WASHINGTON It was hard not to feel sorry for John Boehner, wounded, weepy, mercilessly flogged by Chris Christie. The miserable-looking Boehner was even scaring small children.
After squeaking out re-election as House speaker when crazed conservatives rebelled on Thursday, Boehner summoned gruff bonhomie as he presided at a ceremonial swearing-in for House members.
But some of the kids posing for pictures seemed a little alarmed at Boehner’s awkward pats, brusque small talk and barked orders when someone posed the wrong way.
The speaker opened his arms to help out Sean Duffy, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who was juggling five small children and two stuffed animals. Duffy tried to hand over his young daughter, who recoiled.
“No?” the rejected speaker asked her, muttering sardonically, “You could be a member of our caucus.” He followed the girl as she rolled away on the floor, trying to tickle her and making Donald Duck quacking noises. That kind of thing may work on Michele Bachmann, but Miss Duffy was having none of it.
It was a day for old-pol shtick. And if Boehner was the nicotine-stained prince of darkness in the House, Joe Biden was the garrulous white knight over in the Senate. Fresh from his deal-making triumph with Mitch McConnell – no Tickle Monster, he – Biden presided over the Senate ceremonial swearing-in and lived up to his reputation for “bringing sexy back to the Medicare-eligible set,” as Politico once put it.
Every time Biden spied a member’s mom, he called out with utter delight, “Mom!” as though she were his own, enfolding the glowing woman in a tender embrace.
He also had his off-kilter moments, of course. He gushed over a brunette accompanying Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey: “You are so pretty. God love you, holy mackerel.”
But it was hard not to fall for his daffy charm – a rare 86 minutes of feeling good about a Congress that has now officially entered Ionesco territory as the most absurd place on earth.
The vice president has come in for his share of mockery by late-night comics. But fox-trotting in to save the day on the fiscal cliff as the “dancing partner” of McConnell, Biden seemed more like an indispensable partner to the detached president who loathes dealing with Congress – a capable, genial Captain Kirk balancing out Obama’s brilliant but rigid Spock.
As the presidential historian Michael Beschloss said on Twitter, “Biden did for the president on Capitol Hill what JFK was always too wary to let the experienced LBJ do for him.”
It was sweet justice for a man who was the victim of friendly fire from White House aides after he blurted out his support for gay marriage during the campaign while the president was still dithering, spurring Obama to do the right thing. From the beginning of their alliance in 2008, Biden felt passionately that he needed to interpret the dispassionate Obama for regular folk. It was an attitude that probably annoyed Obama, who does not like to feel dependent or beholden, having fought his way up in the world mostly under his own steam.
The vice president was in the Senate for 36 years while the president merely breezed through. Obama radiates contempt at Congress. He thinks reasonable people should see things his way in a reasonable amount of time, and gets impatient when ideology, ego, identity politics and pork-project whining hold up progress.
Biden is a realist. He understands lawmakers’ limitations, motivations and needs. He leans right in and speaks – and speaks and speaks – their language. That’s who he is. And he believes, as creaky and unwieldy as the system is, that it still has integrity.
It’s actually fun for him, while Obama seems so often to be pulling back, aggrieved by the need to engage. And Obama ignores those who urge him to be less insular and – like Jefferson, Lincoln, LBJ and Reagan – socialize more with political players, combining fairy dust, elbow grease, intimidation and seduction to get his way.
Joe Biden has a valuable skill: He knows how to stoop to conquer.
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