Wednesday, September 29, 2010

Gonzo Matt Goes Undercover & Dives Into The Kentucky Teapot!

Read Gonzo Matt's report on the Teabaggers and weep for the Land O'The Free and the Home O'The Brave. We're toast if/when the lunatics seize control of the asylum. If this is (fair & balanced) classic snark, so be it.

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Tea & Crackers
By Matt Taibbi

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It's taken three trips to Kentucky, but I'm finally getting my Tea Party epiphany exactly where you'd expect: at a Sarah Palin rally. The red-hot mama of American exceptionalism has flown in to speak at something called the National Quartet Convention in Louisville, a gospel-music hoedown in a giant convention center filled with thousands of elderly white Southerners. Palin — who earlier this morning held a closed-door fundraiser for Rand Paul, the Tea Party champion running for the U.S. Senate — is railing against a GOP establishment that has just seen Tea Partiers oust entrenched Republican hacks in Delaware and New York. The dingbat revolution, it seems, is nigh.

"We're shaking up the good ol' boys," Palin chortles, to the best applause her aging crowd can muster. She then issues an oft-repeated warning (her speeches are usually a tired succession of half-coherent one-liners dumped on ravenous audiences like chum to sharks) to Republican insiders who underestimated the power of the Tea Party Death Star. "Buck up," she says, "or stay in the truck."

Stay in what truck? I wonder. What the hell does that even mean?

Scanning the thousands of hopped-up faces in the crowd, I am immediately struck by two things. One is that there isn't a single black person here. The other is the truly awesome quantity of medical hardware: Seemingly every third person in the place is sucking oxygen from a tank or propping their giant atrophied glutes on motorized wheelchair-scooters. As Palin launches into her Ronald Reagan impression — "Government's not the solution! Government's the problem!" — the person sitting next to me leans over and explains.

"The scooters are because of Medicare," he whispers helpfully. "They have these commercials down here: 'You won't even have to pay for your scooter! Medicare will pay!' Practically everyone in Kentucky has one."

A hall full of elderly white people in Medicare-paid scooters, railing against government spending and imagining themselves revolutionaries as they cheer on the vice-presidential puppet hand-picked by the GOP establishment. If there exists a better snapshot of everything the Tea Party represents, I can't imagine it.

After Palin wraps up, I race to the parking lot in search of departing Medicare-motor-scooter conservatives. I come upon an elderly couple, Janice and David Wheelock, who are fairly itching to share their views.

"I'm anti-spending and anti-government," crows David, as scooter-bound Janice looks on. "The welfare state is out of control."

"OK," I say. "And what do you do for a living?"

"Me?" he says proudly. "Oh, I'm a property appraiser. Have been my whole life."

I frown. "Are either of you on Medicare?"

Silence: Then Janice, a nice enough woman, it seems, slowly raises her hand, offering a faint smile, as if to say, You got me!

"Let me get this straight," I say to David. "You've been picking up a check from the government for decades, as a tax assessor, and your wife is on Medicare. How can you complain about the welfare state?"

"Well," he says, "there's a lot of people on welfare who don't deserve it. Too many people are living off the government."

"But," I protest, "you live off the government. And have been your whole life!"

"Yeah," he says, "but I don't make very much." Vast forests have already been sacrificed to the public debate about the Tea Party: what it is, what it means, where it's going. But after lengthy study of the phenomenon, I've concluded that the whole miserable narrative boils down to one stark fact: They're full of shit. All of them. At the voter level, the Tea Party is a movement that purports to be furious about government spending — only the reality is that the vast majority of its members are former Bush supporters who yawned through two terms of record deficits and spent the past two electoral cycles frothing not about spending but about John Kerry's medals and Barack Obama's Sixties associations. The average Tea Partier is sincerely against government spending — with the exception of the money spent on them. In fact, their lack of embarrassment when it comes to collecting government largesse is key to understanding what this movement is all about — and nowhere do we see that dynamic as clearly as here in Kentucky, where Rand Paul is barreling toward the Senate with the aid of conservative icons like Palin.

Early in his campaign, Dr. Paul, the son of the uncompromising libertarian hero Ron Paul, denounced Medicare as "socialized medicine." But this spring, when confronted with the idea of reducing Medicare payments to doctors like himself — half of his patients are on Medicare — he balked. This candidate, a man ostensibly so against government power in all its forms that he wants to gut the Americans With Disabilities Act and abolish the departments of Education and Energy, was unwilling to reduce his own government compensation, for a very logical reason. "Physicians," he said, "should be allowed to make a comfortable living."

Those of us who might have expected Paul's purist followers to abandon him in droves have been disappointed; Paul is now the clear favorite to win in November. Ha, ha, you thought we actually gave a shit about spending, joke's on you. That's because the Tea Party doesn't really care about issues — it's about something deep down and psychological, something that can't be answered by political compromise or fundamental changes in policy. At root, the Tea Party is nothing more than a them-versus-us thing. They know who they are, and they know who we are ("radical leftists" is the term they prefer), and they're coming for us on Election Day, no matter what we do — and, it would seem, no matter what their own leaders like Rand Paul do.

In the Tea Party narrative, victory at the polls means a new American revolution, one that will "take our country back" from everyone they disapprove of. But what they don't realize is, there's a catch: This is America, and we have an entrenched oligarchical system in place that insulates us all from any meaningful political change. The Tea Party today is being pitched in the media as this great threat to the GOP; in reality, the Tea Party is the GOP. What few elements of the movement aren't yet under the control of the Republican Party soon will be, and even if a few genuine Tea Party candidates sneak through, it's only a matter of time before the uprising as a whole gets castrated, just like every grass-roots movement does in this country. Its leaders will be bought off and sucked into the two-party bureaucracy, where its platform will be whittled down until the only things left are those that the GOP's campaign contributors want anyway: top-bracket tax breaks, free trade and financial deregulation.

The rest of it — the sweeping cuts to federal spending, the clampdown on bailouts, the rollback of Roe v. Wade — will die on the vine as one Tea Party leader after another gets seduced by the Republican Party and retrained for the revolutionary cause of voting down taxes for Goldman Sachs executives. It's all on display here in Kentucky, the unofficial capital of the Tea Party movement, where, ha, ha, the joke turns out to be on them: Rand Paul, their hero, is a fake.

The original Tea Party was launched by a real opponent of the political establishment — Rand Paul's father, Ron, whose grass-roots rallies for his 2008 presidential run were called by that name. The elder Paul will object to this characterization, but what he represents is something of a sacred role in American culture: the principled crackpot. He's a libertarian, but he means it. Sure, he takes typical, if exaggerated, Republican stances against taxes and regulation, but he also opposes federal drug laws ("The War on Drugs is totally out of control" and "All drugs should be decriminalized"), Bush's interventionist wars in the Middle East ("We cannot spread our greatness and our goodness through the barrel of a gun") and the Patriot Act; he even called for legalized prostitution and online gambling.

Paul had a surprisingly good showing as a fringe candidate in 2008, and he may run again, but he'll never get any further than the million primary votes he got last time for one simple reason, which happens to be the same reason many campaign-trail reporters like me liked him: He's honest. An anti- war, pro-legalization Republican won't ever play in Peoria, which is why in 2008 Paul's supporters were literally outside the tent at most GOP events, their candidate pissed on by a party hierarchy that preferred Wall Street-friendly phonies like Mitt Romney and John McCain. Paul returned the favor, blasting both parties as indistinguishable "Republicrats" in his presciently titled book, The Revolution. The pre-Obama "Tea Parties" were therefore peopled by young anti-war types and libertarian intellectuals who were as turned off by George W. Bush and Karl Rove as they were by liberals and Democrats.

The failure of the Republican Party to invite the elder Paul into the tent of power did not mean, however, that it didn't see the utility of borrowing his insurgent rhetoric and parts of his platform for Tea Party 2.0. This second-generation Tea Party came into being a month after Barack Obama moved into the Oval Office, when CNBC windbag Rick Santelli went on the air to denounce one of Obama's bailout programs and called for "tea parties" to protest. The impetus for Santelli's rant wasn't the billions in taxpayer money being spent to prop up the bad mortgage debts and unsecured derivatives losses of irresponsible investors like Goldman Sachs and AIG — massive government bailouts supported, incidentally, by Sarah Palin and many other prominent Republicans. No, what had Santelli all worked up was Obama's "Homeowner Affordability and Stability Plan," a $75 billion program less than a hundredth the size of all the bank bailouts. This was one of the few bailout programs designed to directly benefit individual victims of the financial crisis; the money went to homeowners, many of whom were minorities, who were close to foreclosure. While the big bank bailouts may have been incomprehensible to ordinary voters, here was something that Middle America had no problem grasping: The financial crisis was caused by those lazy minorities next door who bought houses they couldn't afford — and now the government was going to bail them out.

"How many of you people want to pay your neighbor's mortgage that has an extra bathroom and can't pay their bills? Raise your hand!" Santelli roared in a broadcast from the floor of the Chicago Board of Trade. Why, he later asked, doesn't America reward people who "carry the water instead of drink the water?"

Suddenly, tens of thousands of Republicans who had been conspicuously silent during George Bush's gargantuan spending on behalf of defense contractors and hedge-fund gazillionaires showed up at Tea Party rallies across the nation, declaring themselves fed up with wasteful government spending. From the outset, the events were organized and financed by the conservative wing of the Republican Party, which was quietly working to co-opt the new movement and deploy it to the GOP's advantage. Taking the lead was former House majority leader Dick Armey, who as chair of a group called FreedomWorks helped coordinate Tea Party rallies across the country. A succession of Republican Party insiders and money guys make up the guts of FreedomWorks: Its key members include billionaire turd Steve Forbes and former Republican National Committee senior economist Matt Kibbe.

Prior to the Tea Party phenomenon, FreedomWorks was basically just an AstroTurfing-lobbying outfit whose earlier work included taking money from Verizon to oppose telecommunications regulation. Now the organization's sights were set much higher: In the wake of a monstrous economic crash caused by grotesque abuses in unregulated areas of the financial-services industry, FreedomWorks — which took money from companies like mortgage lender MetLife — had the opportunity to persuade millions of ordinary Americans to take up arms against, among other things, Wall Street reform.

Joining them in the fight was another group, Americans for Prosperity, which was funded in part by the billionaire David Koch, whose Koch Industries is the second-largest privately held company in America. In addition to dealing in plastics, chemicals and petroleum, Koch has direct interests in commodities trading and financial services. He also has a major stake in pushing for deregulation, as his companies have been fined multiple times by the government, including a 1999 case in which Koch Industries was held to have stolen oil from federal lands, lying about oil purchases some 24,000 times.

So how does a group of billionaire businessmen and corporations get a bunch of broke Middle American white people to lobby for lower taxes for the rich and deregulation of Wall Street? That turns out to be easy. Beneath the surface, the Tea Party is little more than a weird and disorderly mob, a federation of distinct and often competing strains of conservatism that have been unable to coalesce around a leader of their own choosing. Its rallies include not only hardcore libertarians left over from the original Ron Paul "Tea Parties," but gun-rights advocates, fundamentalist Christians, pseudomilitia types like the Oath Keepers (a group of law- enforcement and military professionals who have vowed to disobey "unconstitutional" orders) and mainstream Republicans who have simply lost faith in their party. It's a mistake to cast the Tea Party as anything like a unified, cohesive movement — which makes them easy prey for the very people they should be aiming their pitchforks at. A loose definition of the Tea Party might be millions of pissed-off white people sent chasing after Mexicans on Medicaid by the handful of banks and investment firms who advertise on Fox and CNBC.

The individuals in the Tea Party may come from very different walks of life, but most of them have a few things in common. After nearly a year of talking with Tea Party members from Nevada to New Jersey, I can count on one hand the key elements I expect to hear in nearly every interview. One: Every single one of them was that exceptional Republican who did protest the spending in the Bush years, and not one of them is the hypocrite who only took to the streets when a black Democratic president launched an emergency stimulus program. ("Not me — I was protesting!" is a common exclamation.) Two: Each and every one of them is the only person in America who has ever read the Constitution or watched "Schoolhouse Rock." (Here they have guidance from Armey, who explains that the problem with "people who do not cherish America the way we do" is that "they did not read the Federalist Papers.") Three: They are all furious at the implication that race is a factor in their political views — despite the fact that they blame the financial crisis on poor black homeowners, spend months on end engrossed by reports about how the New Black Panthers want to kill "cracker babies," support politicians who think the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power, tried to enact South African-style immigration laws in Arizona and obsess over Charlie Rangel, ACORN and Barack Obama's birth certificate. Four: In fact, some of their best friends are black! (Reporters in Kentucky invented a game called "White Male Liberty Patriot Bingo," checking off a box every time a Tea Partier mentions a black friend.) And five: Everyone who disagrees with them is a radical leftist who hates America.

It would be inaccurate to say the Tea Partiers are racists. What they are, in truth, are narcissists. They're completely blind to how offensive the very nature of their rhetoric is to the rest of the country. I'm an ordinary middle-aged guy who pays taxes and lives in the suburbs with his wife and dog — and I'm a radical communist? I don't love my country? I'm a redcoat? Fuck you! These are the kinds of thoughts that go through your head as you listen to Tea Partiers expound at awesome length upon their cultural victimhood, surrounded as they are by America-haters like you and me or, in the case of foreign-born president Barack Obama, people who are literally not Americans in the way they are.

It's not like the Tea Partiers hate black people. It's just that they're shockingly willing to believe the appalling horseshit fantasy about how white people in the age of Obama are some kind of oppressed minority. That may not be racism, but it is incredibly, earth-shatteringly stupid. I hear this theme over and over — as I do on a recent trip to northern Kentucky, where I decide to stick on a Rand Paul button and sit in on a Tea Party event at a local amusement park. Before long, a group of about a half-dozen Tea Partiers begin speculating about how Obamacare will force emergency-room doctors to consult "death panels" that will evaluate your worth as a human being before deciding to treat you.

"They're going to look at your age, your vocation in life, your health, your income. . . ." says a guy active in the Northern Kentucky Tea Party.

"Your race?" I ask.

"Probably," he says.

"White males need not apply," says another Tea Partier.

"Like everything else, the best thing you can do is be an illegal alien," says a third. "Then they won't ask you any questions."

An amazing number of Tea Partiers actually believe this stuff, and in the past year or so a host of little-known politicians have scored electoral upsets riding this kind of yahoo paranoia. Some are career Republican politicians like Sharron Angle, the former Nevada assemblywoman who seized on the Tea Party to win the GOP nomination to challenge Harry Reid this fall. Others are opportunistic incumbents like Jan Brewer, the Arizona governor who reversed a dip in the polls by greenlighting laws to allow police to stop anyone in a Cypress Hill T-shirt. And a few are newcomers like Joe Miller, the Alaska lawyer and Sarah Palin favorite who whipped Republican lifer Lisa Murkowski in the state's Senate primary. But the champion of champions has always been Rand Paul, who as the son of the movement's would-be ideological founder was poised to become the George W. Bush figure in the Tea Party narrative, the inheritor of the divine calling.

Since Paul won the GOP Primary in Kentucky, the Tea Party has entered a whole new phase of self-deception. Now that a few of these so-called "outsider" politicians have ridden voter anger to victories over entrenched incumbents, they are being courted and turned by the very party insiders they once campaigned against. It hasn't happened everywhere yet, and in some states it may not happen at all; a few rogue politicians, like Christine O'Donnell in Delaware, might still squeak into office over the protests of the Republican establishment. But in Kentucky, home of the Chosen One, the sellout came fast and hard.

Paul was transformed from insurgent outsider to establishment stooge in the space of almost exactly one year, making a journey that with eerie cinematic precision began and ended in the same place: "The Rachel Maddow Show." When he first appeared on the air with the MSNBC leading lady and noted Bible Belt Antichrist to announce his Senate candidacy in May 2009, Paul came out blazing with an inclusive narrative that seemingly offered a realistic alternative for political malcontents on both sides of the aisle. He talked with pride about how his father's anti-war stance attracted young voters (mentioning one Paul supporter in New Hampshire who had "long hair and a lip ring"). Even the choice of Maddow as a forum was clearly intended to signal that his campaign was an anti-establishment, crossover effort. "Bringing our message to those who do not yet align themselves as Republicans is precisely how we grow as a party," Paul said, explaining the choice.

In the early days of his campaign, by virtually all accounts, Paul was the real thing — expansive, willing to talk openly to anyone and everyone, and totally unapologetic about his political views, which ranged from bold and nuanced to flat-out batshit crazy. But he wasn't going to change for anyone: For young Dr. Paul, as for his father, this was more about message than victory; actually winning wasn't even on his radar. "He used to talk about how he'd be lucky if he got 10 percent," recalls Josh Koch, a former campaign volunteer for Paul who has broken with the candidate.

Before he entered the campaign, Paul had an extensive record of loony comments, often made at his father's rallies, which, to put it generously, were a haven for people gifted at the art of mining the Internet for alternate theories of reality. In a faint echo of the racially charged anti-immigrant paranoia that has become a trademark of the Tea Party, both Paul and his father preached about the apocalyptic arrival of a "10-lane colossus" NAFTA superhighway between the U.S. and Mexico, which the elder Paul said would be the width of several football fields and come complete with fiber-optic cable, railroads, and oil and gas pipelines, all with the goal of forging a single American-Mexican state. Young Paul stood with Dad on that one — after all, he had seen Mexico's former president on YouTube talking about the Amero, a proposed North American currency. "I guarantee you," he warned, "it's one of their long-term goals to have one sort of borderless, mass continent." And Paul's anti-interventionist, anti-war stance was so far out, it made MoveOn look like a detachment of the Third Marines. "Our national security," he declared in 2007, "is not threatened by Iran having one nuclear weapon."

With views like these, Paul spent the early days of his campaign looking for publicity anywhere he could get it. One of his early appearances was on the online talk show of noted 9/11 Truth buffoon and conspiracy theorist Alex Jones. The two men spent the broadcast exchanging lunatic fantasies about shadowy government forces, with Paul at one point insisting that should Obama's climate bill pass, "we will have an army of armed EPA agents — thousands of them" who would raid private homes to enforce energy-efficiency standards. Paul presented himself as an ally to Jones in the fringe crusade against establishment forces at the top of society, saying the leaders of the two parties "don't believe in anything" and "get pushed around by the New World Order types."

Unsurprisingly, the GOP froze Paul out, attempting to exclude him from key party gatherings in Kentucky like the Fayette County Republican Party Picnic and the Boone County Republican Party Christmas Gala. "We had the entire Republican establishment of the state and the nation against us," says David Adams, who mobilized the first Tea Party meetings in Kentucky before serving as Paul's campaign manager during the primaries.

The state's Republican establishment, it must be said, is among the most odious in the nation. Its two senators — party kingmaker and Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell and mentally disappearing ex-jock Jim Bunning — collectively represent everything that most sane people despise about the modern GOP. McConnell is the ultimate D.C. insider, the kind of Republican even Republicans should wonder about, a man who ranks among the top 10 senators when it comes to loading up on pork spending. With his needle nose, pursed lips and prim reading glasses, he's a proud wearer of the "I'm an intellectual, but I'm also a narrow-minded prick" look made famous by George Will; politically his great passion is whoring for Wall Street, his most recent triumph coming when he convinced Republican voters that a proposed $50 billion fund to be collected from big banks was actually a bailout of those same banks. Bunning, meanwhile, goes with the "dumb and unashamed" style; in more than a decade of service, his sole newsworthy accomplishment came when he said his Italian-American opponent looked like one of Saddam's sons.

Paul's animus toward the state's Republican overlords never seemed greater than in August 2009, when McConnell decided to throw a fancy fundraiser in Washington for the national GOP's preferred candidate, Trey Grayson. Attended by 17 Republican senators who voted for the TARP bailout, the event was dubbed the "Bailout Ball" by Paul's people. Paul went a step further, pledging not to accept contributions from any senator who voted to hand taxpayer money over to Wall Street. "A primary focus of my campaign is that we need Republicans in office who will have the courage to say no to federal bailouts of big business," he declared.

The anti-establishment rhetoric was a big hit. Excluded from local campaign events by the GOP, Paul took his act to the airwaves, doing national TV appearances that sent his campaign soaring with Tea Party voters. "We were being shut out of a lot of opportunities in the state, so you go with what is available to you," says Adams. "And what was available was television."

In the primary almost a year later, Paul stomped Grayson, sending shock waves through the national party. The Republican candidate backed by the party's Senate minority leader had just received an ass-whipping by a Tea Party kook, a man who tried to excuse BP's greed-crazed fuck-up in the Gulf on the grounds that "sometimes accidents happen." Paul celebrated his big win by going back to where he'd begun his campaign, "The Rachel Maddow Show," where he made a big show of joyously tearing off his pseudolibertarian underpants for the whole world to see — and that's where everything changed for him.

In their first interview, Maddow had softballed Paul and played nice, treating him like what he was at the time — an interesting fringe candidate with the potential to put a burr in Mitch McConnell's ass. But now, Paul was a real threat to seize a seat in the U.S. Senate, so Maddow took the gloves off and forced him to explain some of his nuttier positions. Most memorably, she hounded him about his belief that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was an overreach of government power. The money exchange:

Maddow: Do you think that a private business has the right to say we don't serve black people?

Paul: Yeah. I'm not in favor of any discrimination of any form. But what about freedom of speech? Should we limit speech from people we find abhorrent? Should we limit racists from speaking?

Paul was pilloried as a racist in the national press. Within a day he was completely reversing himself, telling CNN, "I think that there was an overriding problem in the South so big that it did require federal intervention in the Sixties." Meanwhile, he was sticking his foot in his mouth on other issues, blasting the Americans With Disabilities Act and denouncing Barack Obama's criticism of British disaster merchant BP as "un-American."

Paul's libertarian coming-out party was such a catastrophe — the three gaffes came within days of each other — that he immediately jumped into the protective arms of Mitch McConnell and the Republican Party. "I think he's said quite enough for the time being in terms of national press coverage," McConnell said, explaining why Paul had been prevailed upon by the party to cancel an appearance on Meet the Press. Some news outlets reported that Paul canceled the appearance after a call from Karl Rove to Adams, who concedes that he did speak with Rove around that time.

Soon after, McConnell threw yet another "Bailout Ball" fundraiser in Washington — only this time it was for Rand Paul. The candidate who just a year before had pledged not to accept money from TARP supporters was now romping in bed with those same politicians. When pressed for an explanation of Paul's about-face on the bailouts, Adams offers an incredibly frank admission. "When he said he would not take money from people who voted for the bank bailout, he also said, in the same breath, that our first phone call after the primary would be to Senator Mitch McConnell," says Adams. "Making fun of the Bailout Ball was just for the primary."

With all the "just for the primary" stuff out of the way, Paul's platform began to rapidly "evolve." Previously opposed to erecting a fence on the Mexican border, Paul suddenly came out in favor of one. He had been flatly opposed to all farm subsidies; faced with having to win a general election in a state that receives more than $265 million a year in subsidies, Paul reversed himself and explained that he was only against subsidies to "dead farmers" and those earning more than $2 million. Paul also went on the air with Fox News reptile Sean Hannity and insisted that he differed significantly from the Libertarian Party, now speaking more favorably about, among other things, judicious troop deployments overseas.

Beyond that, Paul just flat-out stopped talking about his views — particularly the ones that don't jibe with right-wing and Christian crowds, like curtailing the federal prohibition on drugs. Who knows if that had anything to do with hawkish Christian icon Sarah Palin agreeing to headline fundraisers for Paul, but a huge chunk of the candidate's libertarian ideals have taken a long vacation.

"When he was pulling no punches, when he was reciting his best stuff, I felt like I knew him," says Koch, the former campaign volunteer who now works with the Libertarian Party in Kentucky. "But now, with Mitch McConnell and Karl Rove calling the shots, I feel like I don't know him anymore."

Hardcore young libertarians like Koch — the kind of people who were outside the tent during the elder Paul's presidential run in 2008 — cared enough about the issues to jump off the younger Paul's bandwagon when he cozied up to the Republican Party establishment. But it isn't young intellectuals like Koch who will usher Paul into the U.S. Senate in the general election; it's those huge crowds of pissed-off old people who dig Sarah Palin and Fox News and call themselves Tea Partiers. And those people really don't pay attention to specifics too much. Like dogs, they listen to tone of voice and emotional attitude.

Outside the Palin rally in September, I ask an elderly Rand supporter named Blanche Phelps if she's concerned that her candidate is now sucking up to the same Republican Party hacks he once campaigned against. Is she bothered that he has changed his mind on bailouts and abortion and American interventionism and a host of other issues?

Blanche shrugs. "Maybe," she suggests helpfully, "he got saved."

Buried deep in the anus of the Bible Belt, in a little place called Petersburg, Kentucky, is one of the world's most extraordinary tourist attractions: the Creation Museum, a kind of natural-history museum for people who believe the Earth is 6,000 years old. When you visit this impressively massive monument to fundamentalist Christian thought, you get a mind-blowing glimpse into the modern conservative worldview. One exhibit depicts a half-naked Adam and Eve sitting in the bush, cheerfully keeping house next to dinosaurs — which, according to creationist myth, not only lived alongside humans but were peaceful vegetarians until Adam partook of the forbidden fruit. It's hard to imagine a more telling demonstration of this particular demographic's unmatched ability to believe just about anything.

Even more disturbing is an exhibit designed to show how the world has changed since the Scopes trial eradicated religion from popular culture. Visitors to the museum enter a darkened urban scene full of graffiti and garbage, and through a series of windows view video scenes of families in a state of collapse. A teenager, rolling a giant doobie as his God-fearing little brother looks on in horror, surfs porn on the Web instead of reading the Bible. ("A Wide World of Women!" the older brother chuckles.) A girl stares at her home pregnancy test and says into the telephone, "My parents are not going to know!" As you go farther into the exhibit, you find a wooden door, into which an eerie inscription has been carved: "The World's Not Safe Anymore."

Staff members tell me Rand Paul recently visited the museum after-hours. This means nothing in itself, of course, but it serves as an interesting metaphor to explain Paul's success in Kentucky. The Tea Party is many things at once, but one way or another, it almost always comes back to a campaign against that unsafe urban hellscape of godless liberalism we call our modern world. Paul's platform is ultimately about turning back the clock, returning America to the moment of her constitutional creation, when the federal bureaucracy was nonexistent and men were free to roam the Midwestern plains strip-mining coal and erecting office buildings without wheelchair access. Some people pick on Paul for his humorously extreme back-to-Hobbesian-nature platform (a Louisville teachers' union worker named Bill Allison follows Paul around in a "NeanderPaul" cave-man costume shouting things like "Abolish all laws!" and "BP just made mistakes!"), but it's clear when you talk to Paul supporters that what they dig most is his implicit promise to turn back time, an idea that in Kentucky has some fairly obvious implications.

At a Paul fundraiser in northern Kentucky, I strike up a conversation with one Lloyd Rogers, a retired judge in his 70s who is introducing the candidate at the event. The old man is dressed in a baseball cap and shirtsleeves. Personalitywise, he's what you might call a pistol; one of the first things he says to me is that people are always telling him to keep his mouth shut, but he just can't. I ask him what he thinks about Paul's position on the Civil Rights Act.

"Well, hell, if it's your restaurant, you're putting up the money, you should be able to do what you want," says Rogers. "I tell you, every time he says something like that, in Kentucky he goes up 20 points in the polls. With Kentucky voters, it's not a problem."

In Lexington, I pose the same question to Mica Sims, a local Tea Party organizer. "You as a private-property owner have the right to refuse service for whatever reason you feel will better your business," she says, comparing the Civil Rights Act to onerous anti-smoking laws. "If you're for small government, you're for small government."

You look into the eyes of these people when you talk to them and they genuinely don't see what the problem is. It's no use explaining that while nobody likes the idea of having to get the government to tell restaurant owners how to act, the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was the tool Americans were forced to use to end a monstrous system of apartheid that for 100 years was the shame of the entire Western world. But all that history is not real to Tea Partiers; what's real to them is the implication in your question that they're racists, and to them that is the outrage, and it's an outrage that binds them together. They want desperately to believe in the one-size-fits-all, no-government theology of Rand Paul because it's so easy to understand. At times, their desire to withdraw from the brutally complex global economic system that is an irrevocable fact of our modern life and get back to a simpler world that no longer exists is so intense, it breaks your heart.

At a restaurant in Lexington, I sit down with a Tea Party activist named Frank Harris, with the aim of asking him what he thinks of Wall Street reform. Harris is a bit of an unusual Tea Partier; he's a pro-hemp, anti-war activist who supported Dennis Kucinich. Though he admits he doesn't know very much about the causes of the crash, he insists that financial reform isn't necessary because people like him can always choose not to use banks, take out mortgages, have pensions or even consume everyday products like gas and oil, whose prices are set by the market.

"Really?" I ask. "You can choose not to use gas and oil?" My awesomely fattening cheese-and-turkey dish called a "Hot Brown" is beginning to congeal.

"You can if you want to," Harris says. "And you don't have to take out loans. You can save money and pay for things in cash."

"So instead of regulating banks," I ask, "your solution is saving money in cash?"

He shrugs. "I'm trying to avoid banks at every turn."

My head is starting to hurt. Arguments with Tea Partiers always end up like football games in the year 1900 — everything on the ground, one yard at a time.

My problem, Frank explains, is that I think I can prevent crime by making things illegal. "You want a policeman standing over here so someone doesn't come in here and mug you?" he says. "Because you're going to have to pay for that policeman!"

"But," I say, confused, "we do pay for police."

"You're trying to make every situation 100 percent safe!" he shouts.

This, then, is the future of the Republican Party: Angry white voters hovering over their cash-stuffed mattresses with their kerosene lanterns, peering through the blinds at the oncoming hordes of suburban soccer moms they've mistaken for death-panel bureaucrats bent on exterminating anyone who isn't an illegal alien or a Kenyan anti-colonialist.

The world is changing all around the Tea Party. The country is becoming more black and more Hispanic by the day. The economy is becoming more and more complex, access to capital for ordinary individuals more and more remote, the ability to live simply and own a business without worrying about Chinese labor or the depreciating dollar vanished more or less for good. They want to pick up their ball and go home, but they can't; thus, the difficulties and the rancor with those of us who are resigned to life on this planet.

Of course, the fact that we're even sitting here two years after Bush talking about a GOP comeback is a profound testament to two things: One, the American voter's unmatched ability to forget what happened to him 10 seconds ago, and two, the Republican Party's incredible recuperative skill and bureaucratic ingenuity. This is a party that in 2008 was not just beaten but obliterated, with nearly every one of its recognizable leaders reduced to historical-footnote status and pinned with blame for some ghastly political catastrophe. There were literally no healthy bodies left on the bench, but the Republicans managed to get back in the game anyway by plucking an assortment of nativist freaks, village idiots and Internet Hitlers out of thin air and training them into a giant ball of incoherent resentment just in time for the 2010 midterms. They returned to prominence by outdoing Barack Obama at his own game: turning out masses of energized and disciplined supporters on the streets and overwhelming the ballot box with sheer enthusiasm.

The bad news is that the Tea Party's political outrage is being appropriated, with thanks, by the Goldmans and the BPs of the world. The good news, if you want to look at it that way, is that those interests mostly have us by the balls anyway, no matter who wins on Election Day. That's the reality; the rest of this is just noise. It's just that it's a lot of noise, and there's no telling when it's ever going to end. Ω

[As Rolling Stone’s chief political reporter, Matt Taibbi's predecessors include the likes of Hunter S. Thompson and P.J. O'Rourke. Taibbi has written Spanking the Donkey: On the Campaign Trail with the Democrats (2005); Smells Like Dead Elephants: Dispatches from a Rotting Empire (2007): and The Great Derangement: A Terrifying True Story of War, Politics & Religion at the Twilight of the American Empire (2008). Taibbi graduated from Bard College in 1991.]

Copyright © 2010 Rolling Stone

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Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves

Here's The Deal: Jumpin' Joe Was "The Only Guy They Were Worried About?"

The POTUS (44) needs to send the VPOTUS out into the hustings as when The Trickster unleashed Spiro The Zero back in the '70s. The difference between this VPOTUS and that VPOTUS is that Jumpin' Joe is not a crook. "Getting Bidenized" brings memories of "The LBJ Treatment." Fie on those who want the POTUS (44) to dump Jumpin' Joe in 2012. In the lingo of the POTUS (43), "They misunderestimate the man." If this is a (fair & balanced) panegyric, so be it.

[x The Atlantic]
The Salesman
By Mark Bowden

Tag Cloud of the following article

created at

“Shermanesquely, No”

Early in 1973, not long after he was sworn in to the Senate seat he would hold for more than three decades, Joe Biden attended a dinner party in the upscale Washington suburb of McLean, Virginia. The event, thrown by Biden’s fellow freshman senator J. Bennett Johnston Jr., of Louisiana, offered the newcomers a chance to mingle with some of the Senate’s old guard.

Political analyst Charlie Cook, then a freshman at Georgetown University working as a congressional intern, remembers well both the evening and the presence of Biden, a 30-year-old unknown from Delaware. “A bunch of us kids had been wrangled into serving drinks and helping out in the kitchen,” he said. “All of us were floored by how young Biden was. He was more one of us than one of the senators! And sure enough, when the grown-ups retreated to the dining room, Biden drifted back to the kitchen to hang out with us 20-somethings... It was hard for us to believe that someone our age, give or take a few years, was already a United States senator.”

Elected when he was just 29, Biden was the youngest member of the upper chamber in modern times, and the sixth-youngest in American history. Inexperienced and unheralded, he’d nonetheless ousted a veteran incumbent, J. Caleb Boggs, who had enjoyed the full backing of President Richard Nixon and the national Republican Party. Biden arrived in Washington with the luster of unlimited promise. Back home they compared him to Kennedy, a parallel he would consciously exploit. He was a man for whom the White House seemed not merely a possibility, but a likelihood. In a notoriously revealing 1974 profile that Kitty Kelley wrote for The Washingtonian, Biden talked about becoming “a good senator” and “a good president.” Biden’s sister, Valerie, who had managed his surprise victory, told Kelley, “Joey is going to be president someday. He was made to be in the White House.... Just you wait and see.”

Fast-forward to 2007 and the presidential-campaign fields of Iowa. Biden’s once-slender facial features had thickened somewhat, giving him the look of an elder statesman straight out of central casting. What little remained of his modishly long hair had gone white; toward the front of his otherwise bald dome a patient hair-plug regimen had replanted a thin copse of strands, which he combed back, so that when the lighting and angle were just right it afforded the semblance of a silver mane. And he didn’t just look the part. He was one of the most recognized and influential members of Congress. Scarred by intense personal tragedy, a close brush with his own mortality, and his share of embarrassing missteps, Biden at age 64 was a survivor, in life and in politics. Though the luster of the wunderkind was long gone, the talents he had displayed at the outset of his career had matured. Yet here he was, six months away from the first contest of the 2008 presidential campaign, badly trailing a pack of less-seasoned Democratic hopefuls, mired in the low single digits in every poll, and struggling to raise enough money just to keep going.

It was a mystery. Back home in Delaware, Biden had a bond with voters that transcended issues and party politics, one that bordered on reverence. “I remember being in a cheesesteak shop in Claymont, just outside Wilmington, just eating dinner by myself one night years ago, when Joe came in to order something,” said Cris Barrish, now a senior reporter for The News Journal of Wilmington, Delaware. “It was like royalty or Jesus Christ himself had walked in. He didn’t know a reporter was watching, so none of this was for my benefit, but he charmed everybody in that place for a full five minutes. He knew the names of all the women behind the counter. Everyone seemed to want a piece of him, to touch him. That was the first time I fully appreciated the appeal he enjoys in this state.”

But that unfailing local electricity, which had propelled him back to the Senate with ease in five consecutive elections, stubbornly refused to travel. His first run for the presidency, in 1987, had sputtered out of the gate, when Biden was discovered passing off as his own passages from a speech by a British Labour politician. Now, 20 years later, he was on his way to another early fizzle. In those months before the Iowa caucuses—where Biden would ultimately finish with less than 1 percent of the vote—it was fair to wonder why he even bothered. Might he be seeking something else? Might he be angling to become secretary of state in the next Democratic administration, or even vice president?

Riding with Biden as he raced from one Iowa event to another, Gannett’s Nicole Gaudiano, who had been covering Biden’s trifle of a campaign for one of the few newspapers still interested, The News Journal, asked him exactly this question. Biden crushed the suggestion with such flourish and finality that Gaudiano couldn’t fit the whole denial into the story she was writing. She reported it in full in a blog post:

“Absolutely, positively, unequivocally, Shermanesquely, no. No. No. I would not be anybody’s secretary of state in any circumstance I could think of, and I absolutely can say with certainty I would not be anybody’s vice president. Period. End of story. Guaranteed. Will not do it.”

Today, Vice President Biden’s sunny, spacious office sits just down the hall from the main lobby of the West Wing, at the hub of American power. The other guy on the ticket may have gotten the oval-shaped room overlooking the Rose Garden, but Biden’s—which faces west, toward the Eisenhower Executive Office Building—is only a few quick strides away. Sitting across from the vice president this summer on facing sofas, I reminded him of the Iowa quote, emphasizing the word Shermanesquely.

He leaned back, folding his big hands before him, and shrugged.

“That was absolutely, positively true when I said it. I swear to God. Ask anybody. I never, never, never, never aspired to be vice president. It had nothing to do with who the hell the president was.”

Certain allowances need to be made, of course, for campaign rhetoric. But I believe him. Both quotes, from the campaign trail and from the White House, are so prototypically Biden: direct, earnest, forceful, earthy, overstated—note the triple no in the first and the quadruple never in the second—and ultimately, as it turns out, negotiable.

Biden is a salesman—a high-level one, but a salesman at heart. His father sold cars back in Wilmington, and the son has all the same moves. He is a virtuoso talker. That fluency is not a gift but an accomplishment: attaining it meant defeating a severe boyhood stutter, a feat in which he still takes pride. His prodigious loquacity is not about vanity, as his critics claim—although Biden is as vain as the next successful man. It’s about selling. It’s about the deal. In fact, that’s one of his favorite expressions: Here’s the deal.

In What It Takes, the monumental chronicle of the 1988 presidential campaign, author Richard Ben Cramer had this to say about Biden, then in his first formal run for the presidency:

Joe can literally talk fast. It’s like the stutter left it all pent up, and when he starts talking deal, he goes at a gallop.... He’ll talk that deal until it is shimmering before your eyes in God’s holy light... like the Taj Mahal.

For most of his adult life, Biden has been selling himself. In 2008, he began selling Barack Obama. The vice presidency is a perfectly respectable office, to be sure, but historically it has been a ticket more often to obscurity than to distinction. It has few official duties or responsibilities that rise above the ceremonial. It was most famously described by Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s two-term VP, John Nance Garner, as being worth less than “a bucket of warm piss.” For a man of Biden’s early promise and abiding energy, it is a comedown. But midway through the administration’s first term, he seems to be making it work.

“I was talking to the president about this just the other day,” said David Axelrod, one of Obama’s senior advisers. “He was saying that choosing Joe was really the first presidential decision he made, and that as time goes on, he’s more and more convinced it may have been his best.”

The relationship with Biden was by no means a given. Axelrod noted that not long before being asked to take the second position on the ticket, Biden had been competing hard against Obama, and had seen himself as better qualified for the top job. Lashing together two such big egos was risky. “It’s a little like a shotgun wedding,” Axelrod told me. “Sometimes they take, and sometimes they don’t.”

Declaring his determination “not to be a pain in the ass” to the president, Biden has carved out a dynamic role, one of the most involved of any vice president. He is close to the president on a professional level, but seems content to remain on the outer fringe of Obama’s trusted core. The idea, he says, is to be “value added.”

Walter Mondale is widely considered the first truly modern vice president, in that he was not simply a replacement waiting in the wings, but an important player in the administration in his own right. With the exception of Dan Quayle, every VP since has fit this mold—none more so than the man Biden succeeded, Dick Cheney, who some believed was, on certain issues, actually steering the ship. And while that was an exaggeration, there is no doubt that Cheney built himself a kind of shadow national-security staff during President George W. Bush’s two terms. One of the first things Biden did when taking office, he says, was to hand back many of those positions: “I mean, Cheney had, like, 30, or whatever the hell it was,” he told me. “I said, ‘Mr. President, you can’t have two national-security staffs.’ So I went to [National Security Advisor] Jim Jones, whom I recommended for the job. And I said, ‘Jim, here’s the deal. I don’t want any of these staff.’ And he was like, ‘Holy God, you’re kidding.’ I said, ‘Under one condition: I get to help pick these guys, and I can individually task them [with duties when I need something]. I’ll let you know who I’m tasking, but that’s it.’ We only need one National Security Council. There used to be two. Literally, not figuratively. I mean, literally.”

No one believes Obama would want, need, or tolerate a Rasputin across the lobby. But whether it has been managing the tricky drawdown of American involvement in Iraq, or implementing the $787 billion Recovery Act, or soothing worries in Eastern Europe over Obama’s revised missile-defense strategy, or helping select two Supreme Court nominees, Biden seems the opposite of a pain in the ass. He has made himself indispensable.

During the three-month deliberations over Afghanistan strategy, Biden was the harshest skeptic at the table. Encouraged by Obama, he vetted the military’s plans so insistently that to some in the chain of command, he became the enemy. This evidently included the man in charge of the war effort, General Stanley McChrystal, who was portrayed in a Rolling Stone article joking with his inner staff as they derided the vice president. The president accepted McChrystal’s resignation, and the general apologized to Biden, who says the gesture wasn’t necessary. “To be very blunt with you, I was flattered,” Biden told me. “I mean, it was clear that I was the only guy they worried about.”

Like most modern vice presidents, Biden has been subjected to the constant ridicule and caricature that seem to accompany the office. And he is, by his own admission, prone to verbal blunders. But Biden’s stock has risen steadily in the West Wing, and as the Democrats appear poised to lose much of their leverage in Congress in the upcoming midterm elections, his long experience as a legislator, his warm relationships with his former Senate colleagues, and his relentless salesmanship are likely to become even more important to the president. Even his occasional well-publicized gaffes have served to humanize a leadership team that all too often seems aloof, cerebral, and elitist.

And here’s the curious thing. By stepping back, by sublimating his own considerable ego and ambition, by settling for second place, Joe Biden may finally have found a way to transplant that Delaware magic. In making his own political fortunes secondary, he has advanced them further than he ever could have on his own.

Getting “Bidened”

Joe Biden doesn’t just meet you, he engulfs you. There’s the direct contact with his blue eyes, the firm handshake while his other hand grasps your arm, the flash of those famously perfect white teeth, and an immediate frontal assault on your personal space. He shoulders right through the aura of fame and high office. Forget the Secret Service, the ever-present battery of aides and advisers, the photographers clicking away: the vice president of the United States moves in like an old pal with something urgent to tell you—just you. If he’s in a chair, he’ll scoot it closer; when the furniture’s not portable, he’ll lean forward, planting his elbows on his knees, gesturing with both hands while he speaks, occasionally reaching over to touch your arm or leg for emphasis.

Aboard Air Force Two, when Biden wanders back to the cheap seats to greet the reporters in his entourage, he isn’t content to simply stand in the aisle and banter. He leans, he reaches, and before you know it he’s lowering himself to the cabin floor.

“Mr. Vice President,” a reporter protests politely, “take my seat.”

“No, no, no,” Biden says, cheerfully dismissing the gesture. And then the second-highest office holder in the free world is seated on the aisle floor, legs stretched out on worn blue carpet, elbows propped on the aisle-side armrests, so he can resume his monologue at eye level, close in.

Biden is well known for commuting between Washington and Wilmington aboard Amtrak, a habit he started decades ago when he was a widower with two small boys. Sitting alone in one of those cramped, four-seat Acela booths around a table, Biden would often recognize passengers and wave them over to join him. I had the pleasure myself once years ago, riding the train from Washington to Philadelphia. The space was knee-to-knee intimate—perfect for his purposes—and Biden held forth animatedly for the entire 70-minute trip. When he stepped off at Wilmington station, the sudden silence in the car seemed like a physical presence, the onset of a vacuum. When I described the experience to a friend who’d taken the same ride more than once, he nodded knowingly and said, “We call it getting ‘Bidened.’”

Biden is famous, of course, for talking too much. Indeed, it is exceedingly rare to find anyone in a prominent position who does so much of his thinking out loud. This habit has led not only to a propensity for straying off message—a propensity that has bedeviled generations of his political handlers—but also to an outsize reputation for oratory. The vice president is a confident and skillful public speaker, to be sure, but he is best at rousing the converted, rather than at the higher art of persuading the skeptical and undecided. His thousands of turns behind public podiums have yielded not a single indelible speech. The one for which he is most famous is the one he’d most like to forget: the disastrous campaign-trail appearance at the 1987 Iowa State Fair, in which he borrowed liberally, and without attribution, from the British Labour politician Neil Kinnock.

Biden’s special talent isn’t speaking, but talking. The first is a public act, a practiced performance. The latter is personal and improvisational. All good salesmen know that the key to closing the deal is trust. You need to hold your customers’ attention and convince them that you are just like them. Biden is eager to share his own experiences, because trustworthy men have nothing to hide. He takes you immediately into his confidence—this is often what gets him in trouble with reporters—so that you will offer him your own. His language is instructive. He interjects Look, to make sure you are listening closely. If he feels his pitch straying into abstraction, he’ll stop mid-sentence to say, Let me break this down for you. He’ll dispel complexity with a personal story—My dad, he used to say to me, “Joey,” he’d say.... His syntax is confiding, authentic, and peppered with mild profanity. He repeats himself for effect—no, no, no; never, never, never. Despite his patrician appearance, he is proudly, stubbornly blue-collar—Call me Joe.

Biden always has facts and figures handy, but he seeks your support less with logic than with bonhomie. His own emotions are so close to the surface that when he is excited, you feel it; when he is disappointed or sad or angry, he chokes up and his eyes moisten, and you feel that, too. The depth of his belief is, as Richard Ben Cramer put it, “like a hand” on your back.

Biden admits his weakness for revealing too much on occasion, but he sees it as a strength, a part of his “brand”: his gaffes reflect his determination to remain just Joe, to tell it like it is. But his problem runs deeper. Biden has the limber storyteller’s tendency to stretch. Though hardly a hanging offense—who among us hasn’t burnished a tale now and then?—it’s a dangerous tendency on the national political stage. In addition to the plagiarism scandal, in which he embellished his family’s humble origins, Biden has in the past exaggerated his scholastic résumé, and when selling himself seems compelled to pump up the facts to his own benefit. Remember that comment to me earlier about handing back to National Security Advisor Jim Jones the “30” staffers assigned to his predecessor? It seems Cheney’s staff had 10 people, not 30, and of that number, Biden retains seven who report to him directly, while three others have been handed back, or merged with Jones’s office. So the correct number is one-tenth Biden’s estimate—“like, 30, or whatever the hell it was.” We will have to take his word that they now all work together seamlessly. For many years, he described the driver of the truck that struck and killed his first wife and their daughter in December 1972 as drunk, which he apparently was not. The tale could hardly be more tragic; why add in a baseless charge? The family of the truck driver has labored to correct the record, but Biden made the reference to drunkenness as recently as 2007, needlessly resurrecting a false and painful accusation.

More recently, Biden has told a story of privately upbraiding President George W. Bush over the Iraq War. Challenging Bush’s assertion that he was a “leader,” Biden claims to have told him, “Mr. President, turn around and look behind you. No one’s following.” The former president’s deputy chief of staff, Karl Rove, insists the exchange never took place, calling the vice president “a blowhard” and “a liar.” And though Biden sticks to his story, his past brushes with embroidering the truth continue to haunt him.

Though plenty smart, Biden is not an intellectual. He makes few references to books and learned influences in his speeches and autobiography, and he displays little interest in theory. An indifferent student at the University of Delaware and Syracuse University College of Law—he describes the latter as “boring”—Biden got by with prodigious cramming sessions. Today, by contrast, he is described by Tony Blinken, Biden’s national-security adviser, as a compulsive studier who likes to be overbriefed.

“He likes to tell the story of the time he got up on the Senate floor to deliver a speech on a bill concerning stripper wells”—that is, oil wells nearing the end of their productive lives—Blinken said. “When he finished, an opponent, Senator Russell Long, from Louisiana, got up and asked, ‘Senator Biden, have you ever seen a stripper well?’ He had not. Long proceeded to demonstrate such an intimate knowledge of wells and oil extraction that the import of Biden’s own argument was just overwhelmed. Now he demands that his briefings go 50 feet deep, even if the discussion is only expected to go five feet deep.”

As a senator, his proudest legislative accomplishment was the Violence Against Women Act of 1994, which broadened law enforcement’s tools to protect women from abusive partners. Biden’s congressional voting record was generally left of center, but not dramatically so. He was inspired as a young man by the civil-rights movement, he is a strong civil libertarian, and he clearly sees an active role for government in American life. But at the same time, the laissez-faire U.S. Chamber of Commerce has sometimes rated him highly for a liberal lawmaker—as high as 71 percent in 2008.

In his personal life, Biden could hardly be more traditional. In the scruffy ’60s, when so many young men of his generation went unkempt as a social and political statement, Biden dressed up for class in college, sometimes wearing a tie. He says his first wife, Neilia, described him as “the most socially conservative man she had ever known.”

Though Biden prides himself on his foreign-policy fluency, he’s been all over the map on national-security issues. Author Tom Ricks likes to point out that Biden voted against the Gulf War in 1991 (a quick triumph); in favor of the invasion of Iraq in 2003 (a prolonged disaster); and against the “surge” in troops to Iraq in 2007 (a remarkable success). Though Biden has sometimes opposed military action, during the Bosnian War his was the loudest voice in Congress in favor of arming the Muslim minority and encouraging the NATO air strikes against the Serbs.

On the global stage, as in Delaware, the guideposts in Biden’s political landscape are often not ideas, but people. Many of the world leaders with whom the United States has business are men and women he has known for years, even decades. In fall 2009, for example, after Obama had decided to abandon plans to build land-based missile defenses in eastern Europe—a move interpreted as a concession to Moscow—the White House sent Biden on a three-day swing through Poland, Romania, and the Czech Republic to reassure the leaders of those countries that their security would not be compromised. Biden had mastered the details of the issue—the virtues of sea-based anti-missile technology versus land-based, and so on—but his most important asset was that he knew many of the leaders personally.

Barry Pavel, senior director for defense policy on the National Security Council, was along on that trip. He describes the way Biden, in high-level meetings, would wave his hand and reduce the expert advisers accompanying him to decorative furniture. “It’s a thing he does,” Pavel said, referring specifically to discussions Biden held in Warsaw with Polish leaders. “We’re across the long tables with the coffee and the water and stuff, in these formal meetings, and he’ll say, ‘Now, these guys are going to tell you all the statistics and these are the brainiacs, but I’m here to tell you, this is much better for Polish security. I’m here to tell you, this is in your interest.’ He connects in a very streetwise way.... And that’s something I couldn’t do, and there are few people in the government who could play the role, I think.”

And once he has connected, once he’s leaned in close and has your undivided attention... well, watch your wallet.

Here’s the deal.

Rags to Riches

In his 2004 book, The Seven Basic Plots, British author Christopher Booker distills down what he considers the archetypal human narratives. The second of these (after “Overcoming the Monster”) is “Rags to Riches,” which he defines thus:

We see an ordinary, insignificant person, dismissed by everyone as of little account, who suddenly steps to the centre of the stage, revealed to be someone quite exceptional.

This is, in effect, the story that Biden tells in his 2007 campaign autobiography, Promises to Keep.

We begin with little Joey Biden, growing up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, crippled by a stutter so dreadful that he is dubbed Joey “Bye-Bye” Biden or “Joe Impedimenta,” by classmates and teachers alike. He overcomes the disability through diligent practice and eventually delivers a speech at his high-school graduation.

Like many of the heroes in rags-to-riches tales, Biden is a lost child of privilege, a prince among paupers. His father had grown up close to a wealthy maternal cousin, with whom he shared a posh life of country estates, sailing, and partying. But a series of business ventures gone sour sent the senior Joe Biden crashing back down to the blue-collar streets of Scranton, where he was reduced to moving his family in with his in-laws and eventually taking a job as a car salesman when he moved his family to Delaware. “He was the most elegantly dressed, perfectly manicured, perfectly tailored car sales manager,” Biden wrote. “He was a great dancer. He loved to sing, and he had a thoroughgoing grace; I never saw him flustered in a social setting.”

In Joey’s eyes, the family had been exiled from wealth and social standing; regaining this lost patrimony has been one of the central themes of Biden’s life. As a boy, he set his heart on Archmere Academy, a Catholic prep school on a leafy campus across the road from the house his family moved to in Claymont, Delaware, when Joey was 10. His parents couldn’t afford the full tuition, but Joey eventually entered a work-study program, and labored on the school’s grounds crew in order to attend classes with the elite. He was a handsome boy and a good athlete, and he worked hard at fitting in, at looking and sounding the part. Biden’s fascination with the outward trappings of wealth is evident in his description of his first visit to the upstate New York home of his eventual first wife, Neilia Hunter:

The first time I pulled up to Neilia’s house on the lake, I realized that the Hunters were different from the Bidens. Her dad had done well in the restaurant business. Even in the dark I could see the outlines of the house, and it was huge by my standards.

Biden would later marry Neilia, finish law school, and set out to build for them the same kind of lavish life. He had the taste and style of an affluent young man, and what he lacked in money he made up for in drive. Cramer vividly records the newly married Biden’s pursuit of a suburban mansion equal to his ambitions, an estate that had once belonged to Delaware’s native gentry, the du Ponts. It was a purchase that stretched his real and projected means beyond easy belief, but Biden was undeterred. He pursued it with an enthusiasm bordering on obsession, exhibiting the kind of optimism and artful deal-making that would distinguish his whole adult life. He got the house, and has since assiduously maintained the affluent lifestyle he grew up admiring.

Biden’s rise was so rapid that his future prospects seemed limitless. Before he was 30, he had an enviable suburban homestead with a beautiful wife and three children, and had somehow managed to win election to the United States Senate. But it all came tumbling down in an instant on December 18, 1972. Just weeks after the election, before Biden had been sworn in, Neilia accidentally steered her car into the path of a truck in rural Delaware. The collision killed her and their baby daughter, Naomi. Their two young sons, Beau and Hunter, were severely injured. Overcome with grief, Biden questioned his faith, contemplated suicide, and was so filled with rage that he walked the streets of Wilmington at night, half-looking for a fight.

One of his first decisions was to abandon his hard-won Senate seat. He memorably told reporters, “We can find another senator; my boys cannot find another father.” Ironically, it was this heartfelt statement that may have permanently cemented Delaware’s passion for its young senator. He was eventually persuaded to change his mind, as he tells it, by the kindness and stubbornness of then–Majority Leader Mike Mansfield and other prominent senators. He took his seat a few days after the other members of his class had been sworn in, in 1973. It was arranged for him to take his oath of office beside the hospital bed where Beau was recovering from his injuries. Even then, he still had his doubts. He began making plans to move with his boys to Vermont, to start over where no one knew them.

Biden’s ferocious love for his sons was a testimony to his character that would endure through decades of commuting home every night to Wilmington. Who could fail to be moved by it? If such a thing happened today—a promising junior senator, stricken with tragedy, soldiering through his grief, gathering close his wounded boys—it would play out breathlessly on cable TV and the Internet before the entire world. In 1972, it was primarily a local story, which made its impact at home all the more intense. It touched hearts in every corner of Delaware, and voters there have never forgotten. It explains the deep connection reporter Cris Barrish witnessed at the Claymont steak shop all those years ago.

Biden and his boys gradually recovered and, over time, the young senator emerged as the most eligible bachelor in Washington. In 1974, when he was interviewed for The Washingtonian by Kitty Kelley, an early pioneer in the art of the embarrassing celebrity profile, Kelley clearly charmed her subject. Biden foolishly (and typically) took her into his confidence, speaking openly of his grief, and in startlingly intimate terms about his relationship with the departed Neilia. Biden described her as “my very best friend, my greatest ally, my sensuous lover.” The two of them had enjoyed a “sensational” marriage, sharing everything “from sex to sports.” He spoke of his ability to “satisfy her in bed” and, showing Kelley a picture of Neilia in a bikini, enthused that “she had the best body of any woman I ever saw. She looks better than a Playboy bunny, doesn’t she?” He spoke openly, needily, of his desire to meet the right woman and remarry: “I want to find a woman to adore me again.”

It was painful to read, especially for Biden. In his autobiography, he wrote: “It was devastating. I’d been very wary of the press until then. Now I began to actively hate it.” But he had done this to himself. For all its prurience, the story captured Biden exactly: the frank emotionalism, the recklessly unguarded nature, the penchant for drama, the ambition, the unashamed romanticism.

Romance would return not long after, when Biden spotted Jill Jacobs—like Neilia, a gorgeous blonde—in posters advertising Delaware’s New Castle County park system. They were set up on a blind date, and he swept her off her feet. She married Biden in 1977, raised Beau and Hunter, and gave birth to the couple’s daughter, Ashley, in 1981. Together, they restored the perfect picture, and set Joey’s rags-to-riches story back on the rails. Biden received a bad scare in 1988, when a brain aneurysm came near enough to killing him that a priest administered last rites. But he recovered from this, too. (When he speaks of it, Biden often credits his humiliating plagiarism stumble in the prior year’s presidential campaign with saving his life; had he stayed in the race, he says, he likely would have ignored the warning signs that sent him to the doctor.)

Though Biden is consistently ranked as among the least-wealthy U.S. senators, his family has enjoyed a distinctly affluent lifestyle. All three children attended Ivy League schools; eldest son Beau is now the attorney general of Delaware. But if appearances are one thing, the Biden brand is another. Despite the suburban estate, the well-tailored suits, the impressive golf game—Biden shot a 77 the first time Obama invited him out, and he likes to joke that he has not been invited back (he has been)—Biden is still the kid on the grounds crew, the kid with something to prove, Joey Bye-Bye from the streets of Scranton.

Anything You Want

According to Biden, it went like this: it was spring 2008. He was out of the race for president. He knew his campaign was dead when he finished fifth in Iowa—“We got our asses kicked” is how he puts it—behind Obama, John Edwards, Hillary Clinton, and even New Mexico Governor Bill Richardson. “It was no problem,” he told me. “I ran my race. I have no regrets. Went out and did what I thought. Said what I said.”

Obama and Clinton were slugging it out in the remaining primaries, and Biden was back to being the senior senator from Delaware and chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee, still commuting most days in his familiar seat on the Acela. It was there, in fact, in June, that he fielded the first call from Obama about the vice presidency.

During the campaign, he had mocked the freshman Illinois senator for parroting his own more seasoned views on complex issues, had notoriously patronized him as “the first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” and had repeatedly characterized Obama as too inexperienced for the job. But that was all part of the game, Biden says. The two men liked each other, and Biden respected Obama’s political skills. Still, it would have been hard for Biden not to see this 46-year-old, first-term colleague as a parvenu, as someone cutting in line. But such is the nature of political stardom in America. Biden’s early role model, Jack Kennedy, had been even younger when he ran for president.

“Joe,” Obama said, “I’d like your permission to vet you.”

For someone in Biden’s position, this was not a surprise. He had declined to endorse either Clinton or Obama after dropping out of the race months earlier, and had offered both candidates advice in the months since. On a trip to the Virgin Islands after he dropped out, he and Jill had talked through the option of accepting a job in a new Democratic administration—Biden thought Clinton was as likely to ask him as Obama was—and they had decided he would not, regardless of who won the nomination. But one remote possibility remained. It had come up in a conversation with John Marttila, one of his senior advisers, at a final meeting of his campaign staff.

Marttila told him, “You really ought to be vice president.”

“John, I do not want to be vice president,” Biden replied. “Do not talk up vice president for me, okay?”

Mike Donilon, a campaign consultant, reminded Biden of the importance that civil rights had held for him throughout his career. “You mean to tell me,” Donilon asked, “if an African American tells you that he needs you on the ticket in order to win, you’ll say no?”

The question was left hanging. There was no certainty at that point that Obama would be the nominee. Months later, when the call on the train came, that prospect was more certain. But Biden doubted that Obama would end up choosing him. There was the friction between the two men during the campaign, for one. And more than that, Biden was leery of becoming a vice-presidential also-ran, whose name was floated and then discarded. He had seen presidential front-runners “drag that bloody rag through the Senate,” he said, giving everyone the scent.

He told Obama: “No, no, no. Look, pal, I told you I’d help you. I’ll do anything you want.”

So, said Obama, why the hesitation?

“Yeah, but that didn’t include vice president,” said Biden.

Obama said he thought “anything” should mean anything, adding, “I need an answer now.”

“If you need an answer now, the answer’s no,” Biden said.

“Well, how much time do you need?” Obama asked.

“I don’t need any more time.”

Obama told Biden to think about it more anyway. So Biden called a family meeting. Present were Jill, their sons, his sister, Valerie, and longtime aide Ted Kaufman, who has since been appointed to Biden’s Senate seat.

“I don’t want to do this,” Biden told them. But Jill’s reaction surprised him, given the decisions they had made on vacation.

“You really ought to do it,” she said.

Jill, whom Biden describes as fiercely partisan, was alarmed by the possibility of continued Republican governance, of John McCain in the White House. “You can’t possibly let that happen,” she said. And Biden came back to Donilon’s point, and the central role civil rights had played throughout his political career. How could he refuse to help the first viable African American candidate?

So Biden called Obama back and agreed to be vetted. “But here’s the condition,” he said. “Even if you pick me, I’m not prepared to accept it unless you and I have some very long conversations.”

Which is why months later, on August 6, 2008, when the list of prospective running mates had been whittled down to two or three, Biden flew to Minneapolis for a secret meeting with the Democratic nominee. A private jet picked him up at the small Wilmington airport. (“A Learjet, or something like that,” Biden said. “I sure would like to have had one of those when I was campaigning.”) He was smuggled into the candidate’s hotel through an underground garage. They talked for three hours.

The political logic in choosing Biden was plain. He was the picture of a traditional American elder statesman, a perfect balance to the newcomer at the top of the ticket with the dark skin and foreign-sounding name. Biden’s decades of experience would add heft to Obama’s slender résumé and, at the same time, his Joey-Bye-Bye-from-Scranton persona might be able to shore up Obama’s weakness with white, blue-collar voters—a vulnerability Clinton had revealed and exploited.

But even if choosing Biden made sense for Obama, did it make sense for Biden?

According to an account of that Minnesota conversation Biden gave to The New Yorker, the two men discussed everything from “foreign policy and possible appointments to the federal courts to the legislative strategy that would be needed to pass an Obama agenda.” Obama questioned Biden about some of his successes in the legislature, and asked if he might be more interested in a Cabinet post than a spot on the ticket. (He was not.) Discussing the job of vice president, Biden said that he would not want to be handed a sweeping, open-ended task to go off and manage on his own, like Vice President Al Gore’s charge to reorganize the federal government. He wanted to be in the inner decision-making circle for all major issues, the last person in the room to have Obama’s ear. If he was to tackle any specific assignments, he wanted them to be limited ones with an end date.

Not long after that session, Obama picked Biden. Axelrod said that in addition to satisfying the obvious considerations—is he qualified to be president if it comes to that? does he balance the ticket politically?—Obama believed that Biden’s long experience in Congress would be an asset on the ticket and would help him govern. Beyond those factors, Obama was swayed by a more immediate practical consideration.

“Senator Obama felt strongly that Joe understood the challenges and rigors of a national campaign,” Axelrod told me. Obama “had learned from his own experience. He felt that it had taken him four to six months of campaigning to get comfortable with the demands.” The other candidates on Obama’s short list, reputed to be Virginia Governor Tim Kaine and Indiana Senator Evan Bayh, would have been as new to a national campaign as Obama had been a year earlier. Biden, who had impressed Obama during their primary debates, would not need months to hit full stride.

“At the last meeting... there were all these high-powered lawyers in my Capitol office’s so-called hideaway,” Biden told me. “And so they’re all sitting there, eight, nine of these lawyers, and at the end, Jim Hamilton”—a Washington lawyer who assisted with the vetting of potential VPs—“Jim says, ‘Well, just one last question, Mr. Chairman.’ He said, ‘Why do you want to be vice president?’”

“I don’t,” said Biden.

“And he looked at me—you can ask him—he looked at me and he said, ‘No? Why?’”

“Guys,” said Biden, “I’m not asking to be vice president, okay? If the president wants me to be vice president—our nominee wants me to be vice president, needs the help— obviously I’m not going to be able to say no. But if you’re asking me why do I want to be—I don’t want to be vice president.”

“Is that really your final word, like, you know, your final answer?” Hamilton asked.

“Yeah, that’s my final answer,” said Biden.

“But I had decided by then, if he were to ask me, obviously I’d do it,” Biden told me. “If, in fact, they could show me that, (a) I could actually help him win in places like Pennsylvania and Ohio, etc., and if (b) in fact he really did want me to help him govern, what the hell do you say? But I never—swear to God—I never, ever, ever, ever thought that I’d be asked, and I never contemplated being vice president.”

Donilon’s argument had prevailed. Obama’s skills were evident, but beyond them was a narrative that reached back to the founding of America. Here was an African American candidate poised to write, not an ending, but a triumphant new chapter to one of the central and most troubling threads of the American story.

“And it was driven home to me on the 17th of January”—inauguration weekend—Biden told me. “I’m standing on a platform [at the train station] in Wilmington, Delaware. If you looked to the northwest and the southeast, it was no-man’s-land back in 1968. That’s the part of the city that got burned down... when Dr. King was assassinated.... And here I am, 40 years later. And it hit me like a ton of bricks. I’m standing there on a cold day, waiting, and all of a sudden I’m looking out... And I thought to myself, Son of a bitch. I’m standing here waiting for the first black man in the history of America to pick me up to ride 110 miles to be sworn in as vice president of the United States with the first African American.”

He recalled seeing enormous crowds of cheering black citizens along the route, as the train moved slowly south. One man in particular—“I knew him,” Biden said—held a child up so close to the train that Biden worried for his safety. “I came back five days later, I’m home, and I run into him at a thing they did for me,” he recalled. “And I said, ‘What the hell were you doing, holding the baby up like that?’ And he said, ‘Joe, I wanted my grandson to be able to say “I saw it. I saw it. It’s real. It’s real.”’ So that’s what I mean. The two things I cared about most in my career were the civil-rights movement, and foreign policy and these wars, and here I am with a guy who in one fell swoop”—Biden clapped his hands—“changes everything.”

Crossing the Rubicon

In March, the vice president gave an informal speech at a fund-raiser at an opulent home in northwest Dallas, standing behind a podium in a large room decorated with modern art. He began by talking about Barack Obama.

“I didn’t know how good he was until I joined the outfit,” Biden said. “And then I realized why it was I did not win. So for those of you who endorsed me first, you all made a mistake.” It’s not unusual for Biden to give several speeches a day, so most of the things he has to say, he says more than once. This comment about the president, and variations upon it, is repeated often.

Biden’s unqualified respect was not always there. Like many of those who sought the Democratic nomination, Biden felt early on that the press was giving Obama a free pass, in part thanks to his race. But after more than a year and a half in office, any doubts about Obama’s talents have disappeared. Biden is not given to downplaying his own gifts, but he clearly regards Obama as something of a phenomenon.

In part, this transcends Obama’s personal qualities. “Look, I ran for president,” Biden told me, “because I honest-to-God believed that for the moment, given the cast of characters and the problems of the country, I thought I was clearly the best-equipped to lead the country.... But here’s what I underestimated: I had two elements that I focused on, which made me decide to run. One was American foreign policy, and the other was the middle class and what’s happening to them economically. If Hillary were elected or I were elected, and assume I did as good a job as I could possibly get done, it would have taken me four years to do what [Obama] did in four weeks, in terms of changing the perception of the world about the United States of America. Literally. It was overnight. It wasn’t about him. It was about the American people.... It said, these guys really do mean what they say. All that stuff about the Constitution, and all about equality, I guess it’s right.”

But Biden has been impressed by Obama the man as well. “He has a backbone like a ramrod,” the vice president told me. “He sits there, he gets handed the toughest damn decisions anyone has since Roosevelt, and he sits there and he wants an opposing view. He wants to hear all of it, and he’ll sit there and he’ll listen. He’ll ask really smart questions, and he’ll decide. And it’s like he goes up, he goes to bed, he doesn’t re-litigate it. I mean, the guy’s got some real strength. And the thing about him is—what I find impressive is—he really starts off almost everything from a moral and ideological construct, knowing exactly who he is … He knows what he thinks. When he talks about [the theologian and political theorist Reinhold] Niebuhr, it’s not because he’s trying to impress. He really does think about the social contract. I mean, the guy’s thought it through.

“He reminds me of [Bill] Clinton. I don’t think he’d like it, and maybe Clinton wouldn’t like it, but whenever you’re with Clinton... he was never afraid to say to you, ‘I don’t understand that. Explain that to me.’ Or ‘I didn’t know that.’ Because he knew you’d never walk out of the room thinking you were smarter than he was. Barack has the same internal confidence.”

That said, it’s clear that Biden feels he has the superior people skills—not that he puts it that way. He says the skill set he brings is “different,” but it’s a difference he values, and one that he sees as part of his contribution to the administration. Obama’s “personality is more reserved,” Biden said. “He has the ability to touch large audiences, but he is a little more buttoned-up. I’m a little more Irish. I’m more old-school. What used to be normal. [Bill] Clinton and I are more similar, whereas [Obama] and probably some of the newer candidates are more similar, in terms of the way they went through the system.” It is just a difference in style, Biden says, but it works. “I think we complement each other.”

There was some initial worry in the White House over Biden’s looseness in front of cameras and microphones. Most of his slips have proved minor—such as the one that earned a withering presidential look and nudge on Day One, when Biden, standing beside Obama behind a podium, poked fun at Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts for flubbing his recitation of the oath of office at the inauguration. But some have been more troubling. During the swine-flu epidemic of 2009, when the administration was treading a delicate line between stressing caution and triggering a panic, Biden told a "Today" show audience of millions, in a nutshell, to avoid air travel. “I would tell members of my family—and I have—I wouldn’t go anywhere in confined places now,” he said. “If you’re in a confined aircraft and one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft. That’s me.” The air-travel and tourism industries reeled. Visibly annoyed, White House press secretary Robert Gibbs found himself before the pressroom podium trying to explain what Biden had “meant to say.”

But while Biden’s batting average for such bloopers is unquestionably high, the administration has come to see it as a feature, not a bug. Gibbs explained to me, “It is true [Biden] has earned a reputation, and he definitely has a tendency to say whatever is on his mind when it is on his mind, and that has been much, much more of a plus for us than a detriment. Not just in public. The president wants to know what people really think, what their opinions are, and he has benefited a lot by listening to the questions the vice president asks in meetings. His experience and his candor are valuable things for us. When you look at the two of them side by side, they share none of the same background or experience. In some ways, they could not be more different. But they complement each other powerfully.”

Judged strictly by appearances, the black, youthful Obama is without question the least likely man ever to occupy the Oval Office. Biden, on the other hand, is close to what you might get if you digitally blended the portraits of the 43 white men who have been president. Where Obama is cerebral, Biden is emotional. Where the president is methodical, the vice president is steered more by his gut. And where Obama is famously disciplined both in public and in private, Biden is—well, you know.

On March 23, minutes before the national health-care-reform bill-signing, Biden famously greeted the president behind the podium by saying, “Mr. President, this is a big fucking deal.” Some alarmed White House aides showed the incriminating video to Gibbs. “The sound is not that good on my office computer,” Gibbs told me, “and one of the guys said hopefully, ‘I think he might have said “This is a big freaking deal.”’ I said, ‘Have you ever actually heard the vice president use that word?’ Later, when [Biden] talked to me about it, he said that he didn’t think he could be heard. I said, ‘You were standing in front of a podium in the White House with a microphone and the whole world watching!’” Still, in the end, Gibbs couldn’t deny that Biden had a point, tweeting, “And yes Mr. Vice President, you’re right....” It was a big fucking deal.

If the White House is still worried about Biden’s verbal blunders, there’s little evidence of it. He is being encouraged to speak more in public, not less, and is regularly trotted out to the Sunday-morning TV interview shows, where his loose verbal style has long made him a favorite, and where he can mix it up with the administration’s critics while allowing the president to remain above the fray. There are some weeks when the vice president is more the public face of the administration than his boss.

And Biden has grown accustomed to the constant ridicule. He is a regular target for the late-night talk-show hosts—“Joe Biden is living proof that people can give up sensitive information without being tortured,” quipped David Letterman in May 2009. On "Saturday Night Live," cast member Jason Sudeikis regularly portrays him as a cheerful, loud, fast-talking buffoon, wincingly tolerated by the more sober, judicious Obama. “It’s always been that way,” Biden said. “I think it’s the nature of the office When you come to be vice president, it is clear that all you are is an appendage of, you know, a part of—it’s not a bad thing, it’s just—by nature, it’s a diminishing office.”

I watched Biden on his visits to Warsaw, Bucharest, and Prague last fall, as he arrived with all of the pomp and circumstance of a head of state— the red carpets, the ceremonial bands, the squadrons of security—and I wondered how it felt for him to have landed so close to his life’s goal, and yet short of it.

“I crossed the Rubicon about not being president and being vice president when I decided to take this office,” he told me. “The only power you have is totally, completely, thoroughly reflective. There is no inherent power. And so it depends totally upon the relationship you have with the president.”

Biden is pleased with that relationship, and seems to be enjoying the perks of the office. The biggest change, he says, is his mode of travel, which has both its pleasures and its drawbacks. On the one hand, he has helicopters, jets, and fleets of armored SUVs at his fingertips, and he often brings members of his family along with him on state trips. He and his wife now live at the official Vice President’s Residence on the grounds of the U.S. Naval Observatory during the week, but travel back to Wilmington most weekends. During his first year in office, he insisted on taking the train home, which was troubling for his security detail.

“First time we get on, one of the conductors sees me and he goes, ‘Joey!’ and he grabs my cheek,” Biden said, grabbing a thick pinch of flesh to illustrate. “He’s an Italian kid from North Jersey. And, swear to God, Secret Service was going to take his arm off because he reached out for me and he grabbed my cheek. So it drives them crazy.”

Security concerns have since prevailed: Biden now usually makes the commute on a small jet. But when he’s home in Wilmington, he insists that his Secret Service detail maintain a very low profile. “It’s so easy to get bubble-ized,” he said. “I told them, ‘Guys, look, I’ll do whatever you tell me I’ve got to do in Washington and in other states, but in Delaware, no limos, no police escort, and I don’t want any goddamn ambulances following me.’”

One weekend, he and Jill decided they wanted to go see a movie, so they went to their usual multiplex near Route 202, the Regal Brandywine Town Center 16. The vice president and his wife got in line to buy tickets and, when they reached the window, learned that the movie they wanted to see was sold out. Disappointed, they turned to leave.

“And the Secret Service says, ‘What do you mean?,’” Biden said, chuckling. His escort felt an exception should be made for the second couple of the United States. “I said, ‘Look, no, no, no, no. Do not do this. They’re sold out, they’re sold out.’

“In Delaware,” Biden said, “there’s a semblance of reality. I still go to the drugstore. I still go to the hardware store. I still go to the haunts that I go to, and restaurants. Because after all these years, in Delaware, I’m Joe.” Ω

[Mark Bowden, an Atlantic Monthly national correspondent, is an author, journalist, screenwriter, and teacher. His book Black Hawk Down: A Story of Modern War (1999)—an international bestseller that spent more than a year on the New York Times bestseller list—was a finalist for the National Book Award. Bowden also worked on the screenplay for "Black Hawk Down," a film adaptation of the book, directed by Ridley Scott. Bowden is also the author of the international bestseller Killing Pablo: The Hunt for the World's Greatest Outlaw (2001), which tells the story of the hunt for Colombian cocaine billionaire Pablo Escobar. Killing Pablo won the Overseas Press Club's Cornelius Ryan Award as the best book in 2001 and is currently being adapted for film, with Bowden again writing the screenplay. He is also the author of Doctor Dealer (1987), Bringing the Heat (1994), Our Finest Day (2002) and Finders Keepers (2002). Mark Bowden is also an adjunct professor at Loyola College of Maryland, where he teaches creative writing and journalism. Bowden graduated from Loyola College of Maryland with a B.A. in English Literature.]

Copyright © 2010 The Atlantic Monthly Group

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Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves by Neil Sapper is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial-No Derivative Works 3.0 United States License. Based on a work at Permissions beyond the scope of this license may be available here.

Copyright © 2010 Sapper's (Fair & Balanced) Rants & Raves