The Quiet Man

A running mate formerly known for his running mouth.
A running mate formerly known for his running mouth. (By Phil Sandlin -- Associated Press)
By Dana Milbank
Wednesday, October 29, 2008

OCALA, Fla., Oct. 28 Joe Biden spoke to supporters here for 14 minutes and 25 seconds Tuesday morning -- and that's big news.

Until he became Barack Obama's running mate in August, Biden could take that long just to say "good morning"; now the Democratic senator from Delaware has to give his entire stump speech in that span. On Capitol Hill he used to speak endlessly on any subject to anybody who asked for his view (and many who did not); now he has to read his words carefully from a teleprompter, squinting into the bright sunlight to avoid missing a syllable of the text that had been written for him by his Obama handlers.

The muzzling of Biden seems unnatural and inhumane, like taking a proud lion into captivity. Biden, who once scolded Sarah Palin for ducking reporters, hasn't given a news conference since Sept. 7. The king of the rhetorical jungle hasn't taken questions from voters in a town hall forum since Sept. 10, when he famously said that Hillary Clinton is "more qualified than I am to be vice president" and "might have been a better pick than me." He doesn't even do much chitchat with supporters at events since he was caught on tape on one such occasion contradicting Obama's energy policy.

Now even Palin takes questions from reporters on her campaign plane. But the wordiest man in Washington has to make his remarks short, sweet and canned.

Here he was at an Ocala horse farm reading a seasonal joke written for him: "Look, folks, I know Halloween is coming, I know Halloween. But John McCain dressed up as an agent of change? That costume just doesn't fit, folks."

Next stop, Kilwin's chocolate shop in the Villages, a sprawling central Florida retirement community, where the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee avoided anything that strayed from his assigned topic: ice cream.

"Look at this! Man, this is a dangerous place. Holy mackerel!" Biden said as he entered the ordinary-looking shop. He greeted the server. "I'm an ice cream guy. Is ice cream down that way? Could I get a sugar cone and chocolate chip?" He turned to a friend, Sen. Bill Nelson (D-Fla.). "What you gonna have? It's on me -- I'm the last of the big spenders from up north. . . . I'm getting plain old chocolate chip. That's plenty, God love ya." He greeted a woman named Bonita. "Hey, Bonita, I'm Joe. Not the plumber, Joe the Biden." He greeted a man who said his name is Jeff. "Hey, Jim, where you from?" He found a woman from his native Scranton. "I'll be darned."

But when a reporter shouted out a question about whether Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska) should resign after his conviction on bribery-related charges, Biden said not a word.

Even muzzled, Biden still has an occasional run-in with run-on thoughts, as he did earlier this month at a fundraiser when he predicted: "Mark my words. It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama. . . . Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy." Biden went on to recommended that the donors "gird your loins." Obama later had to dismiss his partner's "rhetorical flourishes."

It was a flash of the unmuzzled Biden, the Biden who described Obama as "the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." Even under the Obama campaign's restrictions, the cloistered candidate still has managed to urge a paraplegic state senator at one event to "Stand up, Chuck," and he gave a version of history in which "when the stock market crashed, Franklin D. Roosevelt got on the television."

Prohibited from holding news conferences, Biden must satisfy his urges in one-on-one interviews with local TV stations. But this, too, carries danger. He got in a tiff with an Orlando reporter who suggested that Obama is a Marxist. Then came an interview in which Biden said Obama's tax cut should go to "people making under $150,000 a year." That didn't match Obama's policy, so McCain pounced, and Biden's spokesman clarified. During satellite television interviews on Tuesday, Biden himself had to explain this and his "gird your loins" mishap.

Biden's worst verbal gaffes of the day were minor, such as when he called the Republican vice presidential nominee "Sarah McCain." At a brief stop to work the phones at a campaign office in Titusville, Fla., he ended his phone call with one voter by saying, "Keep the faith, or as my grandmother would say, spread it."

Warming up the crowd in Ocala, Nelson predicted that Biden "is probably going to tell you later on today that I had a hand in trying to get him be on the ticket." But Biden did not; it wasn't in the words that scrolled across the two teleprompter screens in front of him. Those words included a bit of local color ("It's great to be in a county that produced a Triple Crown winner, Affirmed") a generic quip about the opposition ("You can't call yourself a maverick when all you've been the last eight years is a sidekick"), standard praise for the top of the ticket ("He has steel in his spine") and his oft-quoted father's advice ("Champ, when you get knocked down, just get up").

At the next stop, the ice cream shop, Biden continued to show uncharacteristic caution. When a woman asked the candidate to sign her dollar bill, Biden pointed to the press corps and explained that defacing currency

is a crime. Only briefly did he venture into questionable territory while remarking on how much he liked the retirement community: "In Delaware, you're allowed to adopt someone younger than you. You're allowed to adopt someone older than you.

I'm available for adoption."

Just remember to put the muzzle on when you take him out in public.

© 2008 The Washington Post Company