These have to be confusing days for Joseph Biden. He is criticized for plagiarizing the speeches of others and embellishing his academic record -- promoting himself from the bottom of his college class to the top and awarding himself a fictitious full scholarship worthy of his fictitious class standing. If there is a name for such a scholarship, it ought to be called the Ronald Reagan Award for Not Knowing Fact From Fiction. Joseph R. Biden Jr., please stand.
After all, almost everything Biden has done, Reagan did too. The president has been adept at using the lines of others -- sometimes from the movies. For instance, his famous ad lib during a primary debate in 1980 -- "I'm paying for this microphone" -- came from the film "State of the Union." As for getting his own life history wrong, once again Biden has nothing on Reagan. The president has said that he was present at the liberation of a Nazi concentration camp, when in fact he was at the time storming the waiting line at Chassen's restaurant in Beverly Hills -- a move not without its own peril.
At other times, Reagan has repeated historical misinformation with all the sincerity of a man who thinks what he says is true. He has, for instance, attributed the desegregation of the armed forces to the valor of a black galley hand at Pearl Harbor. The man was certainly brave, but the armed forces were desegregated by President Truman after the war.
For Biden, a man at the bottom of both his college and law school classes, such behavior on the part of the president must be confusing. Biden is criticized while Reagan goes his merry way. The more mistakes the president makes, the more he is forgiven and beloved. Why should Biden be held to the truth while Reagan is not?
The immediate answer comes straight from Ben Franklin: two wrongs don't make a right. Reagan should be held accountable too. But the reason Reagan's mistakes and biographical concoctions have not been considered all that serious says something good about him and, by implication, bad about Biden. Reagan has something to say. His conservatism -- his ideology and thus his program -- is deeply felt. His sincerity, although often aided by the actor's artifice, seems genuine. His views come straight from his gut, and while he has on occasion used misinformation and wacky anecdotes to buttress his argument, there is no doubt that he believes fervently in that argument. His entire career testifies to that.
Biden is not given the benefit of the doubt because the questions raised by his actions are really not about intellectual honesty or muddled memory, but about conviction. The reason he has, on occasion, misappropriated the speeches of others and, with British Labor leader Neil Kinnock, even the Welshman's impoverished ancestors, may well be the ultimate indictment of his candidacy: he has nothing of his own to say.
That has been the inside-the-Beltway assessment of Biden for some time. He is considered glib, charming, but lacking in content. His speeches are rhetorical Chinese meals -- tasty, but ultimately intellectually unfulfilling. Certainly that was the case with a foreign policy address he delivered at Harvard last spring. The sounds and gestures of thought were there, along with the requisite citations from both literature and history, but the speech lacked substance. At the end, there was nothing to digest. With Biden, the medium is often all the message you get.
The ultimate message for any presidential candidate is why he seeks the office. Reagan was clear on that account. Biden is as muddled as his recollection of his college record. He seems to have a mountaineer's yen for the office: he wants it because it's there. Unlike Robert Kennedy, Hubert Humphrey or Kinnock, Biden has expropriated themes that don't seem to come from his gut. He seeks the Grand Vision as if it's clothing off the rack. He puts on one and then another -- and then takes someone else's.
The themes of Kinnock in his Britain or of Robert Kennedy and Humphrey in their America were emotionally potent because they were in harmony with both their times and their careers. The same holds for other successful presidential candidates. Jimmy Carter had post-Watergate morality, and Reagan had the conservative correction to liberal excesses. In each case, we thought we had the measure of the man.
But the themes of this, the Reagan era, are more prosaic. They are competence and integrity. Ironically, the extemporaneous nature of Joe Biden, his failure to cite his sources and his embellishment of his academic record have emphasized those themes even more. They are really the ones for our times. By his actions Biden suggests he's not the man for them.