Why is it that Americans run for public office and the British stand for it?
Does it testify to the more dynamic nature of American politics? Or to the soporific ineptitude of British politicians?
One way or the other, the two approaches are different in deed, not just in word. However, running for president back in 1987, Joe Biden set out to bridge the gap.
The span he chose was a speech plagiarised from that towering intellect of British – now European – politics Neil Kinnock.
Whatever one may think about the ethics of plagiarism, the choice of source says as much about the pilferer as the act of pilfering itself. For history offers a wide choice of oratorical powerhouses, each providing promising rip-off possibilities.
Demosthenes, for example, was pretty useful. So was Cicero. So, closer to Mr Biden’s own language, was Churchill, although I’m not sure hedonistic Americans would have been sufficiently inspired by a promise of blood, sweat and tears.
Or, closer to Mr Biden’s party affiliation, how about JFK? He could really deliver a line, and never mind its content. His inaugural entreaty, “Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country!”, was the most unalloyed statement of rampant statism, but the oratory was so fiery that nobody noticed.
And, if you’re a foodie like me, you must have wondered what JFK would have said if his famous “Ich bin ein Berliner!” speech had been delivered not in Berlin but in Hamburg or Frankfurt. But it was a rousing piece of oratory nonetheless, and Mr Biden would have positively sounded like a sophisticated polyglot, screaming “Ich bin ein Delawarean!”
Plagiarism opportunities were endless, and I’m sure Mr Biden had considered them all before tugging on Americans’ heartstrings with a verbatim rendition of a Kinnock speech in which he only changed the speaker’s name for his own:
“Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go a university?…” and so on, until the question was answered to everyone’s satisfaction: “It’s because they didn’t have a platform on which to stand.”
It has to be said that the first Biden to go to university wasn’t above playing fast and loose with his academic record. Thus he claimed that he finished in the top half of his class at Syracuse Law School, whereas in fact he graduated 76th of 85. But then politics has its own arithmetic.
Anyway, when the story of Biden’s plagiarism broke, so did his presidential bid. Yet Joe bounced back and has been bouncing every since. At the top of the current bounce he’s about to have another go at the White House, an intention he all but announced in a recent speech.
As far as I can tell, that soliloquy was Mr Biden’s own. However, it makes one understand his earlier impulse to choose someone else’s words.
Perhaps feeling that he may not get another chance, Mr Biden crammed two messages into one speech, not realising that they go together like top hat and tracksuit.
The two targets of his wrath were a “white man’s culture” and a history of violence against women, between which Mr Biden discerned a causative relationship, though he did find each repellent on its own.
One has to accept with some chagrin that, much as the countries of North America and Europe might want to try, they’d find it hard to replace the delinquent culture with a black man’s variety. All sorts of factors, historical, cultural and numerical, would conspire against such a desirable development.
At the risk of being tarred with a racist brush, one might also dispute the causality Mr Biden seems to see so clearly with his mind’s eye. Looking at women’s status in, say, the Middle East and Africa, one would be hard-pressed to argue that abusing women is the unique domain of “white man”.
But this was a minor inconsistency compared to what followed. In an outburst of almost sincere-sounding mea culpa, Mr Biden lamented his role in the 1991 confirmation hearings of Supreme Court nominee Clarence Thomas.
Mr Thomas was a conservative, which meant that all progressive people had to join forces to block his ascent to that lifelong position. A woman, Anita Hall, was found who tearfully accused Mr Thomas of sexual assault, and a scuffle ensued.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, whose chairman Mr Biden then was, was supposed to bury Mr Thomas’s candidature but failed to do so.
“I wish I could have done something,” repented Mr Biden. “To this day, I regret I couldn’t come up with a way to get [Miss Hall] the kind of hearing she deserved, given the courage she showed by reaching out to us.”
So why didn’t he? Oh well, “We knew a lot less about the extent of harassment back then, over 30 years ago.” And even had such knowledge existed the Committee might not have acted on it anyway because “They were a bunch of white guys”.
They were indeed. But, in a delicious twist of paradox, Mr Thomas wasn’t. Not only did he have the temerity to be conservative, he also had the privilege to be black.
If he hadn’t in fact assaulted Miss Hall, but was accused of that crime simply to derail his bid, then the Committee acted properly, and there’s nothing for Mr Biden to apologise for.
Conversely, if Mr Thomas had indeed forced his attentions on Miss Hall, it’s not immediately obvious how that testifies to a “white man’s culture” of violence against women.
Mr Biden simply can’t win. If he rips off other people’s speeches, he gets it in the neck. If he concocts his own, he mouths gibberish.
On balance, he’d be better off retaining Mr Kinnock’s speech-writing services, what with the latter’s job of EU Commissioner conceivably coming to an end. But I have a brighter idea.
Perhaps Mr Kinnock should cut out the middleman and stand – sorry, I mean run – for US president himself. He could then retain the services of that Syracuse legal star Joe Biden to get around the ensuing constitutional problems.
Mr Kinnock’s socialist credentials would fit right in with the prevailing ethos of today’s Democratic party. And his oratorical skills have received the most sincere form of flattery Mr Biden could offer. Worth a try, that.