There is something about this galumphing golden retriever of a politician — so friendly, so steadfast, so eager to please — that doesn’t click on the presidential level. Three times he’s tried, but despite his public service, despite his ease on the stump, despite his bottomless reservoir of anecdotes (some true, some not) and aphorisms (some apt, some baffling), he never won a ticket out of Iowa. There’s no shame in that. The United States has about 330 million people in it, and only one wins the presidency — every four years. Powerball’s a cinch compared to this. You’re more likely to play quarterback in a Super Bowl.
The apparent end of another Biden presidential bid marks not just the passing of a perennial candidate. It also looks like the end of the white ethnic pol. Though Biden is no Kennedy or Daley, he bears many of the identifying traits of a classic Irish American on the hustings. There’s the blarney, sure, and the heart on the sleeve, but also the pragmatism, the idea that fisticuffs in the afternoon will be followed by a beer together in the pub; the principle that I’ll get mine and you’ll get yours and we’ll all be happy so long as mine’s a bit more than yours.
Irish-machine politics built New York, Boston, Chicago, Kansas City — the list goes on and on. A kind of apotheosis was reached in the early 1980s, when Republican Ronald Reagan was in the White House and Democratic speaker Thomas “Tip” O’Neill ran Congress, two sons of the Old Sod who could never be mistaken for anything else. I imagine they recognized something when they met the young Joey Biden, senator from Delaware, that they would be hard-pressed to find in a younger generation.
They came from a world in which being white and male was just the beginning of one’s identity. In the Chicago of 50 years ago, it mattered whether your name was Rostenkowski, Bilandic, Annunzio or Mikva. The answer told you which ward you were likely to live in and which voters you could count as your base.
How completely that world has vanished was made clear by the brief rise of Beto O’Rourke, the former congressman from El Paso and fleeting hope of the Democratic Party. Robert Francis O’Rouke bears a passing resemblance, in both manner and forelock, to the Irish American prince Bobby Kennedy, with whom he shares two of his three names. His third name, with its O-apostrophe, is a flashing neon sign of Irishness. And yet people kept mistaking him for Hispanic.
It’s not just Irish heritage that has become a nonfactor. I’ve heard a lot of people ask how to pronounce the name “Buttigieg,” but none have asked the question that was so common a generation ago: “What kind of name is that?” (Maltese.) Same with “Klobuchar” (Slovenian). As recently as 1988 — Biden’s first presidential foray — the Democratic nominee, Michael Dukakis, leaned heavily into his Greek American heritage. Today, the geographic origin stories of white candidates rarely come up.
No doubt the melting of white ethnicity in the bubbling pot of American diversity explains some of this. As each generation grows more distant from the homogenous homeland, the whims of romance and free association erode the immigrant identity. It has become quintessentially American to be part this and part that with a little of the other mixed in. Advertisements for home DNA tests stress the idea that none of us really knows from who or where we come.
But it is also true that we’ve elevated other identities above place of origin. If Pete Buttigieg should be elected in November, the headlines will the say he’s the first gay president, not the first Maltese American president. Or if Sen. Amy Klobuchar (D-Minn.) wins, she’ll be the first woman to be elected, not the first Slovenian American.
To be straight, white and male is taxonomy enough in today’s politics, with no further differentiation required or desired. That’s progress of a certain type — proof that the highest echelons of government are opening up to people who don’t fit those characteristics. But progress means leaving something behind, and in this case what’s lost is the brawling, bruising, blatant variety of which those SWMs were capable. The young voters who look at Biden and see only a white guy whose time has past missed the best part.
Joey, they hardly knew ye.
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