The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

The Onion created lovable ‘Diamond Joe’ Biden. Then it destroyed him.

Former vice president Joe Biden greets supporters during a campaign stop in Georgetown, S.C., on Feb. 26. (Luke Sharrett for The Washington Post)

Joe Biden used to exist only as “Diamond Joe” in the world of the Onion. The goofy, blue-collar uncle washed muscle cars on the White House lawn, huddled with advisers on whether to spend 200 bucks on Scorpions tickets and spent post-White House life in the Everglades tossing whole chickens to gators.

This depiction of Biden as a lovable deviant helped shape public perception of the real-life Biden as someone fun and relatable. And then the real-life Biden decided to run for the 2020 Democratic nomination. Suddenly, Diamond Joe was gone, and the Onion started publishing biting, sometimes vicious satirical critiques of the actual candidate. The just-barely creepy yet fun Diamond Joe is now just a creep. The personable Uncle Joe has become a confused old man. The harmless but cool guy hanging out in the White House has turned pathetic.

After Biden won the most delegates on Super Tuesday and moderate Democratic candidates dropped out to back him, the Onion ran this headline: “Biden wondering where all this support was when he still had a functioning brain.” It comes during a campaign season full of harsh jokes: “Confused Biden tells rambling anecdote about working-class single hammer,” “Biden complains moderators keep giving him ample time to speak” and “'You’re a piece of s--- and I hope everyone like you dies,' says Biden to Democratic voter in stirring call for party unity.”

The changed tone comes as Biden seeks the most powerful job in the country, in the middle of a broader cultural reckoning around sexual misconduct and workplace harassment. Last year, several women said they experienced unwanted physical touch from Biden, a politician who had been seen by many women as a longtime advocate.

As Biden mulled a 2020 campaign, political cartoonists didn’t hold back in going after the former VP over the controversy. It’s a part of his image that the Onion has since homed in on, with headlines such as “Biden campaign concerned after candidate gives unsolicited back rub to coat rack.”

Before this shift in tone, Diamond Joe had been one of the Onion’s most persistent and popular characters. Biden stories and videos attracted considerable Web traffic. The satirical outlet published a fake autobiography, “The President of Vice,” and hosted a Biden-themed party during the White House Correspondents’ Association dinner weekend in 2016, complete with “cold brews, killer tuneage and bitchin’ times.”

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Biden embraced the caricature, even as he liked to point out that he was very different from Diamond Joe. He appeared in a White House Correspondents’ Association dinner video alongside Julia Louis-Dreyfus’s Selina Meyer, wearing a bomber jacket and aviators, revving a yellow Corvette, and getting a tattoo.

Longtime Onion writer and now editor in chief Chad Nackers helped create the character. When Biden first took office as vice president, “it was so different from [Dick] Cheney,” Nackers told The Washington Post’s Michael Cavna in 2017. Whereas Cheney’s persona was incredibly dark, Biden seemed to “just be there to have a good time.”

The first article, “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am in White House Driveway,” led to many more, such as “Security removes Biden’s rowdy buddies from auditorium” and “Biden working his way through scratch-off tickets during Obama’s swearing in.”

“That was a kind of young guy I grew up around in Appleton, Wis., with jean jackets and Def Leppard shirts,” Nackers said in 2017. “It kind of helped that I had a strong connection to blue-collar life.” (Nackers declined to comment for this piece.)

Diamond Joe became a quintessential Onion figure, one with a very specific viewpoint and his own universe. It’s a common approach in satire; rather than making fun of a public figure’s gaffes and misdeeds, sometimes a parody becomes a character that articulates a collective gut-feeling about the person. “Saturday Night Live’s” most celebrated political depictions fall in this camp, such as Will Ferrell’s take on George W. Bush as a charming buffoon.

How influential such pop culture depictions are remains a point of debate. Ferrell has said his Bush character helped humanize the politician, and wondered whether that won Bush votes in 2000. Aides to then-Vice President Al Gore reportedly showed him Darrell Hammond’s portrayal in a 2000 SNL debate sketch to help prep for the next one. A senior adviser has said he believes the sketch hurt Gore’s campaign. Tina Fey’s devastating take on Sarah Palin won the comedian an Emmy, but “I don’t think that show can really sway people,” Fey said last year. “I think you can shine a light. You can help them articulate something they’re already feeling about a given person.”

The conversation has only grown in the Trump era. Late-night host Jimmy Fallon has tried to live down his famed hair tousle interview of the then-candidate Trump. SNL still receives critiques of “normalizing” Trump by having him host the show; his appearance came after NBC cut ties with the reality TV host for calling Mexican immigrants “rapists.”

Noting the Trump controversies, one former Onion writer and features editor has since expressed regret for creating the Diamond Joe caricature.

For some time, Joe Garden wrote in Vice in May 2019, he didn’t take Biden seriously enough. “Instead of viciously skewering a public figure who deserved scrutiny, we let him off easy,” Garden wrote.

The Onion turned Joe Biden into a lovable meme. Now one writer is apologizing.

According to Garden, the Onion found out that “people in the White House loved those pieces, and it should have been a red flag.”

“The Onion’s approach to covering public figures was to establish consistent, world-building takes that rewarded the reader, and our Biden was an endlessly refillable character with good visuals, one that made us laugh. It still makes me laugh,” Garden wrote. “But I’m afraid it didn’t go deep enough.”

The knives are out now. Biden formally entered the race in April 2019, and the next time his name appeared in the Onion, it wasn’t as Diamond Joe.

Jill Biden urges Democratic voters to ignore which candidates are mentally sharp enough to finish complete sentences for good of party,” read the headline.

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