Exclusively Online | Fall 2020 Issue

“A Lighter Look” — Oops!

Rick Meyer's regularly appearing column takes a lighter look at politics and public affairs around the world. This month: Joe Biden, Gaffe Machine

By Richard E. Meyer

Pity them.

They have to work magic. Their job is to turn Joe Biden’s words into poetry. But Biden being Biden, it’s a full-time gig just to guard him against gaffes.

You don’t hear much about the president’s speechwriters. Vinay Reddy, Carlyn Reichel. They labor in semi-anonymity (It’s the president who writes those words! Well, not entirely . . . .) Jon Meacham, biographer and historian, had a hand in crafting Biden’s presidential victory speech, in which he pledged “to restore the soul of America.”

As the New York Times noted, those words echo the title of Meacham’s book, “The Soul of America: The Battle for Our Better Angels.”

Many speechwriters have served Joe Biden along the way. But none has ever said the task was easy. Matt Teper, one of his longest-serving wordsmiths, is blunt. “My job was trying to script the most famously unscripted man in politics.”

The president stuttered as a kid. I did too. It was awful. But we both overcame it.

Biden’s briar patch is not about stuttering. It’s about engaging his mind before he opens his mouth. Or as Time magazine puts it: He says “the wrong thing at the wrong time.” It is known as Foot-in-Mouth disease.

Sometimes his gaffes win chuckles.

In 2010, at a St. Patrick’s Day reception, the Guardian reported, Biden got confused. The reception was for Irish Prime Minister Brian Cowen. “His mom lived in Long Island for 10 years or so,” Biden said. “God rest her soul . . . .

“Although she’s . . . Wait! Your mom’s still alive. It was your dad that passed.

“God bless her soul. I gotta get this straight!”

The crowd laughed.

Sometimes, however, Biden’s gaffes are not funny.

During his 2008 campaign, he shared a stage in Missouri with state Sen. Chuck Graham, a paraplegic in a wheelchair.

“Stand up, Chuck. Let them see you! Oh, God love ya, what am I talking about?”

The crowd stood – because Graham couldn’t.

Barack Obama suffered a number of Biden’s gaffes. Time magazine recalls: When Biden filed the paperwork to begin his campaign as Obama’s running mate, he tried to pay Obama a compliment. “I mean, you got the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.”

It was insensitive, but Obama forgave him.

“I didn’t take it personally,” he told the New York Times. “I don’t think he intended to offend. But the way he constructed the statement was probably a little unfortunate.”

Obama made it a point to tell reporters that Biden had been historically inaccurate. “African American presidential candidates, like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton, gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate.”

When Biden telephoned to apologize, Sharpton told him, “I take a bath every day.”

In 2010, Biden tried to tout President Obama’s economic stimulus package. He said to the House Democratic caucus: “If we do everything right, if we do it with absolutely certainty, there’s still a 30% chance we’re going to get it wrong.”

Obama responded: “I don’t . . . [know] exactly what Joe was referring to.”

He added: “Not surprisingly.”

More recently, during his own presidential campaign, Biden couldn’t help himself. During an appearance on “The Breakfast Club,” a radio show trendy with Black millennials, he told co-host Charlamagne tha God: “If you have trouble figuring out if you are voting for me or Trump, then you ain’t Black.”

Donald Trump’s campaign denounced him and handed out “You Ain’t Black” t-shirts.

Joe Biden is not a racist, as Barack Obama would be the first to say. Sometimes he simply doesn’t think.

“I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” Biden said.

All of this is what Biden’s wordsmiths have to put up with.

And protect him against.

I feel their pain.

Their job is to make him say things like this, in his speech last August to the Democratic National Convention:

“Here and now, I give you my word: If you entrust me with the presidency, I will draw on the best of us, not the worst. I will be an ally of the light, not the darkness. . . . This is not a partisan moment. This must be an American moment.”

But even with a handsome speech prepared, or with notes written in advance for a few remarks, he is likely to go astray. He is the president now, not just someone’s crazy Uncle Joe. At summits, Putin is not “pal.” He won’t respond well to, “Oh, c’mon man . . .”

Joe Biden knows his problem. He just can’t control it.

“I’m a gaffe machine,” he says.




The Last Laugh:


After he was chosen as Barack Obama’s vice-presidential pick, Sen. Joseph Biden (D-Del) revealed that he has begun writing a 50,000-word acceptance speech. . . . [It] is an abridged version of a 200,000-word acceptance speech that Mr. Biden wrote when he ran for president in 1988. – Andy Borowitz in the HuffPost


Richard E. Meyer

Richard E. Meyer

Meyer is the senior editor of Blueprint. He has been a White House correspondent and national news features writer for the Associated Press and a roving national correspondent and editor of long-form narratives at the Los Angeles Times.

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