The ticking time bomb that is Joe Biden’s mouth went off. There was a reason I’d been covering up every time he started talking.
The man has many fine and noble attributes. We’ve admired them in this campaign. But he has this problem. It’s that he gets carried away with the sound of his voice and the dramatic effect of his words.
As a presidential candidate in 1988, he eloquently described the wonder of his journey from the working class to the U.S. Senate and, perhaps, beyond. It turned out his words were plagiarized from Neil Kinnock, then head of the British Labor Party.
Then last year Biden wanted to capture rhetorically the powerful and poignant historical essence of Barack Obama’s unlikely emergence, considering who Obama is and where he comes from. Joe fancied that he could use words to rise the occasion. He ended up seeming to say that Obama was the first "clean" black men we’d ever had the chance to vote for.
So it came to be last weekend that Biden spoke at a fundraiser and, oh dear, reached rhetorically for the moon and stars.
"Remember I said it standing here," Biden said. "If you don’t remember anything else I’d said, watch. We’re going to have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy," meaning Obama.
He got his wish. That’s all he said that anyone remembers.
Biden plainly went on to say that Obama would measure up, because he was made of steel. That was no matter. He’d already seemed to say that, if we elect Obama, we’ll literally be asking for trouble.
As if that weren’t disastrous enough, Biden added that — when the inevitable international crisis comes — it would not be readily apparent that Obama’s response to this mettle-testing was the right one. He urged supporters to stand by him even in doubt.
Obama’s running mate was saying this: To elect Obama would be to invite an international crisis to which Obama would fashion a response that wouldn’t make any sense to us.
Swing voters from Ohio to Florida surely went running for the old fallout shelter. And they surely were given to wonder if having Sarah Palin a septuagenarian heartbeat from the presidency might not be the only terrifying vote.
Here’s the deal: What Biden said wasn’t so bad, except politically, which is the only context that matters when you’re the Democratic vice presidential nominee and it’s a couple of weeks before one of the biggest presidential races of our lifetimes.
It is clearly true that this is a dangerous world and it is probably true that someone may want to size up Obama. It also seems entirely true that Obama has demonstrated knowledge and temperament to handle such a thing, far more than his cranky, erratic, much-senior Republican opponent.
But it’s also true that Obama is on the cusp of a great political victory, one to which all conventional metrics point, and that the only thing which might beat him is for his own running mate to give Republicans ammunition for these final days on his chief vulnerability, which is foreign policy bona fides.
The first rule of competition: Don’t beat yourself.
All Biden managed to do was divert attention from a powerful, stirring endorsement of Obama as a world leader from someone with credibility in the arena that’s unparalleled. That would be Colin Powell, a general, a secretary of state, a national security adviser and a chairman of the joint chiefs of staff. A moderate Republican, Powell was saying last weekend that Obama had shown himself better-suited for the modern world challenges than McCain, and that, in fact, Obama was a transformative figure.
It would be too late, I guess, for Obama to dump Biden and insert Powell.
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@ arkansasnews.com.