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The sense, sensibility of Joe Biden

By Melinda Henneberger
The Washington Post

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. Though you won’t see this on any plaque in the George W. Bush Presidential Library and Museum, there’s one baton our 43rd president passed not to 44 but to Vice President Joseph Robinette Biden Jr., who must be the most misunderestimated practitioner in American politics today.

Gaffes, Biden’s got ‘em – a natural byproduct of that thing we call “authenticity,” really. But while we’re laughing it up, just as we did at the president now known as the Lucian Freud of Preston Hollow, we’re liable to undervalue the power of coming across like, yes, someone you’d like to have a near-beer with.

When the vice president told MIT officer Sean Collier’s grieving parents, “My heart goes out to you,” at a memorial here on Wednesday, it meant even more, I think, because he has one that he wears in plain sight. And because he has been changed by the long-ago loss of his wife and baby daughter, as W. seems to have been by the death of his younger sister Robin.

Republicans and revisionists may disagree with my feeling that unlike Bush, however, Biden has not only heart for days, but a record of getting us out of jams rather than into them. As vice president, his people skills and knowledge of how Washington works helped get unemployment benefits extended in 2010, helped avert the debt ceiling crisis of 2011 and the fiscal cliff crisis in 2012.

And though some feminists have said outright that he should stand aside for history and Hillary Rodham Clinton in ‘16, I would just note that he’s done a few rather concrete things for women; he’s the guy who drafted the Violence Against Women Act, and who took the lead on the administration’s push against sexual assaults on campus, too.

Again on Wednesday, the vice president said something maybe not quite comme il faut but important, I think, when he called the suspected Boston Marathon bombers “perverted, cowardly knockoff jihadis.”

So what’s so “knockoff” about men who caused so much real suffering? The bombings were by definition the work of terrorists, and the CIA even recommended that Tamerlan Tsarnaev be put on a counterterrorism watch list.

Yet he also seems to have been self-recruited, and to have pulled his younger brother Dzhokhar into his plan.

Yes, their distraught mother told CNN that with her oldest son dead, she doesn’t care if her other son dies, too. “And I don’t care if I’m going to get killed, too! And I will say, ‘Allahu Akbar!’ ”

Still, lots of things don’t add up: If Dzhokhar was at all religious, how does that square with his reported drug-dealing? Was his constant chatter, as reported by the Boston Globe, about “soccer, cars and Brazilian girls” just a cover for his true motivations? What kind of religious zealot says his highest goals are making a lot of money and buying a great car? And what kind of holy warrior clams up when he’s read his rights?

Even the externally devout Tamerlan was known to his brother’s friends as a jerk who loved brawling and complaining, and was plenty inconsistent, too. He boo-hooed about not having a single American friend yet lived off his American wife, a doctor’s daughter named Katherine Russell.

He clashed no less with his fellow believers, reportedly disrupting a January talk at the Islamic Society of Boston mosque by yelling at one of the speakers that “You are a Kafir!” and thus insufficiently pure.

Though much has been made of their ethnic identity, other Chechens don’t have an anti-American agenda, and calling themselves protectors of Islam doesn’t any more make that true than styling myself some kind Christian warrior would make me Joan of Arc.

As Cambridge-born Matt Damon, who was honored at Harvard on Thursday, said of the widely liked younger brother, who attended his high school, “This kid was a member of the community, and I’m sure we’ll all take years trying to figure it out.”

That’s especially true because we’re in new terror territory here. Biden called the brothers “perverted apostles of a decent faith,” but actually, their acts seemed to have been a perversion even of the perversion of a decent faith.

Unfortunately, that doesn’t allay our fears, but multiplies them. Because in this case, terror didn’t have a recognizable point – or indeed, any point at all.

Melinda Henneberger is a Post political writer.
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