His wife, too, had a saying he wanted to share: “My wife has an expression: Any country that out educates us will out compete us.”
Finally, there was his mother: “If my mother were here, she’d say, ‘Joe, hush up and start taking some questions.’ ”
In the middle of explanations of tax policy, recollections of his years as vice president or attacks on President Trump’s fitness for office, Biden has a seemingly endless supply of family sayings that at any given moment can unspool like a long piece of Irish yarn.
Some are concise and border on the cliche; others are more elaborate. It’s hard to know which ones are truly original to the extended Biden clan, but there’s no doubt that many have come to serve as a sort of soundtrack over a decades-long political career — and now for Joe Biden’s 2020 presidential campaign.
These “Bidenisms,” whether by design or simply because it’s the way he talks, come tucked into his often meandering speeches in a way that speaks to the family heritage, folksiness and twinkle-eyed nostalgia that have become core elements of his political brand.
Biden quotes most often from his father, a car sales manager who died in 2002, and his strong-willed mother, who died in 2010. His expressions hark to a humble upbringing in Scranton, Pa., and Wilmington, Del., drawing attention to middle-class roots with sayings that anyone can live by: “Without your word, you’re not a man” (his dad); “As long as a person’s alive, they have the obligation to strive” (his mom); or “The greatest gift God gave to mankind was the ability to forget” (his first wife, who died in a car accident).
They are the fortune cookie sayings, a bit of Biden family proverbs imbued in the Irishman.
“My dad had an expression,” Biden said during a June fundraiser in San Francisco. “ ‘Joey, don’t compare me to the Almighty, compare me to the alternative.’ ’’
“My dad had an expression,” Biden said in the first speech of his campaign, and almost every one since. “He said, ‘Joey, a job is about a lot more than a paycheck. It’s about your dignity. It’s about respect.’ ”
“My father used to say, ‘, the greatest sin of all is the abuse of power. And the ultimate sin, the cardinal sin, is for a man to raise his hand to a woman or a child,’ ” Biden said at a campaign stop in New Castle, N.H.
The family sayings are another iteration of Biden’s unique speaking style, one that is injected with a “folks!” here, a “not a joke!” there and a “here’s the deal” everywhere. To drive a point home, he’ll say “My word as a Biden.” To draw a connection, he’ll say “God love ya.” And to express indignation, he favors “C’mon man!”
Still, listening to a Biden speech can be like walking through a maze, unsure of where or how it will end.
The other day, he turned a question about whether Trump has fundamentally altered the presidency into a treatise on the Luddites and looms. He paused — “I shouldn’t have started this because it was too complicated, I know” — before plowing forward, nonetheless. He went into job loss in the retail industry, a discussion about automated trucking, Brexit, demagoguery, mass shootings, the importance of honesty, and how good and decent people help one another fix their flat tires.
“I could go on and on,” he said and, after 10 minutes, it was time for the next question.
But the events are almost always rooted in some colloquialism that can provide him, and the audience, with a guidepost and a bit of comic relief.
They can have advice on love: My dad would “say, ‘Joe, remember, never argue with your wife about anything that is going to happen more than a year from now.’ ”
They can make a point about civics: “My dad . . . said, ‘Joey, I don’t expect the government to solve my problems, but I expect them to understand my problem.’ ”
They can be personal: “My dad had an expression. He used to say, ‘Joey, you’re going to be a college man.’ ”
The sayings are often repurposed to drive home the political point he’s trying to make, and his father seemed to have enough sayings to fit almost every circumstance — even geopolitical lessons.
Standing in Tokyo in 2013 with Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, Biden tried to relate that the United States would attempt to de-escalate tensions in the region.
“My father had an expression,” Biden told Abe. “He said, ‘The only conflict that is worse than one that is intended is one that is unintended.’ ”
Sometimes, they can be a period piece.
While delivering a foreign policy address the other day in Osage, Iowa, he remarked about the number of cancer diagnoses in China. “They’ve got more problems than — my mother used to say, than Carter has Little Liver Pills,” he said, using a saying known in the first part of the 20th century but one that didn’t seem as known to this 21st-century audience.
Sometimes, they can be an excuse.
At the launch of his 2008 campaign, Biden came under criticism for calling Barack Obama “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy.” As part of his round of explanations, he said, “I really regret that some have taken totally out of context my use of the word, ‘clean.’ ”
He then argued that he was simply attempting to quote a phrase that had been passed down to him.
“My mother has an expression,” he told reporters. “Clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack.”
When Biden appeared on “The Late Show With Stephen Colbert” in 2015, he repeatedly cited family expressions.
His mom: “As long as you’re alive, you have an obligation to strive, and you’re not dead until you see the face of God.”
His dad: “Never complain and never explain.”
His mom again: “Remember, nobody is better than you, but you’re better than nobody. Everybody’s equal.”
“You know, there’s another person who said that, and that’s Thomas Jefferson,” Colbert said.
Biden often tries to conclude events with another saying, but he also often forgets to do it. So he’ll rush back to the microphone after the crowd has started to disperse to add the parting thought.
“Every time I’d walk out of my Grandpa Finnegan’s house up in Scranton he’d yell, ‘Joey, keep the faith,’ ” he says. “And my grandmother would yell, ‘No, Joey. Spread the faith. Spread it!’ ”