After Barack Obama finished his speech last night, a number of TV commentators were asked if they had learned anything new about him. They all said no — and I agree. But if the question was whether they learned anything about Obama from a different speech, then the answer would have been yes. Joe Biden showed that the president likes to hear how great he is.
Biden delivered a speech so full of over-the-top praise, so fawning in its hushed approach to Obama’s greatness, so in awe of his courage, so admiring of his character and so impressed with his indomitability that, at long last, the speech that Jack Valenti gave about his boss, President Lyndon Johnson, can be retired. “I sleep each night a little better, a little more confidently, because Lyndon Johnson is my president,” Valenti said in 1965. Biden is so thrilled with Obama it’s a miracle he can sleep at all.
“Ladies and gentlemen, I’m here to tell you, bravery resides in the heart of Barack Obama,” Biden said. “And time and time again, I witnessed him summon it. This man has courage in his soul, compassion in his heart, and steel in his spine.” You would be excused for thinking that Biden was talking about another man of steel, the one who’s “faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive, able to leap tall buildings in a single bound.”
But even Superman did not always have “that same steady hand,” ask “the tough questions,” make “one gutsy decision after another,” “stand up to the intense pressure,” and, it goes (almost) without saying, have such a loyal wingman as the vice president of the United States, as voluble and colorful a politician as can be found this side of central casting.
God forgive me, but I like Joe Biden. He’s a thoroughly decent and good man. He has a good, if overtaxed, mind that is frequently striving to catch up to his tongue. He possesses a disarming innocence and loves politics for both its content and its sheer theater. He is good company.
But I would have thought that someone in the White House would have said, “Tone it down a bit, Joe.” I would have thought someone would have said, “A little less adoration, Joe.” I would have thought someone would have said, “Joe, this sounds excessive, and the president, a humble man, would be a bit embarrassed.” I would have thought that someone would have said that Abe Lincoln — he, too, of Illinois — would have blushed at this language.
But no, someone at the White House knows that Obama believes what Biden said about him. He is as great as Biden allowed. He is just underappreciated. In fact, Biden’s speech supported stories about Obama’s arrogance, his deep belief in himself and his immense and almost miraculous virtues. I imagined Obama beaming. I felt myself gagging.