A Further Perspective

Joe Biden Makes History

Though not in the way he intended -- and which will allow the legend of Paul Ryan to grow.

By 10.15.12

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Joe Biden's antics against Paul Ryan have taken a few days to sink in, and should take longer still.

For starters, try to imagine being Paul Ryan last Thursday: a young politician in the hot seat, the eyes of the world pressing upon him, as he tries to make careful and succinct statements in a most-intense environment, while all along, literally nearly every minute -- Biden interrupted Ryan 80-plus times -- his opponent smirks, scoffs, laughs uncontrollably, flaps his arms, and, generally, acts like a petulant child. I ask readers: Could you have endured what Paul Ryan handled? Given what he was up against, Paul Ryan's debate performance was truly remarkable. It was extraordinary. For poise alone, Ryan won hands down.

As for Joe Biden, his disrespectfulness was of historic proportions. Anyone but the blindest partisan Democrat concedes that the man was obnoxious. Only really, really angry liberals -- granted, there are many -- liked what Biden did.

"I don't believe I've ever seen a debate where one candidate was as openly disrespectful… and openly contemptuous," observed a stunned Chris Wallace, a veteran reporter who has watched every presidential and vice-presidential debate since Kennedy v. Nixon in 1960.

Wallace's observation brings me to this thought: I can't help but think of the historic dimensions of what happened last Thursday evening. Consider the following, from the perspectives of both Paul Ryan and Joe Biden:

As for Ryan, imagine if he someday rises to the rank of not just vice president but president. Imagine if this young man in his early 40s becomes a dominant face on the American scene for the next 40 years. And then imagine Paul Ryan at, say, age 80-something, withdrawing from the public stage after a long, accomplished, heralded career. If that indeed transpires, then the world will look back at that moment with Joe Biden as historic. The Biden-Ryan footage will be played again and again, rebroadcast and rebroadcast, on TVs, computer screens, museums, perhaps even presidential libraries: the young-looking, politically green Ryan vs. the scoffing, mocking, nasty senior pol, with Ryan calmly holding his own. Those watching the video in, say, the year 2052, born after the 2012 political season, will look at the young Ryan and smile in nostalgic appreciation, and will look at Joe Biden and say, "Who's that blowhard? Wow, that guy is obnoxious! Whatever happened to him?"

As I grapple for historical parallel, here are two analogies:

In July 1959, a young Richard Nixon, vice president of the United States, was unfortunate victim of an impromptu debate with an old, bald, bombastic, horse's rear-end named Nikita Khrushchev. The two went at it vigorously, with Khrushchev acting like an idiot, pleasing (at best) only the hardest communist apparatchiks, and with Nixon, many years younger, trying to make thoughtful statements while getting continually shouted at -- but ably holding his own.

"Never before had a head of government met me with a tirade of four-letter words," said Nixon after first meeting Khrushchev. "His vehemence… had been a shock. When God created Khrushchev (something Khrushchev would deny), He broke the mold."

If Paul Ryan rises to the level Richard Nixon did, we'll think of his debate with Biden as we do Nixon's showdown with Khrushchev -- a defining marker in his career. At the same time, Ryan will not crash and burn like Nixon, because Ryan is much more of a people person and has greater character and integrity. Despite the Left's never-ending attempts to demonize Paul Ryan, most Americans will like him -- which brings me to my other analogy, Ronald Reagan.

In October 1947, a young and green Ronald Reagan appeared before the House Committee on Un-American Activities. The actor was president of the Screen Actors Guild. His youth was not lost on Newsweek, which said that the pink-cheeked and sandy-haired Reagan looked so boyish that when he stood to speak the room was filled with "oh's and ah's," especially from the contingent of star-struck girls who came to ogle him.

By all accounts, from left to right, Reagan's testimony was mature. He was first questioned by Robert Stripling, the House Committee's tough chief investigator, and then by Chairman J. Parnell Thomas. Other committee members declined to pose questions, including, ironically, young Congressman Richard Nixon. (Only a crazy-person watching that hearing would have predicted that the two people sitting in the room who would one day become president were Nixon and Reagan.)

Reagan did remarkably well under the lights, cameras, and intense pressure. In fact, Chairman Thomas immediately followed Reagan's closing line by conceding: "We agree with that. Thank you very much." At the other end of the spectrum, among liberals, James Loeb, executive secretary of Americans for Democratic Action (ADA), dubbed Reagan's testimony "by all odds, the most honest and forthright," saying he was "really magnificent." Loeb called Reagan "the hero" of the Washington hearings.

This, too, was a decisive marker in Reagan's ultimate political rise. We watch the footage in every documentary on Reagan -- as we will Paul Ryan's trial with Joe Biden.

And what about Joe Biden? How does all of this fit into the big picture historically for him?

If Barack Obama loses the presidency, this will have been Biden's swan song, and none so fitting. Here at American Spectator last Wednesday, I wrote a piece titled, "Old Smirkin' Joe." I described the kind of thing Biden pulled off last Thursday. I noted how Biden in February 1981 had ridiculed an exceptionally good man named Judge Bill Clark, who became Reagan's closest adviser. This was nothing new for Biden. He orchestrated the same stunts against the likes of Ed Meese and Clarence Thomas (among others). What was so perfect about Biden's typically rude attack against Paul Ryan is that finally, at long last, massive numbers of Americans witnessed it. Joe Biden made history.

And as he did, tens of millions of Americans finally got a taste of what this man has been doing to opponents for decades, going back over 30 years. I hear media pundits rave about Biden being a "nice guy," no doubt bamboozled by his phony sentiments, theatrics, and ability to emote. In truth, a genuinely nice guy wouldn't do what Biden did to Bill Clark, Ed Meese, Clarence Thomas, and now Paul Ryan.

Last week's performance was one for the history books, compliments of vintage Old Smirkin' Joe. It will be remembered not just in Biden lore but in the life and path of Paul Ryan. And like the verdict on last Thursday's debate, Paul Ryan, in the end, will be remembered more favorably.

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About the Author

Paul Kengor is professor of political science and executive director of The Center for Vision & Values at Grove City College. His latest book is 11 Principles of a Reagan Conservative.