Biden: Obama Clean, Articulate, Bright African-American

Joe Biden is set to launch his second run for the presidency today but it will likely be overshadowed by some candid comments made in an interview with Jason Horowitz of the New York Observer.

Most noteworthy is what he says about Barack Obama: “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy,” he said. “I mean, that’s a storybook, man.”

Not surprisingly, Matt Drudge is all over it:

Drudge Clean Obama

I’m already getting e-mails from GOP operatives touting this, too.

Presuming Biden is being accurately quoted here–which is never a safe assumption with the press–it seems obvious that he left out a rather key phrase (which may have been implied by the context of the larger conversation): “presidential candidate.” And I presume by “clean” he means “clean-cut” rather than “bathes regularly.”

If the quote is, “I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American presidential candidate who is articulate and bright and clean-cut and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that’s a storybook, man,” it’s rather unobjectionable. Indeed, I’ve said much the same thing myself.

Jesse Jackson is articulate, bright, and relatively clean-cut; he’s not mainstream. Al Sharpton is bright and articulate but not particularly clean-cut, let alone meanstream. Colin Powell was articulate, bright, clean-cut and mainstream, but not a presidential candidate.

While it’s true that Democrats seem to get more of a pass than Republicans on these sorts of things from both the press and the civil rights establishment, these things always have a context. Aside from an unfortunate joke about the tendency of convenience stores to be run by Indians, which is so obviously true that “The Simpsons” has been running with it for 15-odd years, there’s no evidence of which I’m aware that Biden is racist. By contrast, the “Macaca” flap that ultimately killed George Allen’s candidacy fit in with a lot of circumstantial evidence that was part of a pre-existing “Confederate sympathizing redneck poseur” image.

UPDATE: Steve Verdon suggests in the comments, “I would think clean as in no skeletons in his closet.” That actually makes even more sense. The analysis fits just as well with the above-mentioned candidates. It also covers Carol Moseley-Braun who, I’m reminded, was technically a presidential candidate in 2004 but who decidedly had skeletons in her closet. I’d argue she was also outside-the-mainstream and certainly not “bright” in the same sense as the others.

UPDATE: Nothing at Memeorandum so far. Not a whole lot at Technorati just yet, either. I suspect that will change.

  • PJM in Barcelona titles his post, “First Day in the Race, First Faux Pas.”
  • Election Geek Blog follows suit: “Joe Biden: A Major Mistake So Early in the Game?”
  • Sensible Mom: “Has he never met an educated black man (or are they all considered Uncle Tom’s by people like Biden)? Talk about the soft racism of low expectations.”
  • Michelle Malkin: “Who will press Joe Biden to name the names of the inarticulate and dim and dirty and unattractive African-Americans he was thinking about when he, um, complimented Barack Obama?”
  • Curt @ Flopping Aces: “So was this a five minute Presidential candidacy or what?”
  • Mary Katharine Ham: “A clean black man? The first black guy on the American political scene who can both shower regularly and speak properly? Is that really what Biden thinks?”

Nor is the hammering just from the Right:

  • Marcos “Kos” Moulitas: “Really, if we live in a just world, this will be the end of Joe Biden’s political career.”
  • Duncan “Atrios” Black: “The are more and less charitable readings of what Biden said, but there’s no way to read it which doesn’t reflect very poorly on Biden.”
  • Josh Marshall: “. . . I think at this point you have to say that Biden suffers from what one might with real generosity call chronic racial grandpaism. That is to say, the penchant for making comments that are not only racially offensive but also extremely silly . . . .”

Hmm. It seems that I’m virtually alone in seeing a perfectly innocent explanation for this one.

UPDATE: Steven Taylor has a video collection of Biden saying stupid things.

FILED UNDER: Blogosphere, Race and Politics, The Presidency, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. Steve Verdon says:

    I would think clean as in no skeletons in his closet.

  2. Dave Schuler says:

    Maybe he’s seen Hard Day’s Night one too many times.

  3. Maggie says:

    I just posted on this in a mad dash. The question I ask is:

    Does Biden think a clean black is an anomaly?

  4. Triumph says:

    Al Sharpton is bright and articulate but not particularly clean-cut, let alone meanstream.

    Robin Givhan of the Post would disagree with the clean-cut characterization. Sharpton is always wearing a suit these days.

    Hell, Obama gets his style–coat and no tie–from Iranian president Ahmednijad.

  5. Pete says:

    “Presidential candidate” should be assumed, obviously. And by “clean” I also thought Biden meant closet skeleton-free, unlike, oh, Jesse Jackson or Al Sharpton. But “clean-cut” is just as likely a possibility. The idea that Biden meant clean as in “bathes regularly” is absolutely ridiculous.

    This is coming from a guy who cannot stand even the sight of Blowhard Biden, by the way.

  6. Scott_T says:

    So when’s some people of African-American decent going to make a “Halp us Jon Kary” about this one?

    This is what, hours old and nothing yet?

  7. I’m not sure how, but it is all obviously Bush’s fault. And you are an evil person if you think otherwise.

  8. Anderson says:

    I too thought “mainstream” was decisive, & sent JMM an unsolicited e-mail to that effect; but “clean” is a bit iffy, foregoing explanations notwithstanding.

  9. I don’t thik Biden is a racist. I’m more in line with you on that. Biden’s problem is that he doesn’t think before he moves his lips.

  10. Maggie says:

    Allen didn’t think before he moved his “macaca” mouth either and was crucified.

    Let’s see what the MSM does to Biden.

  11. just me says:

    I agree with Steve’s update, I took it to mean “clean” as in he doesn’t have any personal baggage.

    While I don’t think he made a clearly understood comment, I didn’t take it to imply racism. But then Biden seems to suffer from a bit of foot in mouth desease.

  12. There is a difference between calling someone a macaca and slipping up in a phrase. Biden was trying, clumsily, to compliment Obama. Please.

  13. jpe says:

    I didn’t see anything objectionable – I read the “clean” ala Mr. Verdon. It may have been an ambiguous choice of words, but that’s the kind of thing that could be cleared up. And that’s what I like about Biden: he won’t mince words calling out people that (not unreasonably, perhaps) misread him.

  14. Rico J. Halo says:

    I also think Bidens “clean” comment about Obama was meant as a compliment. Whether he gets called on it or not depends on whether he is perceived as a realistic opponent rather than for the content.

  15. Mark Jaquith says:

    Harmless, in context. I’m with you, James. Even Obama took it the way it was intended.

  16. James Handley says:

    Joe Biden likes talk like the guy next to you at the corner bar. He’s letting it “all hang out” with the ‘regular guy’ (and to a lesser extent, gal).

    He’s no racist either– his jaw practically hit the floor when Clarence Thomas called the confirmation hearing a “hi-tech lynching.” Biden blurted out that the committee would confirm Thomas unless sexual harassment was shown “beyond a reasonable doubt.” In so saying, Biden moved the goalpost from: Thomas much show he’s worthy of become a Justice, (which is the Constitutional standard) to “You got the job unless we can convict you…”

    Joe engages mouth before brain. (I worked a little on his first (1972) campaign for the House. This was a problem even then.)

    After Colin Powell made his WMD speech to the UN (that contained nothing that amounted to evidence, let alone proof) Biden commented that the Administration had made a very compelling case for attacking Iraq.

    The worst thing about Joe Biden is that while he’s well intentioned, he’s apparently not too sharp…. He has a law degree but you’d never know it from those two goofs or his plagarism incidents.

    But no, I’ve followed his career for 34 years. He’s no racist. Just the not-so-bright guy at the corner bar, try’in to be cool.

  17. Marta says:

    A president must know when to keep his mouth shut. If that’s how Biden talks about his own countryman, how would he talk about disgruntled Middle Easterners?? I shudder to think about it. A diplomat he is not. A president he will not be.

  18. Art Kane says:

    Yes, I agree – Jesse Jackson mainstream? No, not to midwest farmers, most white Southerners and other “red state” stereotypes. I think “clean” referred to a new model, straight out of the factor, something fresh and new (check out Google for “Obama breath of fresh air”); but if you were talking about “clean” as in “not dirty”, William Jefferson and Carol Moseley-Braun both come to mind (Sharpton with Tawana Bradley isn’t far from mind either).
    Trivia: the 15-year-old Lawrence Fishburne (credited as “Larry Fishburne” in Apocaplypse Now) was known as “Clean”. Shame on Coppola.