Now that the real Biden has a shot at becoming the next president, one writer wants to apologize.
“If you’ve ever thought of Joe Biden as a clueless but lovable clod, a well-meaning klutz who is predictable, friendly, and ultimately electable, I am in small part responsible for that image,” former Onion writer and features editor Joe Garden wrote in an essay published by Vice on Thursday. “And I’m sorry.”
After officially entering the Democratic primary last month, Biden smashed records with a $6.3 million first-day fundraising haul and has led the crowded pack in recent polls. His familiarity and name recognition with voters are frequently cited as reasons for his early success, and while it’s impossible to quantify how many conflate the “Uncle Joe” meme with the real-life Biden, watching his campaign take off has left Garden with some regret.
“Instead of viciously skewering a public figure who deserved scrutiny, we let him off easy,” he wrote. “The joke was funny, but it didn’t hit hard enough.”
Garden, who left the Onion in 2012, isn’t under the impression that the publication deserves full credit (or blame) for Biden’s current popularity. But he laments the fact that he and his colleagues didn’t take a more pointed look at the former vice president and his voting record.
Biden, he notes, adamantly opposed busing as a way of integrating schools in the 1970s, and enthusiastically advocated on behalf of credit card companies as a senator from Delaware. Neither of those controversial aspects of his political career was referenced in the Onion’s satire, which had Biden scoring copper wire from a foreclosed home, asking Cabinet members for help passing a urinalysis test, and landing a “sweet summer gig” installing aboveground swimming pools.
“We helped make him more likable by inventing a version of Biden that never existed,” Garden wrote, explaining that he “didn’t take him seriously enough to think we were doing anything wrong.”
Also nicknamed “Diamond Joe,” Biden’s hard-partying, Pearl Jam-humming alter ego entered the collective consciousness in January 2009, when an Onion headline declared, “Joe Biden Shows Up To Inauguration With Ponytail.” By the time Garden left three years later, he writes, the publication had honed its take on Biden. He was “creepy but harmless,” the kind of rascally uncle whose antics would inspire a resigned shake of the head but no second thoughts. He bounced checks at liquor stores, caused a bedbug infestation in the White House when he brought in a recliner that he found on the curb and requested to be named the special envoy to Reno, Nev., explaining that he had already established relations “with a local dignitary named Candi.”
Articles about Uncle Joe’s misadventures were wildly successful, turning the vice president into an unexpected breakout star. The enthusiasm inspired the Onion to expand on his backstory in a 2013 book, “The President of Vice,” in which the fictional Biden brags about setting a congressional record for keg stands and recalls a mystical drug experience in the New Mexico desert. (The real-life Biden doesn’t drink and co-sponsored legislation that mandated longer sentences for drug users.) In one particularly surreal moment, the real Biden joined a Reddit question-and-answer session with the fake Biden to clarify that he prefers Corvettes to Trans Ams.
“My sense is that we’ve done so much on him that our vision for our version of Joe Biden has, in some way, seeped into the nation’s consciousness that people think our character of Joe Biden is somehow him,” Will Tracy, the Onion’s editor at the time, told Politico in the wake of the 2012 election.
By 2015, Biden was fully established as an Internet phenomenon. The Onion wasn’t solely responsible, The Washington Post’s Juliet Eilperin pointed out. On social media, she wrote, the vice president’s staffers had “leveraged his folksy mannerisms and personal quirks to advance specific policy proposals and establish him as an online personality in his own right.” It probably didn’t hurt that he kept being photographed eating ice cream, either.
Some of those old Onion headlines — “Biden Invokes Freedom Of Information Act To Find Out When Woman Gets Off Work,” “Biden Invites Nation’s Women To Tax Code Discussion At Private Mountain Chalet” — seem to have a sharper edge now that multiple women have said that Biden’s close physical contact at public events made them feel uncomfortable. But the site’s overall approach to the vice president was affectionate, and apparently well-received — Biden himself said in 2011 that he thought the Onion’s parodies were “hilarious.”
To Garden, who says in his author bio that he “traded in a life of writing toil to sell junk in the Hudson Valley,” that isn’t much of a compliment.
“We knew through inside sources that at the time people in the White House loved those pieces, and that should have been a red flag,” he wrote. “As a guideline, if the people you’re satirizing aren’t mad, then you should dig deeper.”
The former Onion writer sees a parallel to the way comedians treated Donald Trump in 2016, when the unlikely presidential candidate was invited to host “Saturday Night Live” and famously had his hair ruffled by Jimmy Fallon on “The Tonight Show.”
Given that Trump launched his campaign by describing Mexican immigrants as rapists, Garden argues, “it was immoral to treat him as casual entertainment while he used his platform to promote racism and cruelty.” While those television appearances alone weren’t responsible for getting Trump elected, Garden contends that they helped him seem “like a fun guy who has a sense of humor about himself” and boosted his image. (Fallon said last year that he regrets asking if he could mess up Trump’s hair.)
“Satire isn’t dead, and it shouldn’t be cast aside,” Garden wrote. “It will always have a place in the social order, and that is to tell the truth by constructing a fiction, to amplify society’s negative traits to a comical extent so you can see the ugliness that’s always been there.”
Uncle Joe, meanwhile, is apparently here to stay.
“Biden Pulls Off Dusty Tarp Covering Old Campaign Motorcycle,” read the headline on a March article in the Onion, which went on to have the former vice president declare that “there was an opening for a Democrat who could ride in on 900 pounds of all-American steel and speak to the middle class.”
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