Joe Biden thought he was giving a compliment.
He says it was a compliment.
He promises it wasn’t an insult.
And it proves: We hear what we want to hear.
Let’s examine exactly what Biden told the New York Observer when asked about Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., as a presidential candidate. This is how it was widely quoted in the press: “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.”
This brought a storm of criticism upon the Democratic senator from Delaware who was actually tossing his own hat into the presidential ring. Now, I have heard the tape of this interview, and there are actually a few subtle but important differences. What was actually said was this:
BIDEN: “I mean, you got the first sort of … mainstream African American…”
BIDEN: “… who is articulate and bright and … and clean and a nice-looking guy…”
BIDEN: “… I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”
Now, you may not think there is a difference. But as any director, playwright or political spinmeister will tell you, it’s all where you put the pauses and the commas.
Listening between the lines
For example, Biden saying Obama as a candidate is “the first sort of … mainstream African American”- and the reporter saying “yeah”- is different from Biden saying Obama is the first articulate, bright or clean African American. But if you don’t include the pause, or the reporter saying “yeah,” which breaks the sentence, you could certainly read his comments as meaning Obama is the first of all those things.
And I don’t know why all these top-notch news agencies didn’t include the words “sort of” in the quote, since Biden clearly said them. If a guy’s going to get crucified over words, we should at least hear all of them, right?
Then again, it might not make a difference. America has become such a tinderbox of our own particular interests, we don’t need much to ignite.
Let’s consider Biden’s statement from three camps: white, black, cynic. I’m not saying this is how all whites, blacks or cynics feel, but for purposes of discussion, let the categories reflect the most sensitive and vocal corners of each.
BIDEN: “You got the first sort of mainstream African American …”
WHITE: Obama IS mainstream. He’s not radical. He talks about unifying people and parties. He has a best-selling book, he does Oprah. Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton weren’t mainstream, Obama is. What’s wrong with that?
BLACK: What’s wrong with YOU? Mainstream is just a code word for white people accepting him. What about Shirley Chisholm or Carol Moseley Braun? They ran for president, too. Weren’t they mainstream?
CYNIC: Biden didn’t mean any of it, anyhow. He’s a politician. He probably hates Obama.
BIDEN: “… who is articulate …”
WHITE: Well he is articulate. That’s a good thing. If only the current president could be described that way.
BLACK: We all know what “articulate” means. It means white people can understand him. It’s a put down to all other black candidates.
CYNIC: Who cares? Biden’s lying.
The sad state of affairs
BIDEN: “… and bright …”
WHITE: Uh, hello? Obama went to Harvard Law School. “Bright” may be an understatement.
BLACK: We all know what “bright” means. It means white people are amazed. They think most black candidates are stupid.
CYNIC: He said “bright” because he didn’t want to say “brilliant.” Biden’s hoping someone will use that word on him.
BIDEN: “… and clean …”
WHITE: He was referring to his mom’s expression “Clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack.” It’s a compliment. Since when is “clean” a dirty word?
CYNIC: He meant no criminal record.
WHITE: Don’t be so sensitive.
Well, you get the drift. For what it’s worth, Biden apologized and Obama said no big deal. But there’s no such thing as no big deal in the world of politics, media and the Internet.
One of the most famous phrases in American history begins, “We hold these truths to be self-evident.” But what’s true and self-evident these days all depends on where you sit.
Contact MITCH ALBOM at firstname.lastname@example.org.