Joe Biden, Human Gaffe Machine, Was Once a Great Public Speaker

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An orator like no other Illustration by Alex Fine

One of Franklin Delano Roosevelt's greatest gifts was his oratory, an area that Joe Biden himself admits is not his strong suit. If anything, the self-described "gaffe machine" leans in hard on the narrative that he overcame a childhood stutter through grit and determination that, at age 77, he still occasionally battles. Even more challenging, Biden has become infamous, both as vice president during the Obama administration and in his current presidential campaign, for garbled statements and inappropriate remarks—most recently when he told popular African American radio host Charlamagne tha God that, "If you have a problem figuring out whether you're for me or Trump, then you ain't black."

Yeah, that didn't go over too well for him.

Yet between his stuttering youth and his current occasionally irascible elder statesman status, Biden rose to prominence with a reputation for being an exceptional speaker given to soaring prose and inspirational sentiment. (Yes, really.) A 1985 profile in the Philadelphia Inquirer cited a group of politicos who regarded Biden as, "with the possible exception of Jesse Jackson, the most spellbinding orator in the Democratic Party." In February 1986, the Washington Post columnist Mary McGrory noted Biden was "much in demand as a star speaker, one guaranteed to rouse Democrats from the melancholy torpor in which they have languished." And, after his 1988 candidacy flamed out amid charges of plagiarism and academic resume padding, another Washington Post columnist, Michael Barone, bemoaned Biden's departure as "a final stage in the disappearance from presidential politics of the inspirational speech."

Barone wrote in October 1987: "Biden's ability to get Democratic audiences in Iowa and Mississippi to their feet, cheering and with tears glistening in their eyes, is what attracted a lot of talented insiders to his campaign. He was the closest thing to the heir to a tradition that goes back through the Kennedys to Franklin Roosevelt, Woodrow Wilson and William Jennings Bryan."

Here's a look a look back at Biden's career as a public speaker, his best lines as well as some especially notable blunders.

THE HITS

"For too long in this society, we have celebrated unrestrained individualism over common community. For too long as a nation, we have been lulled by the anthem of self-interest. For a decade, led by Ronald Reagan, self-aggrandizement has been the full-throated cry of this society: 'I've got mine so why don't you get yours' and 'What's in it for me?'"
Speech declaring his candidacy for president, June 9, 1987

"The cynics believe that my generation has forgotten. They believe that the ideals and compassion and conviction to change the world that marked our youth is now nothing but a long-faded wisp of adolescence . . . But they have misjudged us."
Stump speech during the 1988 presidential campaign

"A noun and a verb and 9/11."
Describing the only three things that Republican presidential candidate Rudy Giuliani mentions in a sentence, said during a Democratic debate on October 30, 2007 to underscore the former New York City mayor's lack of qualifications for the Oval Office

"In the face of the deepest economic
crisis in our lifetime, this generation of Americans has proven itself as worthy as any generation before us. For we possess that same grit, that same determination, that same courage that has always defined what it means to be an American, has always defined all of you."
Acceptance speech for VP nomination, September 6, 2012

"When people harm Americans, we don't retreat, we don't forget, we take care of those grieving. And when that's finished, they should know [that] we follow them to the gates of hell until they are brought to justice, because hell is where they will reside.
Speech in memory of Steven Sotloff, a U.S. journalist beheaded by ISIS militants, September 3, 2014

"There are times when life can be so cruel, pain so blinding, it's hard to see anything else. It's brutal. It's relentless. It's unforgiving. And it takes so much for those we love and for the families that love them, that in order to survive, we have to remember how they lived, not how they died."
Eulogy for Senator John McCain, August 30, 2018

THE MISSES

"You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent...I'm not joking."
Talking on C-SPAN about the growth of Delaware's Indian-American population, June 17, 2006

"I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."
Interview, talking about his running mate Barack Obama, January 31, 2007

"Now is the time to heed the timeless advice from Teddy Roosevelt: 'Speak softly, and carry a big stick.' I promise you, the president has a big stick."
Foreign policy address at New York University, April 26, 2012

"We have this notion that somehow if you're poor, you cannot do it. Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids."
Speaking at an Iowa event hosted by the Asian and Latino Coalition in August 9, 2019

"You're a lying dog-faced pony soldier."
Response to a town-hall question on February 9, 2020 from a college student who said she'd attended an Iowa caucus. It was an apparent mangling of an old movie line, said jokingly, but few found it funny.

Joe Biden, Human Gaffe Machine, Was Once a Great Public Speaker