Jack Shafer: Joe Biden Has Never Made His Peace With Words

From a Jack Shafer Fourth Estate column on politico.com headlined “Okay, President Biden, You’re a Wise Guy”:

Joe Biden has never made his peace with words. His failure has less to do with his stutter, which a New York Times op-ed once posited had given the president the superpower of empathy, and more to do with the way his brain skitters from one topic to another like crushed ice on a hot frying pan before ascending skyward as a vapor.

Biden can’t open his mouth without inserting his foot in it, digressing, or crashing into a cognitive dead end. As a coping mechanism for these deficiencies, the president employs placeholder phrases for those times when he exhausts his mental inventory, and it can’t summon to his lips the words needed to wriggle out of a tight place. “C’mon, man” and “Give me a break,” are two of Biden’s favorite go-to phrases. When he speaks them, they magically allow him to clear his cerebral fog banks long enough to mount a semantic defense.

But Biden’s favorite, all-purpose verbal proxy appears to be “wise guy.” The president attracted the world’s scrutiny of his word choices last week when he called NBC News anchor Lester Holt a “wise guy” after Holt asked him a legitimate question. “Back in July, you said inflation was going to be temporary. I think a lot of Americans are wondering what your definition of ‘temporary’ is,” Holt said. “Well, you’re being a wise guy with me a little bit,” Biden responded.

In 2021, Biden called Saturday Night Live producer Lorne Michaels a “wise guy” at the Kennedy Center Honors program. And in 2019, Biden snapped, “Yeah, don’t be a wise guy with me,” when a reporter asked him a question about the Hyde Amendment.

Biden’s barking would be excusable if he were an adoptee from the humane society kennel, but he’s the president of the United States, a former vice president, a senator for as long as anybody can remember before that. This lack of self-discipline in a civil setting makes Biden look exactly like the guy he doesn’t want to be: the sort of crotchety and defensive oldster who interprets a sporting handshake for a karate chop. Reporters deserve mockery for some of the questions, but not ones like this….

As president, he has denied acting like a wise guy in dealings with Russian President Vladimir Putin. He has denied being a wise guy while discussing Republican AIDS policy. He denied it during a CNN town hall discussing misinformation. On the campaign trail, he said he wasn’t a wise guy for considering a Republican running mate; when asked if he had advice for Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (“I wouldn’t presume to give her advice. I’m not being a wise guy.”); while talking about the Trump administration at a mayors’ conference; when talking about the wall; and when asked on the Today show if former President Donald Trump had done anything good….

But why does he deny it? It’s near to impossible to find anyone accusing him of being one….

There is only one person who regularly calls Joe Biden a wise guy: Joe Biden himself. He uses it to dig out of holes, also generally dug by Joe Biden….

Biden performed the same recovery stunt last year, after CNN’s Kaitlan Collins riled him with a round of shouted questions. Flipping his wig, Biden confronted Collins and told her that her questions indicated she was “in the wrong business.” After he cooled off, Biden went all sheepish again. “Maybe I shouldn’t have been such a wise guy,” he said at the airport….

What to make of a politician who denies as often and with so much vehemence that he’s a wise guy? Dr. Sigmund Freud would come to a diagnosis after a brief study. This person thinks he knows it all, the doctor would observe, and he believes he’s more charming than the other saps out there. He would note that his subject loves to talk, has a snappy answer for questions that haven’t even been asked, and is dying to share it. This is the sort of guy who, while showboating, can fall flat on his can and leap right up with a grin and say, “I was just resting!”

Yeah, Dr. Freud would conclude, it is Biden who is the wise guy. And his chances for recovery are excellent if only we can get him to stop denying his condition.

Send your wise-guy comments to [email protected] via email. My email alerts love the piece Katie Glueck wrote in 2019 about Biden gaffes. My Twitter feed would like to disassociate itself from this column. My RSS feed demands a piece about Donald Trump calling people wise guys.


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