Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Joe Biden and the Next Terrible Thing

I’ve finally started reading Alison Smith’s Name All the Animals, a superb memoir (mentioned in a previous post) that in its early pages talks about what life in her family was like after her 18-year-old brother died in a car crash on the way to his summer job.

Smith is the only surviving child. Her parents, her father especially, become fearful and overprotective. They panic about school trips, fret about her every sniffle, and refuse to let her, even at age 15, to cross the street without holding someone’s hand.

“While I waited for Roy to come back, my parents waited for the Next Terrible Thing,” Smith writes. “It was unclear what shape it was going to take, but it was clear that it was going to snatch me away from them. I was in danger” (p. 74, Scribner paperback).

Reading this, I found myself thinking about Vice President Joe Biden, who, with a handful of dread-filled statements, seems to have made himself the official spokesperson for the Next Terrible Thing.

Here he is on the Today Show last week, talking about swine flu:
I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places now. It's not that it's going to Mexico, it's you're in a confined aircraft when one person sneezes it goes all the way through the aircraft. That's me. I would not be, at this point, if they had another way of transportation suggesting they ride the subway.
Here he is, in February, sounding pessimistic about economic recovery plans:
If we do everything right, if we do it with absolute certainty, there's still a 30 percent chance we're going to get it wrong.
Here he is, during the election season, offering up a dire scenario for the postinaugural period:
It will not be six months before the world tests Barack Obama like they did John Kennedy… Watch, we're gonna have an international crisis, a generated crisis, to test the mettle of this guy
When Biden delivers these less than reassuring sentiments, there is sometimes a need for damage control. This week The New Republic has an article on the Obama administration’s efforts to spin Biden’s loose lips to its advantage. He’s being hailed as a straight shooter, a genuine voice of the people, rather than a loose cannon.

I’m grateful for truth tellers, and it’s not really a surprise if one of this people makes us nervous and uncomfortable. Biden’s dark pronouncements tend to inspire a shiver of apprehension, at least in me, especially since there seems little doubt that he’s going to be right—we may dodge bullet after bullet, but eventually there’s no escaping some Next Terrible Thing.

Nevertheless, Biden has always struck me as something other than merely candid—he feels faintly hysterical, to use a term that’s often applied to women, or as if he’s filled with a desperate sense of anxiety that he urgently needs to pass on to someone else.

Reading about Smith’s father, who after losing his son secretly followed his wife when she went off hiking to be sure that she wouldn’t be hurt, I remembered that Biden too had been the father in a family tragedy involving a car accident. In 1972, his wife drove off to shop for a Christmas tree and got hit by a tractor-trailer. She and his 18-month-old daughter were killed, and his sons were seriously injured.

He was devastated.

I don’t know what Biden was like before 1972, and there’s no reason to imagine any of my own ill-informed psychological speculation might be accurate, but nevertheless—loose-lipped—here I go.

I wonder if Joe Biden isn’t, like Alison Smith’s father, suffering from something along the lines of post traumatic stress. He may live in a psychic universe in which unthinkable disaster will always be lurking and in which unceasing vigilance is required.

Smith reports that her parents, as loving as they were, sometimes lost sight of her even when she was the object of their worry. Standing over her and feeling her forehead for fever, they asked each other how she felt. “They took up the habit of speaking about me instead of to me,” she writes (p.75).

In a way, that’s how it seems with Biden. He may be expressing the truth, or at least the truth of what we all fear, but his forthrightness isn’t necessarily a sign that he’s relating to us—only that he can’t bear what he can imagine, and he has to get it out.

He may be someone who feels in his bones that we have a great deal more to fear than fear itself. If that were true for anyone, I don’t know if it would make that person an ideal leader—it’s an interesting question—but I wish us all good luck.

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