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Joe Biden: First Goofball

Bob Kessler | Thursday, January 22, 2009

After Joe and Jill Biden appeared on Oprah earlier this week, there was much talk about Mrs. Biden’s comment that our now vice president had been given his choice between being Obama’s running mate or secretary of state. In the ensuing shhhhhshing of his wife, Biden started off the week with a bang and demonstrated why he was the perfect choice to be our nation’s second-in-command. While the whole world has been transfixed on the opening days of Barack Obama’s presidency, Joe Biden has been slightly left of center stage as he was sworn in as our 47th vice president. By taking the oath of office, Biden follows such esteemed men as Spiro Agnew, Walter Mondale, and Dick Cheney, but as history tells us the vice president is no more of a second-in-command than a First Goofball, a role for which Joe Biden is incredibly well suited.

As any student of history knows, the First Goofball role of the vice president goes all the way back to the early days of the republic and our third vice president; Aaron Burr. Possibly the most insane man to even hold public office in the United States, Burr is remembered today for such feats as killing Alexander Hamilton in a duel and attempting to form his own country in the (then) western United States. In fact, Burr’s actions were so off the wall that in later life he was forced to use an alias just to reside in the States.

While First Goofballs in modern times have not been as insane as Aaron Burr, they have still added a lot to the long history of this unwritten vice presidential responsibility. Spiro Agnew used alliterative phrases to attack his opponents. Walter Mondale pledged to raise taxes while running for president. Dan Quayle had about the intellectual capacity of Michael Scott from The Office. Al Gore claimed to have invented the Internet, and Dick Cheney actually shot a man in the face.

Even those vice presidents who have actually succeeded to the presidency have not been our most conventional. Johnson spoke with staffers and gave interviews while utilizing the toilet. Ford ruined his future political career by pardoning Nixon. Bush 41 has been spending his later years jumping out of airplanes and broing out with the man who defeated him. These are not typical behaviors of our chief executives.

Why, you might be asking yourself, have our vice presidents tended to be goofballs? One predominant theory is that this is the way that presidents take out an insurance policy on their life. The notion that Barack Obama is safer from assassination because nobody outside of Scranton wants Joe Biden to be our chief executive is a highly compelling one that stands up to incredible scrutiny. Why else would John McCain have picked Sarah Palin as his running mate?

Another theory is that presidential candidates look for Goofballs to be their running mates so that they appear to be more serious. Is it a coincidence that Burr’s actions have been juxtaposed in history with those of Thomas Jefferson? If the vice president is going around saying and doing stupid things, it takes some attention away from the smaller stupid things that the president might actually do. By the time Joe Biden was finished taking the oath of office on Tuesday, I thought he was going to start laughing hysterically. This eased the way for Obama, and everybody pretty much brushed off the fact that Obama messed up his first act as president (taking the oath of office). This is minor, however, and there are many examples that go against it.

While this theory does not always stand up to the scrutiny of history, it does help to explain the predicament of the last eight years. Dick Cheney was not always allowed to assume his role as because W. was actually acting as First Goofball. When Bush choked on his pretzel while watching a football game less than a year into his presidency, he started to be seen as the jokester that he actually is. We were then met with an administration that has a vice president who takes himself too seriously and a president who does not take himself seriously enough.

Therefore, because we have gone eight years with a president who was the First Goofball, Joe Biden has a large task ahead of him in reasserting the vice president as a Goofball. The American people are counting on Biden to be the man that we thought he was a year ago when he dropped out of the presidential race. He needs to say things like, “Stand up, Chuck” to a man in a wheelchair or “You cannot go into a 7-11 or Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent.” If Joe Biden can do these things, than he will be a great vice president, and an even better First Goofball, and Barack Obama will be remembered more fondly because of him.

Bob Kessler is a senior majoring in political science and economics. You can contact him at rkessler@nd.edu

The views expressed in this column are those of the author and not necessarily those of The Observer.