Vice President Joe Biden kisses his wife, Jill Biden, after a 2012 debate with vice presidential nominee Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) at Centre College in Danville, Ky. (David Goldman/Associated Press)

During his tenure as vice president, the Onion has had a field day with Joe Biden. The satirical publication’s fictionalized version of the second-most powerful man in America is the kind of guy who washes his Trans Am shirtless, gets banned from Dave and Buster’s, and flees to Mexico.

But at the same time, another pop cultural narrative has emerged more quietly: Joe Biden as smart-girl sex symbol.

On “Parks and Recreation,” eager Indiana public servant Leslie Knope (Amy Poehler) has harbored a long-standing crush on the man from Delaware, whom she considers the sexiest man in America. Leslie is so devoted to Biden that she went completely to pieces when she met him during a trip to Washington. “You don’t let anything happen to him, do you understand me?” Leslie lectured his Secret Service detail. “He is precious cargo!”

More recently, it turns out that Biden became part of the current fad high school students have for asking famous people to prom on a lark. In most cases, the people doing the asking are young men hoping that gorgeous adult women will help them make a splash. Sometimes, female celebrities actually bow to the opportunity to cement their status as fantasy objects and say yes when the requests are made to them publicly.

Talia Maselli, a Connecticut high school senior, took a different approach. She wrote to Vice President Biden privately, and with no real expectation that anything would come of it, to ask him to be her date. Rather than implying that Biden would look mean or superior if he turned her down, she offered a puckish alternative — asking House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) as a backup.

 

“I am inviting you so far in advance because I’m sure many 17-year-old girls send you prom invitations, and I had to beat them to it,” Maselli wrote, according to the Hartford Courant. “I could only tolerate a high school dance if I was to be escorted by the most delightful man in America.”

Biden, of course, could not make it. But rather than leaving the letter, which Maselli sent last fall, unanswered, Biden arranged to have a corsage delivered to her and is setting up a visit to Washington for her and her family. The gesture was perfectly appropriate, given Biden’s age and station: He made Maselli feel special and encouraged her interest in politics and public service without making himself the center of attention or taking anything away from other prom attendees. He did the same on “Parks and Recreation” for Leslie, who is rising in the bureaucracy, by telling her how great her work is.

Biden’s response is charming, and it explains why a 71-year-old with a somewhat strange job and an intense passion for Amtrak as one of his defining features has become an unlikely sex symbol. What is funny about the Onion’s version of Biden is that it is so incongruous and plays to the idea of the vice presidency as a somewhat do-nothing job, where eccentrics can thrive. But when he has control of his own image in both fictional and real scenarios, Biden — without taking himself too seriously — is showing himself to be someone who is interested in women’s minds.

There is a lesson here for all of those teenage boys trying to get the Kate Uptons of the world to go to prom with them. Fellows, listen up: You may make your reputation with other boys by convincing an attractive girl (or woman) to grace your arm for an evening. But being the object of kindness and admiration is not actually the same thing as being liked.

By contrast, if you are looking to make a long-term connection, Joe Biden is a pretty good role model for how to find and build a relationship with that special someone. His interest in smart women is not just a put-on. His wife, Jill Biden, did not quit her career when Biden’s job took him to One Observatory Circle, choosing instead to keep teaching at a community college and using her platform to advocate for community college students. In both his own life, and in his role as a public figure, Joe Biden sends the message that if you want someone to genuinely like and be interested in you, you have to start by doing the same for her.

 

Alyssa Rosenberg blogs about pop culture for The Washington Post's Opinions section.