Joe Biden's "better" instincts

Perhaps his modest upbringing explains why Biden runs his mouth too much.

Published September 23, 2008 3:27PM (EDT)

The book on Joe Biden is that he is a solid, working-class guy who occasionally get himself into trouble by running his mouth. I think these two biographical features are related. Let me explain.

Biden stuttered as a child, something many people (myself included) didn't know until Barack Obama picked Biden as his running mate. It's easy to dismiss Biden's chattiness as an obvious compensation mechanism: The man speaks boldly and as often as possible because the boy could not -- or at least could not without suffering embarrassment.

But I wonder if Biden's running mouth problems are actually more closely related to the formative effects of his rather modest upbringing, and his current status as second behind only Wisconsin's Russ Feingold as the least wealthy senator in a chamber brimming with multimillionaires. The reason I speculate on this -- and this is a somewhat painful admission on my part -- is that I often exhibit the same pathology.

My dad drove a truck for a living, my mom was a waitress. I grew up, literally, on the other side of the tracks of an otherwise affluent, suburban Albany town. (The trains, which passed within 50 yards of my bedroom, shook my Delmar home at the intersection of Hudson Avenue and North Street.) Don't misunderstand: We weren't poor and I never missed a meal. But growing up in a poor urban or rural neighborhood is, in some ways, a psychological experience different from growing up as the son of blue-collar, non-college-educated parents in an affluent suburban town chock full of third-generation college kids whose parents have Volvos with ski racks and for whom "summer" is a verb, not a season. In my high school homeroom of just 30 students we had at least one kid go to Hamilton College, Princeton, Providence, Tufts, and St. Michael's, among others. I was the first generation to go to college, and I attended SUNY.

Similar pecking orders prevail in Washington. This is especially true in the chattering classes filled with prep school and Ivy League types, which is why I keep a small, blue-collar chip on my shoulder at all times: It motivates me to try harder when some "senior editor" just three years out of Harvard turns down some Op-Ed I submitted. (I often wonder: What does a "junior editor" look like?) In Washington cocktail party circuits I, too, abhor silence, and often rush to fill it by saying something, often trying to impress listeners by promoting my ideas or myself. I'm not proud of this, mind you. But it is what it is because I am who I am.

In Biden I see the same need to fill that vacuum of silence by pleasing, by trying to show he's an honest guy and worthy of his betters. That urge sometimes gets the better of him, which is perhaps why Biden refused to defend some recent Obama attack ads -- especially when he knew subconsciously that he would earn a short-term media plaudit for defending his buddy "John" (McCain) while the cameras were rolling. (The campaign later issued a statement in which Biden walks back his earlier comments.)

This tendency of his may appear to be mere courtesy, or a nod to a long-standing friendship between two senators who have served together far longer than Biden has with Barack Obama. But I suspect there is something deeper at work here. And I know, because I always feel my upbringing bearing down on my shoulders when I'm in public. Of course, all I have at stake is my reputation. At stake in Biden's public conduct is nothing short of what will be remembered as one of the more pivotal elections in American history.

So, Regular Joe, some advice: Even though he's third-generation Annapolis and owns seven houses and more than a dozen cars, John McCain is not your better -- and there's no need whatsoever to defend him or his honor, especially given the deceitful and often quite repellent way McCain has conducted his own campaign. (Sometimes the "betters" don't act that way, do they?) You don't owe McCain any benefit of the doubt, or the media any greater level of transparency than McCain has displayed. You owe your running mate, your party and your country far more.

So concede nothing. You'll be the better man for it.

Update: There you go, Joe...this is more like it.

By Thomas Schaller

Thomas F. Schaller is professor of political science at the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the author of "Whistling Past Dixie: How Democrats Can Win Without the South." Follow him @schaller67.

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