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Why Biden's Gaffe Matters

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."

By Dan Froomkin  |  May 1, 2009; 1:45 PM ET
 
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Comments

"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."

I don't see why it is "incumbent" to clear it up. I think pretty obviously Biden said what he felt, but why is there a need for the White House to embarrass him by saying it.

Apart from the glee CNN et al got by ignoring the White House gloss, repeating Biden's original words, and then explaining why they were foolish.

Does it really matter whether Biden grasp on policy is misoverestimated?

Posted by: JohnnyCanuck1 | May 1, 2009 2:13 PM | Report abuse

Dan, you never do deal with "Why Biden's gaffe matters".

Posted by: JohnnyCanuck1 | May 1, 2009 2:15 PM | Report abuse

I suggest you pull-up todays San Diego Union Tribune. A front page photo shows three ocean liners no docking in San Diego because of the Cheney Flu. Between Scam Hanitty, Bush Limbaugh and Wacko Billo along with their scorn of VP Joe is another chink in their armor

Posted by: scac1 | May 1, 2009 3:22 PM | Report abuse

Biden's comment matters because he believes what he said. Joe always has a hard time keeping to the script he's been given. He was not thinking what would happen to a particular industry nor was he trying to be politically correct, it was advice to his family. With every passing day, and with the existing H1N1 virus, we can all see that those infected have relatively mild flu. Biden's comments may seem unnecessarily worrisome to the general public and potentially a great cost to the economy. But if instead this were the H5N1 virus, with perhaps a 50% mortality rate, that same comment, compared to wash your hands, cough in your sleeve, or another of the scripted answers, would be considered the best advice coming out of our government.

Posted by: pfred | May 1, 2009 3:49 PM | Report abuse

That's the rub, pfred. Biden was right (as he was last spring with his "30% chance we might be getting it wrong on the economy remark--when every responsible economist was admitting pretty much the same thing). Small enclosed spaces with recirculating air, especially when occupied by large numbers of people and not often cleaned, are ideal transfer points for infectious disease. Strictly from the point of preventing infection, Biden was squarely on the money.

In terms of preventing panic, or mitigating losses to the airline and other travel industries, Biden's remark was sort of catastrophic. And there's the rub of public health: how to accurately prepare the public for the potential of infection, without creating a panic.

Posted by: whizbang9a | May 1, 2009 4:01 PM | Report abuse

And you people think Sarah Palin is too dumb to be VP. Thirty five years in the senate and this is what we get. We had all better hope that BO stays healthy for the next 4 years because the consequences will be worse than they will be already.

Posted by: AkCoyote | May 1, 2009 4:31 PM | Report abuse

Oh no! Biden's gaffe, combined with the Air Force One photo op blunder, I think are too large for the Obama administration to recover from. This is bigger than Katrina, bigger than a false justification for starting a war. IMPEACH, Dan, IMPEACH.

Posted by: unojklhh1 | May 1, 2009 6:19 PM | Report abuse

Geez, Louise, chill out. Of course this blip was a HUGE OUTRAGE on the NBC circuit & cable (shocked, shocked), which only validates its real-world insignificance. And, by the way, Biden was right enough (again).

To get your shorts in a knot over the subsequent corrections, restatements, pull-backs, draw-downs, etc.--or the lack thereof--is juvenile. Worthy of Matt Lauer, but way disproportionate.

Posted by: merelymyopinion | May 1, 2009 7:01 PM | Report abuse

This all illustrates again, for me, the Biden Miracle: how such a smart guy, but with so little sense of how to control what comes out of his mouth, could have made it so far in politics. It seems his greatest talent is embarrassing himself--and now, by extension, Obama.

Because, again--Biden was right in what he said. But there are other big considerations which he ignored in saying it.

Posted by: whizbang9a | May 1, 2009 7:53 PM | Report abuse

Are we saying we like Joe Biden, Politician, when he speaks truth to us, or that we'd prefer he be like every other politician and lie to us? I'll take the truth, thanks.

Posted by: DigiMark | May 1, 2009 8:09 PM | Report abuse

I gave my family the same advice,
they ignored it.
I noticed a guy sneeze in the check-out at the Costco today,
I don't usually notice.
For ten days to two weeks we can't be careful, modify our behavior, until we get a better handle on what is going on.

Thanks Joe, good advice.

Posted by: samellison | May 1, 2009 11:44 PM | Report abuse

Biden's gaffes matter because the media who had covered him for 30 years knew that he was a ticking time bomb but somehow was terrified to tell America that he wasn't fit to be "a heartbeat away."
He could always rattle off details that never failed to lead him to the wrong conclusions as Chairman of both Judiciary and Foreign Relations, where he berated and humiliated witnesses, staff, and fellow Senators.
Somehow he lent "gravitas" to an inexperienced and unprepared candidate that we are now stuck with as Commander-in-Chief.
Pray every day for the health and safety of Barack Obama.
God help us all.

Posted by: parkbench | May 2, 2009 12:18 AM | Report abuse

An interesting point, and another article that proves you are not prepared to give this administration a free ride, no matter how much better they are than the Bush years.

Posted by: tragic_slider1 | May 2, 2009 6:11 AM | Report abuse

Give up truth. Give up loyalty. Give up country. Beg for craven surrender in Iraq. But do anything to follow the "party line."

Even stifle all who may speak their mind.

No wonder Dan and I agree so little.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | May 2, 2009 7:25 AM | Report abuse

Calling a Spade a Spade is wrong? If he hadn't have made that statement when asked I would have thought him an idiot. You see, when someone high up in government makes a true statement that might, OMG, affect the profit of an industry they are publicly flogged, especially by the Republicans. What we have come to expect is them to lie to us like Christie Whitman when she told us that the air in Manhattan was not a health risk when she knew it was still deadly. How many people have died as a result? No matter, business went on and of course the "clean up" (destruction of evidence) went on and the by product was more "heroes" great stuff propaganda. Or like G.W.Bush who told us "We Don't Torture" (like Condi Rice is STILL telling us) Biden may not be politically correct in that he blurts out truth, maybe that's why I like him. You Go Joe!

Posted by: Watcher1 | May 2, 2009 7:57 AM | Report abuse

I am starting to think that 95% of the people in this country are morons! Yesterday, on MSNBC Dr. Robert Bazell (sp?) said that people are "contagious" for 3-4 days before they exhibit symptoms such as fever and sore throat, i.e., they don't KNOW they have the flu so they go about their daily business, exposing many others to the illness. If his statement was accurate, then Joe Biden is one of the few really smart ones and he gave his family good advice!!!

Posted by: vraptor | May 2, 2009 9:44 AM | Report abuse

And people thought Palin was a bad choice for VP? lololo A heartbeat away from the Presidency. Now that is scary. Another really good thing Obama has brought us.

Posted by: mmourges | May 2, 2009 10:30 AM | Report abuse

Biden's advice is sensible from the point of view of epidemiology and safety for those who have the option of traveling in private planes (and who do not need to take public transportation to get to work), but not of course a good thing for airline profits.

Sometimes a panic is harmful and sometimes not. If a really deadly epidemic were transmitted like colds or the flu then air travel might need to be shut down, both for the reasons Biden gave and to reduce intercontinental transmission. Biden's statements are a gaffe on the assumption that swine flu is not such an epidemic.

Posted by: skeptonomist | May 2, 2009 11:07 AM | Report abuse

"When one person sneezes, it goes all the way through the aircraft."

The media could do something constructive by finding out if this is true, and if so, why. My understanding is that in most commercial airliners air is sucked down into a central system where it is or could be filtered before being returned to the cabin.

Posted by: skeptonomist | May 2, 2009 11:12 AM | Report abuse

Joe Biden told the truth.

Joe Biden never tortured anyone.

I support Joe Biden because he tells the truth and doesn't sanction torture.

Posted by: wjmdjm | May 2, 2009 1:43 PM | Report abuse

The media loves to blow this stuff out of proportion. Joe is generally quite honest in his remarks, this gets him in trouble. I heard what he said and I agree with him, it didn't "panic" me. Frankly, schools are the worst for transmitting any infectious illness, and airlines now recirculate something like 90% of the air these days to save fuel. Now it would be cool if Biden demanded they changed that ratio until the flu is under control.

Meanwhile, I also don't care if the Whitehouse tries to spin his remarks because it is idiotic of the press to pursue an answer to the question in the first place. Honestly, who cares?

Posted by: datdamwuf2 | May 2, 2009 3:08 PM | Report abuse

The question was, "what would you tell your family".
You have to be careful asking Joe questions because he tends to just tell the truth. I think Dan is a mile off base castigating him for it, regardless of the effect on airline travel. If you want to avoid any kind of flu, stay out of enclosed spaces with lots of people. Airplanes do filter the air we breath but microbes are microscopic and people do often get sick from travel.
Just something to consider when you're planning your next vacation.
Joe Biden would be an outstanding President, though he'd definitely be a one termer. Truth-telling is not something the American electorate tends to reward.

Posted by: dijetlo | May 2, 2009 4:24 PM | Report abuse

I agree that Biden meant every word he said.
A lot of people feel the same way.
We overreact to new threats and ignore everyday threats.

There is a nonzero chance that you will catch a communicable disease by riding the subway, but it's probably riskier to drive a car to avoid this because you could get into an auto accident.

So Biden was saying avoid the new threat that everyone is talking about and ignore the old threat.

Posted by: Tim_G | May 2, 2009 6:59 PM | Report abuse

The problem is Obama's Administration is just as bad as any other recent administration in that they try to control the national conversation. They are spin doctors and sometimes LIARS and people have to understand that is what is done in Washington.

However, with the Internet -- we can all watch and listen to VP Biden and draw our own conclusions -- we don't need Gibbs to spout off his propaganda for us to draw our own conclusions.

Stop being sheeple and just find the facts and figure things out for yourself!

Posted by: winoohno | May 3, 2009 10:48 PM | Report abuse

It's a stretch for me to think anyone would go into a zone-out panic over what Biden said re: avoid travel in confined spaces, etc. Sanjay Gupta could have said the same thing and people would have yawned in boredom. So get a grip, we're talking about the flu (which regularly kills 30,000 americans yearly without so much as peep from the CDC) not the imminent release of sarin gas or the Black Death. But it gives some in the media a good opportunity to do an "Al Gore I invented the internet" on Biden or for the wacko right wing to demand that the border with mexico be closed as if that would prevent the influx of immigrants from mexico. The inept spin by Gibbs is more of a problem for me. Too reminiscent of Dana Perino. But mostly much ado about nothing.

Posted by: mickster1 | May 3, 2009 11:35 PM | Report abuse

So dan will take the role of the "short yappy dog" to bark at the VP. He never learns. But he should.

We do not need to put everyone on the same facade of lies.

Posted by: GaryEMasters | May 4, 2009 5:52 AM | Report abuse

Mexico has finally given America an export that is worse than the massive flood of outlaw "immigrants", gangs, crime, and drugs.

Swine flu!

Mexico, the failed state that just keeps on giving. With a neighbor like that, who needs enemies.

Bless Joe Biden! The Obama gift that keeps on giving. To Republicans.

Posted by: battleground51 | May 4, 2009 7:09 AM | Report abuse

can you imagine what would happen if joe "the mouth" biden had won the white house?
we would have heard the truth from the demacrats for the first time in 75 years!
go joe! run that mouth!

Posted by: sd34 | May 4, 2009 7:58 AM | Report abuse

As someone who grew up in the airline industry, I think Joe Biden actually got it right but pissed off the wrong people. Why in the world would anyone want to be on an airplane with a novel flu virus traveling around the world???? God knows the airlines have had their share of troubles this last decade but this really is something to think about. They can mismanage their money, they can screw passengers over, but GOD forbid an elected official tells us what he tells his own family? Joe, you're just fine in my book. A little bit of common sense by everyone in handling a flu virus would be helpful and I do think that includes a crackdown on air travel.

Posted by: SYWanda | May 4, 2009 10:27 AM | Report abuse

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