M. Sleet appointed to the bench.
His poetic eulogy for U.S. Sen. Strom Thurmond, a South Carolina Dixiecrat-turned Republican, was one of Biden's most soaring orations ever, a sensitive account of Southern atonement.
Biden said of his colleague, "For the man who will see, time heals, time changes, and time leads him to truth. But only a special man like Strom would have the courage to accept it, the grace to acknowledge it and the humility in the face of lasting enmity and mistrust to pursue it until the end."
Wilmington Mayor James M. Baker, a Democrat who like other Delawareans has grown accustomed to Biden spouting off, took this most recent example in stride.
"I did not take it as insulting to me or insulting to African-Americans or insulting to any of the candidates who ran in the past," Baker said. "This is just one of those things that takes on its own life. The race issue is very, very ingrained. Any reference to race can create havoc."
Maybe Biden should have declared his candidacy on Friday, Groundhog Day. Like the movie of that name, this is all eerily reminiscent of the last time that he ran, although there are twists.
Last time Biden impaled himself on somebody else's words. This time they were his own. Last time he was chairing vitally important hearings on Robert Bork's doomed nomination to the Supreme Court. This time the hearings are about Iraq.
Last time he was out of it before the Iowa caucus. This time he certainly has not gotten there yet.
Biden's history repeats itself, but which time was it tragedy and which time farce?