Shirtless Joe, the emailer, and the partisan divide

The subject line shouted in big bold type: “Shirtless Biden Washes Trans Am In White House Driveway.”

The email was sent Sunday, a couple days after Vice President Joe Biden left Charlotte. I’d had some fun on the radio over Shotgun Joe’s visit. Biden’s the kind of guy who invites friendly abuse, so it would be impolite not to oblige. The emailer was eager to join in, I guess.

“Hey, Keith – I did not see THIS in the mainstream media; maybe you did?”

Attached was a link to the Shirtless Joe Car Washing story:

“WASHINGTON—Taking advantage of the warm spring weather Monday, Vice President Joe Biden parked his 1981 Trans Am in the White House driveway, removed his undershirt, and spent a leisurely afternoon washing the muscle car and drinking beer.”

With the story were photos of Joe, shirtless, showing off tattooed biceps and wearing cut-off jeans shorts.

You can guess where this is going. But first...

Earlier this month, Gallup released a poll showing the gap in presidential approval in the U.S. is wider than any time since they started measuring it back when Dwight Eisenhower was president. The gap is the numeric difference between the approval rating a president has from members of his own party and members of the opposing party. Gallup says it illustrates the partisan divide between Americans.

There’s always a gap, of course, because more Republicans support a Republican president than do Democrats, and vice-versa. With a few dips and spikes, the gap was mostly in the 35-40 point range from the 1950s through the 1980s. But it jumped to a 56-point average for the Bill Clinton years, then 61 points under George W. Bush, and to 70 points under six years of Barack Obama.

Politicians haven’t changed much over the years, so what in the culture has changed since the early 1990s to fuel this divide? Three main things: Conservative talk radio, which gave voice to a point of view counter to the traditionally more liberal media; the political side-taking which exploded cable TV news; and most of all, the Internet. Now, Americans get their “news” from whatever sources align with their ideology, join the choirs to which pundits and personalities preach and pander, and live socially online in search of anything that reinforces their own beliefs. This brings us back to my emailer.

The “Shirtless Joe” story was actually a piece in the satirical newspaper, “The Onion,” published in 2009. Merely typing the words “Shirtless Joe” into Google will produce 259,000 hits starting with the original Onion piece, along with several stories revealing its comedic core. We require more due diligence from middle school kids.

I replied to the emailer, “You know ‘The Onion’ is comedy/satire, right?” He, then:

“Guess that’s why I didn’t see it anywhere else.”

Ya think?

Larson is the mid-morning host on WBT-AM (1110).