Stephen Colbert’s interview with Joe Biden was remarkable in many ways: the vice president’s vulnerability in talking about his son, Maj. Beau Biden, who died of brain cancer this past May; both men’s willingness to talk about their Catholic faith in front of a national audience; Biden’s quoting a Danish Lutheran existential philosopher on a late-night comedy show.
What might have been as compelling as any of it was Colbert’s warm-up question.
“Everybody likes Joe Biden, right?” Colbert said, stoking wild cheers.
“I’ll tell you why I think that is,” Colbert went on. “I think it’s because when we see you, we actually think we’re seeing the real Joe Biden. You’re not a politician who’s created some sort of façade to get something out of us, or triangulate your political position or emotional state to try to make us feel a certain way. We see the real you. How did you maintain your soul in a city that is so full of people who are trying to lie to us in subtle ways?”
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“I commuted every day for 36 years,” Biden joked over the already laughing crowd.
“So it was going back to Delaware to get another piece of your soul every day?”
This narrative of the steadfast outsider is dominating the current political cycle.
In July a Reuters poll found more than three-quarters of Republicans support their leading candidate Donald Trump because he’s not interested in political correctness and because he stands up to the media.
Meanwhile, Bernie Sanders, a secular Jew and registered Independent, is energizing the Democratic base, not by minimizing his Occupy-Movement, European-style socialism, but by “shooting straight.” “He’s so authentic, he’s hip,” wrote Steve Winkler in the Guardian.
Back on the right, Kim Davis, a county court clerk in Kentucky, has become a household name by defying a federal court order and refusing to issue marriage licenses to anyone, in an effort to avoid issuing them to same-sex couples.
Davis might be the most extreme example, and she’s not winning any popularity contests among Americans who inhabit the vast middle or certainly the far left. But listen to what Biden told Colbert as the laughs died down:
“No, look,” he said. “What always confuses me about some folks I work with, is why in God’s name would you want the job, if you couldn’t say what you believed?”
The audience started to cheer, because we love a straight shooter.
“Now, now, now,” Biden cautioned. “There’s nothing noble about this. Ask yourself the question, would you want a job that, in fact, every day you had to get up and you had to modulate what you said and believe?”
With all due respect to the vice president, who, in real practice, I think, can work within the partisan morass of Washington as well as anybody, let me ask this question:
Haven’t you ever seen “Office Space”? Tell me a job that exists in this world where you don’t have to get up every day and modulate what you say and believe. Isn’t that what we call adulthood? Show me a job where you can live fully into yourself, without having to worry about how you affect other people or what they think of you.
The world is too complex, and the people around us are too diverse, for any grown-up to expect to just say whatever’s on our minds or act on whatever authentic impulses we might have. We think it’s cute when children lack a filter and say what adults won’t. But if a leader is going to help govern 300 million people with 300 million competing interests, he or she is going to have to do a whole lot more listening than saying what’s on their minds. You can call it “flip-flopping.” Maybe it’s just governing in a representative democracy.
I heard Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez tell a Durham CAN gathering this summer that he’s tired of violent crime because he's tired of having his dinner interrupted. Honest? Authentic? Unscripted? Yes. It seems to me that a narrow scope on his own sight-lines – a failure to see his department’s work from outsiders' perspectives – is what doomed the chief’s tenure.
There’s something even more interesting to me than how our political environment praises the steadfast outsider, even though such an approach doesn't work very well in actual governance: Some religious people actually spiritualize this kind of fierce independence that amounts to stubbornness. There’s a narrative that Kim Davis is somehow more faithful as a Christian because she’s standing up to the big, bad, secular judges.
There are lots of ways one could rebut that narrative from a Christian perspective, but I just happened to trip over one of them in a scheduled weekly reading – what the Church calls the “lectionary” – from the Epistle of James:
“The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.”
Divine wisdom is willing to yield. Righteousness comes to those who make peace. Spiritual – and political – maturity lies in working through differences and arriving at new syntheses as we struggle together for a common good.
I happen to see this kind of maturity in Biden. I'm not criticizing him. But America faces tough challenges, and, frankly, I count myself among the majority of voters who lack the time, motivation or wisdom to engage these challenges. Maybe that’s why our forbears saw fit to found a republic, rather than a pure democracy. We'd rather hear simple, straight-forward answers that echo back to us our ideologies. Unfortunately, such answers won’t solve our problems, and even if they could, there would be too much opposition to implement them. If you believe in democracy, you believe in compromise.
Biden is a good politician, which means he's a shrewd communicator. Ironically, talk of “saying what you believe” is a way of telling us what we want to hear. You might even call it pandering to the zeitgeist. We can't be bothered with the complex negotiations of a nation this large and fragmented. We don’t understand the issues well enough to elect people who actually represent our interests; we’ll settle for someone we think we can trust.
When deciding whom to trust, it’s not a bad thing to consider how Trump or Sanders or Biden or any of the other candidates stand on principle. But we ought also consider whether they’re willing to yield, as St. James urged us.
Jesse James DeConto is a writer and musician in Durham. Contact him via www.jessejamesdeconto.com.