Talking your way out of the presidency

Joe Biden is not a serious candidate for president, although he says the most meaningful things and does so with the most compelling credentials.

Alas, the man has always walked too fine a line between great substance and rhetoric run amok.

Biden offers a gripping autobiography. He was elected to the U.S. Senate from Delaware in 1972 at the age of 29. Months later, his wife and infant daughter were killed in an automobile accident that injured his two young sons.

He raised the boys while commuting by train from Wilmington to Washington.

Old Senate hands said no one was less impressive as a Senate rookie than the young and grieving Biden, but that no one grew more.

In 1988, he survived two brain aneurysms.

In 1991, he chaired the Senate Judiciary Committee during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill drama, and probably did about as well as anyone could have, considering the incendiary and unseemly nature. Now he's chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and the main advocate of this intriguing notion to carve Iraq into sections behind "soft partitions." It would let rival groups run their own business largely, with central government control of oil money.

But Biden has gone nowhere in the Democratic presidential race, and is certain to go nowhere. And it's clearly personal.

He was dismissed by political insiders decades ago as an overeager blowhard and motor mouth, a man so in love with the sound of his own voice that he would keep his mouth in motion well after he'd run out of appropriate things to say.

He was a semi-serious presidential candidate in 1988 until, it turned out, his glowing autobiographical rhetoric was revealed as not quite so autobiographical after all, but lifted from a British Labor Party leader. To be fair, it turned out he'd usually properly credited the remarks. But on one occasion, at least, he didn't. And Michael Dukakis' campaign had it on videotape.

When I was in Washington in 1993, I found myself in a gaggle outside the West Wing listening to members of Congress report to members of the media about a meeting they'd just had inside with the president. This one fellow kept talking about what "Joe Biden" thought. The guy talking about Joe Biden, in the third person, as if Joe Biden was standing by getting himself talked about, was, in fact, Joe Biden.

Just this year, Biden got wound up talking about Barack Obama. He'd let his thinking lapse by the time he got around to saying, "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."

Joe was trying to be nice and complimentary and to put into context the historic nature of Obama's candidacy. But he wound up calling Barack the first clean black guy he'd ever seen.

You probably don't make a verbal disaster like that secretary of state, though a President Hillary Clinton might find herself tempted in deference to Biden's bipartisan appeal in the Senate and foreign policy credentials, and in spite of his spectacular failing in the one area required of a secretary of state. That being tact.

Let it be noted, though, that he seems to be doing better. In the Nov. 15 Las Vegas debate, CNN's Wolf Blitzer tried to egg Biden into the three-way battle between Hillary, Obama and John Edwards. Biden begged off almost contemptuously, saying the American people don't care about any of that insular negative interplay.

In a previous debate, someone brought up to Biden his famous verbosity, and asked if he thought he might be able to talk less. "Yes," he replied.

John Brummett is an award-winning columnist for the Arkansas News Bureau in Little Rock and author of "High Wire," a book about Bill Clinton's first year as president. His e-mail address is jbrummett@