Biden’s history of gaffes, of course, is long, storied, and infinitely entertaining. Just in his current job, he has made sport of John Roberts’s botched job in administering the oath of office to Obama (drawing the stink eye from the president); proclaimed in the midst of the swine-flu pandemic panic, “I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places right now”; referred to women lacrosse players as “gazelles,” to a Wisconsin custard-shop manager as a “smartass,” to a candidate for the House as a candidate for the Senate, to the Irish prime minister’s living mother as deceased, to the current century as the twentieth, to tea-party Republicans as “terrorists,” and to himself and Gabrielle Giffords as “both members of the Cracked Head Club”; made fun of Obama for his reliance on teleprompters; declared that “the president has a big stick”; and, the pièce de résistance, pronounced the passage of health-care reform “a big fucking deal.”
What accounts for Biden’s boners? The three prevailing conservative theories, that he’s a simpleton, or suffering senility, or both—don’t pass the laugh test. The people closest to Biden offer two alternative explanations, neither mutually exclusive nor unpersuasive.
The first involves Biden’s self-image as an orator of the highest rank. Though the V.P. relishes few things more than speaking, he detests prepared texts and the teleprompters that present them. He wants to add color, add texture, add flourishes—add the ad-lib. Combine that with Biden’s hunger to forge a tie with his audience, and what you get is him holding forth to a roomful of Virginians, straying off-script and slipping into a drawl, snapping off a one-liner easily misread, or misrepresented, as racially charged. As one of Biden’s aides observes, his error in Danville “wasn’t the chains, it was the y’all.”
The second boils down to Biden’s failure, even now, to reconcile himself completely to the constraints inherent in the vice-presidency. “Biden is adamant that part of his brand is saying exactly what he thinks, sometimes in exhaustive detail, about any issue,” says an adviser who has worked with him for years. “The biggest change psychologically he’s had to make is understanding that he’s no longer only speaking for Joe Biden. He’s speaking for Barack Obama, the administration, the whole Democratic Party. You’ll often hear him say, ‘Look, this is just my view, Joe Biden’s, not the administration’s or the president’s.’ We have to tell him, ‘You can’t say that.’ ”
All of which helps explain how Biden allowed himself to get ahead of Obama on same-sex marriage. The V.P. had recently been at a fund-raiser in Hollywood at the home of a gay couple and come away moved by meeting them and their two kids. So when he was asked about the topic on Meet the Press, the strictures of his office fell away: He had to speak his mind, tell the story, make it interesting. The V.P.’s aides could only sigh. Though they have no desire to quash his candor or spontaneity, they do wish they could imbue him with another quality: a smidgen of impulse control.
Biden’s moment of truth on gay marriage would have rattled the Richter scale in any era. But thanks to the insta-immediacy of the web and the infinite loopiness of YouTube, even his most trivial infelicities, inaccuracies, and imprecisions create unsettling tremors. The situation frustrates Biden, but he takes some comfort in knowing that the politician to whom he is most often compared has suffered similar travails.
“President Clinton and I had a talk awhile ago,” Biden tells me. “You know, there used to be in my generation a guy named Rod McLuhan”—here apparently mixing up Rod McKuen and Marshall McLuhan—“who said, ‘The medium is the message.’ And it really is kind of the message. So the discussion I had with Clinton was about how did he think he would have done on the rope lines [today], when everybody has a camera and a dictating machine, being able to instantaneously take three words out of a ten-word sentence and move it. We were both talking about how it generates a different kind of discourse and a campaign style … It’s like, the constituencies that I have strong and closest relationships with are not bloggers, you know what I mean?”
Certainly Chicago and the West Wing do. But after four years since Biden joined the ticket, his mistakes are fully priced into the stock. No one was doing cartwheels when “chains” chewed up several news cycles, and yet Team Obama treated it in just that way—as a cock-up, not a calamity.
“One thing you come to appreciate when you’re in these roles is that no one is gaffe-free—nobody,” Axelrod argues. “Every once in a while, that bluntness and ebullience of Biden’s skids off in a direction that makes you say, ‘I wonder what that was about?’ But in a business full of blow-dried automatons, he’s a vivid, authentic human being. He’s proven himself in really substantive ways, and he’s so good out there [on the campaign trail] that I’ll gladly take the downsides for the upsides.”