Why Biden's Gaffe Matters

By Dan Froomkin
1:45 PM ET, 05/ 1/2009

I might have let Vice President Biden's latest gaffe go as just another example of his extraordinary capacity for verbal blundering -- until the White House started misrepresenting things.

By now, you've almost certainly heard what Vice President Biden said yesterday on NBC's Today Show.

During a discussion of the swine flu pandemic, Biden veered into tinfoil-hat territory. Asked what advice he'd give a family member considering a plane trip to Mexico, Biden replied: "I would tell members of my family, and I have, I wouldn't go anywhere in confined places right 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.”

That's the kind of talk that can set off a panic. After all, when the vice president says something like this you have to wonder: Does he know something we don't?

So it was incumbent upon the White House to clear this up forthwith: to come clean by admitting that Biden had said something outrageous, and then explaining that a) he really felt this way, but was overreacting, and shouldn't have said so, or b) he simply misspoke.

Indeed, the White House quickly sent out a statement from Biden spokeswoman Elizabeth Alexander. But instead of explaining why Biden said what he did, it suggested that Biden hadn't actually said what we'd heard him say.

The statement: "On the Today Show this morning the Vice President was asked what he would tell a family member who was considering air travel to Mexico this week. The advice he is giving family members is the same advice the Administration is giving to all Americans: that they should avoid unnecessary air travel to and from Mexico. If they are sick, they should avoid airplanes and other confined public spaces, such as subways. This is the advice the Vice President has given family members who are traveling by commercial airline this week."

Later in the day, at the daily press briefing, White House spokesman Robert Gibbs took a similar approach, refusing to address what Biden actually said and confusing what Biden "meant to say" with what he should have said.

Jake Tapper of ABC News asked: "Representatives of the travel industry have accused the Vice President of coming close to fear-mongering because of his comments, and I'm wondering if you wanted to clarify or correct or apologize for the remarks that he made."

Gibbs replied: "Well, I think the -- what the Vice President meant to say was the same thing that, again, many members have said in the last few days, and that is, if you feel sick, if you are exhibiting symptoms, flu-like symptoms -- coughing, sneezing, runny nose -- that you should take precautions, that you should limit your travel. And I think he just -- what he said and what he meant to say."

Tapper: "With all due respect, and I sympathize with you trying to explain the Vice President's comments, but that's not even remotely close to what he said. He was asked about --"

Gibbs: "I understand --"

Tapper: " -- if a member of his family were going to --"

Gibbs: "Jake, I understand what he said and I'm telling you what he meant to say."

Gibbs issued a conditional apology: "Obviously if anybody was unduly alarmed for whatever reason, we would apologize for that and I hope that my remarks and remarks of the people of the CDC and Secretary Napolitano have appropriately cleared up what he meant to say."

And later Gibbs repeated: "I think the Vice President misrepresented what the Vice President wanted to say, and what he meant to say was what others have said recently."

But if you actually listen to what Biden said, it's hard to conclude that he didn't mean every word of it. So the White House explanation was simply insufficient, if not outright deceptive.

The response to Biden's statement has been predictably negative. The Washington Post editorial board writes: "Mr. Biden's imprudent words could be taken as a green light for everyone to abandon the Metro, pull children out of school and avoid travel."

The New York Daily News editorial board writes: "You don't get dumber than Joe Biden was yesterday in urging, in effect, a shutdown of air travel and, worse, the abandonment of mass transit in New York in response to the swine flu outbreak."

But what matters the most to me is that the White House has refused to clarify whether Biden simply misspoke -- or whether said something he shouldn't have. And keep in mind: The latter is more typical of him.

As Steven Thomma writes for McClatchy Newspapers: "The slip and the rush to damage control were the latest in a long line of misstatements, mistakes and outright gaffes that have marked Biden's career.

"'He just naturally says what's on his mind. That is both a cause of concern to some and a charm to others,' said Larry Gerston, a political scientist at San Jose State University."

© 2009 The Washington Post Company