Joe Biden: The American Vice-President and his big mouth

In a single week, he managed to deliver a triple whammy of offensive comments. US Editor David Usborne reports

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Joe Biden might want to ponder a variation on the maxim about wishing he hadn’t left his bed on days that turn out especially badly. He should be wishing he had missed all of last week, which began with an unfortunate Shylock quip, ended with his praising a disgraced former US senator and had something about the Orient in between.

That Vice-President Biden’s loquacity can sometimes propel him to the wrong side of political correctness is hardly a revelation. Some would say it’s part of his populist charm. But sometimes it is at odds with his very high office, such as the time when a microphone picked up his reaction to the US Supreme Court upholding the health insurance reforms known as Obamacare. “That’s a big fucking deal,” he was heard to blurt – to President Barack Obama.

Why does it matter? Because of 2016. If, for whatever reason, Hillary Clinton does not seek the Democratic presidential nomination that year, or stumbles severely, Mr Biden is one of only a very few credible alternatives to take up his party’s standard.

Last Wednesday was to have been a key day for Mr Biden. It took him to Iowa, a symbolically important state because it always kicks off the process of choosing a presidential nominee, and to which Mrs Clinton herself had travelled amid much media hullaballoo only a few days earlier over last weekend. But even as he arrived in Iowa, Mr Biden was forced first to try to quell a fuss he had himself started with his overly loose tongue the day before.

He had irked the influential Anti-Defamation League for remarks he had offered on Tuesday about the pressure to take out loans that US military personnel serving overseas sometimes experience from banks and lenders in the US. He called them “Shylocks”,  a reference to the ruthless usurer in Shakespeare’s The Merchant of Venice – and a Jew.

“When someone as friendly to the Jewish community and open and tolerant an individual as Vice-President Joe Biden uses the term ‘Shylocked’ to describe unscrupulous moneylenders dealing with servicemen and women, we see once again how deeply embedded this stereotype about Jews is,” Abe Foxman, the ADL director, fumed. “Shylock represents the medieval stereotype about Jews and remains an offensive characterisation to this day.”

Mr Biden seems to be aware of his talent for gaffes, but he never seems to learn. On the same day in Iowa he triggered a fresh tempest by reminiscing about a meeting he once had with the former prime minister of Singapore, Lee Kuan Yew, praising him as “the wisest man in the Orient”. Perhaps he didn’t know that to most Asian people the term “the Orient” sounds either quaint or pejorative.

That set off the Republican National Committee. “Vice-President Joe Biden’s insensitive remarks are offensive to both Asian-Americans and our Asian allies abroad,” said the committee’s chief spokesperson, an Asian-American. “His comment is not only disrespectful, but also uses unacceptable imperialist undertones,” he continued. “It’s time for the Vice-President to apologise and to understand that his comments embarrass our country.”

Also in Iowa – and bear in mind that he was there only a few hours – he managed to imply that he agreed with a statement from the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Martin Dempsey, that it might at some point become necessary for the US to contemplate some ground combat against Islamic State, while on the same day his boss, President Obama, was at an air base in Florida, saying the opposite.

His final blunder came on Friday when, lamenting that there were no more Republicans in Washington willing to cross the aisle and seek bipartisan compromise, he cited former senator Bob Packwood as one of the last great practitioners of that art. He seemed to have forgotten that the other thing Mr Packwood was good at was forcing himself on women, a flaw that eventually led to his resigning his senate seat.

Mr Biden offered his paean to Mr Packwood while addressing a conference of Democratic women.