Posted: Feb. 15, 2011


By Celia Cohen
Grapevine Political Writer

People in Delaware probably should be excused if they could not guess who among their last four senators gave the shortest speech the first time he spoke to the chamber.

It was Joe Biden. Not only that, his remarks were the least self-centered of them all.

Who knew? The future is supposed to deliver surprises, but every now and then, it gets outperformed by history.

Biden spoke less than Tom Carper, who spoke less than Ted Kaufman, who spoke considerably less than Chris Coons. Considerably. This is also counterintuitive, what with the times shifting forward from a fixation on senatorial oratory to the tweet.

Not that those bygone days were better, but there just seems to be something wrong about envisioning Henry Clay as @GreatCompromiser.

Coons, of course, is the reason for this look back through the eternal pages of the Congressional Record, where the Senate's words are preserved. Coons made his first address on Jan. 27.

Of Delaware's four most recent senators, all Democrats, Coons took the most time before speaking, nearly two and a half months after his term began on Nov. 15, 2010.

Biden, who took his oath on Jan. 5, 1973, amid the terrible circumstances of the death of his wife and their baby daughter in a car accident, waited a little more than a month for his first words on Feb. 8, 1973.

Carper spoke in two days. The swearing-in was on Jan. 3, 2001, and the speech was on Jan. 5, 2001. Prior experience as a governor and congressman can do that.

Kaufman, the sandwich senator appointed between Biden and Coons, arrived in the chamber on Jan. 16, 2009, and took about two weeks before speaking on Feb. 2, 2009.

Biden's first speech could not have been more modest. He never mentioned its personal significance. He never mentioned himself. He offered a tribute to President Harry Truman in six succinct paragraphs.

In retrospect, though, there was some ironic foreshadowing to his choice. Only the political gods could have known that here was a future vice president, paying his respects to a past one.

When Carper's turn came, he briefly noted his moment -- "This is my first opportunity to address this body, so this is a special day for me" -- before focusing on the Senate's unusual makeup of 50 Republicans and 50 Democrats. (The situation proved to be temporary when a Republican senator left his party.)

Likewise, Kaufman made quick mention of himself -- "I am a brand new senator, but I have been around the Senate for 36 years" -- as he delivered extensive remarks on the economic plight afflicting the country.

Coons must not have gotten the memo on style. Rarely has a speech on manufacturing sounded so much like autobiography.

"I rise to speak in this chamber as a United States senator for the first time . . . the citizens of Delaware elected me to come here on their behalf . . . I am determined to make the greatest contribution I can to solving the challenges facing us all . . .

"Volunteering in Africa and later working with the homeless here in this country . . . as county executive, running a local government . . . I learned firsthand when I was working in the private sector . . . I was proud to be a small part of the team that brought Fisker to Delaware . . ."

Not that anyone noticed much, anyway. The talk has been about Coons' appearance Feb. 9 at the Washington Press Club Foundation Congressional Dinner, where comedy was in order. The video is available on the Web site.

There were some killer lines. "I would like to start this evening by thanking the people who made it possible for me to be here in the United States Senate, the Republican primary voters of Delaware," Coons quipped.

A crack about Delaware also went over well with the Washington crowd -- "I did a bus tour all the way up and down my state. It took about 20 minutes. And cost $400 in tolls."

Coons' jabs at his own William Jennings Bryan-like physique were not as well-received. Not his facetious declaration that he did not have a Napoleon complex but sponsored an "Invade Russia Act," nor his reference to hair plugs, which also happened to blow up a 30-year-long Delaware taboo in which the Senate offices of the follicle-challenged Joe Biden and Bill Roth never, ever mentioned hair.

It did not matter if Coons' comments about his looks fell flat. Jake Tapper, the journalist who was the master of ceremonies, took care of it. He called Coons "Senator Bilbo Baggins."

In this season of first words, Tapper got in the last word.