Joe Biden: Dancing With the Sausage Maker

Those that respect the law and love sausage should watch neither being made.
– Mark Twain

In the spirit of Twain’s famous metaphor, Joe Biden is a mighty gifted sausage maker. The vice president is the man of the hour, the Obama administration’s legislative deal-maker on the fiscal cliff and leader of forging gun-control legislation following the Newtown massacre. Biden is the LBJ of the Obama White House when it comes to dealing with Congress as that institution sinks ever deeper into an historic nadir of national trust.

Ever since he showed his political pugilistic skills with Paul Ryan in the VP debate following President Obama’s dull performance in the first presidential debate, Biden has moved to a position reminiscent of Cheney’s with George Bush.

“Joe” is always billed as an ordinary working class guy. On the campaign trail, the youthful 70-year-old flirtatiously nuzzles motorcycle mamas at lunch cafes. Last week, he amused the pundits by spouting corny jokes or wisecracks with everybody at a photo-shoot for new congress members being sworn in. As Maureen Dowd points out, the VP is comfortable in the halls of Congress and he is not afraid of letting his sub-conscious free-associate and have a little fun. He’s the politician you’d like to have a beer with. Michael Smerconish on MSNBC gushed, “Praise Biden for showing how it’s done, how to be a pol.”

 VP Joe Biden in the limelight December 31st VP Joe Biden in the limelight December 31st

On the other hand, this would-be working-man-of-the-people was re-elected US senator from the Moneybags Corporate State of Delaware for over 36 years, a period known for the inexorable slow demise of labor unions. Ponder that for a while and you realize what a brilliant and accommodating man Biden must be.

Joe Biden has been making sausage for over a third of a century. Among his list of successes is the current Drug War and the current Counter-Terrorism War, both of which are now interlocking to become one long, bi-partisan war without end. While Biden may scrap with Republicans, he is a classic Cold War Liberal in the Hubert Humphrey mode, pushing moderately progressive legislation while reinforcing the pillars of imperial militarism and the burgeoning police-state that is post-9/11 America.

When Republican Senator Mitch McConnell — for the past four years an unabashed obstructionist in the senate — could no longer deal with Democratic Senator Harry Reid, Biden came to the rescue and huddled with McConnell. The two men have reportedly been friends for 25 years in the Senate. Thus, Biden was deemed McConnell’s “best dancing partner” for making sausage late into the night. We are led to believe the compromise they forged saved the nation from going over the fiscal cliff.

But maybe the cliff was really just a simple-minded metaphor cited so much it became reality in people’s minds, an artificial boogie man to fear, something to avoid at all costs. Without a degree in economics and psychology and an appreciation for the absurd, it was hard to tell what really happened late New Years Eve when the nation was partying and tooting horns.

Had a triumphant President Obama finally beaten the Social Darwinist Tea Party Republicans into submission and won the day, or had he once again caved and given up the store for bi-partisan kumbaya? We won’t really know until March, when the fiscal can they kicked down the road comes alive again with the debt-ceiling food fight Republicans seem to be planning. The other night on Fox News, Sean Hannity literally lectured Republican congress-members with bullet points on exactly what they should do to shut down the government.

Whatever really happened, Joe Biden was riding high. As he stood behind the President speaking at a White House podium about the fiscal cliff deal, he wore the smile of a cat who had just lunched on someone’s pet bird.

In his 2007 memoir Promises To Keep, Biden waxes emotional on the warm relationship between Senators Hubert Humphrey and Barry Goldwater, even though they were partisan opponents. Biden writes, “I mark the last days of Hubert Humphrey as the high point of bi-partisan decency in my career.” He tells how Goldwater marched over to Humphrey who was dying of cancer but still determined to show up on the senate floor. Goldwater “envelope(d)” Humphrey with a long hug. They were both in tears. “They made no effort to hide it.”

This is certainly very moving, but it suggests that Joe Biden is a man of the Senate and of the Politics of the Senate — and not a man of the people. This sentimentality helps us ordinary people understand his relationship with Mitch McConnell and why they are such good sausage-makers together.

 Mark Twain's metaphor for law-making Mark Twain's metaphor for law-making

Biden quotes Humphrey saying this: “ ‘The senate is a place filled with goodwill and good intentions, …. and if the road to hell is paved with them, then it’s a pretty good detour.’ ” If Humphrey’s metaphor is to make any sense, however, the “good intentions” of the Senate cannot be a “detour.” The point of the metaphor is good intentions can lead to hell. I submit that that hell is what we’re living through today: Unquestioned, bi-partisan, fiscally irresponsible, mostly-secret militarism accompanied by a highly partisan struggle in Congress for the left-over domestic scraps. Another aspect of that partisan struggle is over what is the cause of the nation’s grotesque deficit: Militarism or domestic so-called Entitlements?

As Dave Lindorff from TCBH has pointed out, “The US is currently running a $1.3 trillion deficit (that) almost exactly matches the amount that is being spent annually on the US military, and on military/intelligence-related activities.”

We’ve been on this road to hell for a long time, certainly since Humphrey and his boss LBJ escalated the Vietnam War into a debacle that remains to this day arguably the most misguided, costly and tragic foreign policy adventure ever undertaken by our government. A 25-year, multi-million-dollar Pentagon effort — the Vietnam War Commemoration Project — has been established to clean up that image, something that is doomed to fail. The point is, anyone who says there is no bi-partisanship in Congress is wearing blinders. When it comes to military, intelligence, surveillance and police expenditures, bi-partisanship is impregnable. Consider how the recent FISA national surveillance legislation — ie., spying on the citizenry, something that should be controversial — breezed through Congress and the White House two weeks ago.

A Personal Beef With Joe Biden

In the spirit of full disclosure, of all the various national and local politico celebrities I’ve asked a question of in public, the most galling and insulting response I ever got was from Joe Biden. Frank Rizzo once physically shoved me out of his path and almost knocked me on my ass; but that was nothing compared to Biden. And as will become clear later, his insulting response to me made sense.

It was the mid 1990s at Widener University south of Philadelphia. Senator Biden had come to make a speech on crime and the Drug War. At the time, he was Chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee. I was in the second row. I raised my hand and he called on me. He walked over and stood right in front of me.

“Senator Biden, I’ve worked with a needle exchange program in Philly. I’ve talked about this subject with a number of people and have read up on things like Harm Reduction. So I’m curious what your position is on the idea of de-criminalizing drugs as a way of gradually weaning ourselves off the Drug War, which seems to be a failure?”

Biden chuckled in a public sort of voice so the audience could hear him. He pointed right at me.

“This man thinks he’s smart,” he said, looking at the audience with that patented Everyman Joe smirk. “He’s carefully using the term ‘de-criminalize’ when what he wants to do is ‘legalize’ drugs across this nation. This guy wants to make heroin and crack legal and available for everyone to obtain.”

I wanted to interrupt and say, “No, sir, that’s not what I said.” But he kept at it for a bit longer as he eased himself back to the center of the audience and pointed to another questioner. I took the beating and sat down.

Senator Biden is one of the architects of our current Drug War, especially in how it relates to federal resource-sharing with local police forces who desire the latest police gadgetry. His interests are not to lessen the stigmatization and criminalization of citizens in America caught up in the Drug War, many of them poor and black. Michelle Alexander has eloquently made this critique of the Drug War in her book The New Jim Crow. From the point of view of a poor, inner city black kid, drugs are too often a matter of free-private enterprise and about getting ahead as an entrepreneur. Our prisons are filled with such kids becoming adults; I currently teach some of them writing in the Philadelphia prison.

The senator’s insulting and disrespectful answer spoke volumes to me, and the conclusion I came to was that Senator Biden’s mind was locked and he was using his leadership of the judiciary committee and his sausage-making talent with crime bills to continue to mobilize an international drug war notably opposed by most of the leaders of Latin America.

Joe Biden and the Drug War

Joe Biden’s background is instructive. He made a name for himself in the Senate Judiciary Committee in the early Reagan years using crime bill issues to regain power for Democrats after they had lost the senate and the Presidency.

Biden had been on the famous Church Committee in the late ‘70s that investigated intelligence excesses. “The experience convinced him that crime should be viewed as a form of domestic security,” writes Ted Gest in Crime & Politics: Big Government’s Erratic Campaign for Law and Order. Biden’s first effort in this vein was developing the National Security and Violent Crime Control Act. It was an “attempt to put crime in a defense context — getting the armed forces involved in drug interdiction, for example.”

This, of course, is the federal/local nexus that has been developed and beefed up over the years and was, of course, put on steroids after September 11, 2001, leading to the current rage for fusion centers. As a Democrat, Biden opportunistically rode the right-moving wave of the Carter demise and the Reagan ascendancy. It’s clear he’s a brilliant and effective politician.

The key for Biden to getting this crime legislation passed, Gest points out, was “important personal relationships … especially between Biden and the new Senate Judiciary Committee chairman Strom Thurmon.” Biden, 38, sought out the old Dixiecrat Thurmon, 78, and told him, according to Gest, “Mr. Chairman, no one expects this relationship to work, but there are a lot of things we agree on and a lot we don’t. Why don’t we agree on what we can and leave aside what we can’t. If you do that, I promise that I will never embarrass you by publicly taking you on.” Thurmon agreed to dance.

Biden’s counterpart in the House was New Jersey Congressman William Hughes. “Re-establishing a strong federal narcotics policy was the first area where Biden and Hughes wanted to make a mark,” Gest says. “Their main goal was to reverse the Democrats perceived weakness on drugs. … Biden became convinced that federal anti-drug policy was a mess.” The Carter White House had toyed with the notion of legalizing marijuana. The other thing to note is Biden was going against the notion of states’ rights on the drug enforcement issue. This, of course, is now front and center in the federal government’s absurdly bull-headed determination to keep marijuana illegal.

Biden pushed for mandatory minimum sentences and the creation of a cabinet-level “drug czar.” It was sometimes rocky going, but in the end he got what he wanted. However, the “landmark” 1984 crime bill was such a grotesquely slapped-together knockwurst that it contained a significant amount of rotten meat. One example was a forfeiture scheme that allowed law enforcement agencies across the nation to benefit financially by seizing the property of “accused” drug criminals. Gest cites “a string of horror stories” of agents padding their institutional coffers by confiscating the homes and cars of people who were eventually acquitted of the crime charged. None of this confiscated wealth was ever returned. It was 16 years before this egregious section was altered.

Until I read Gest, I did not realize how deeply Joe Biden was invested in the drug war when I asked him what he thought of de-criminalizing drugs. Now it makes sense why he answered the way he did. I was a nobody and my question was a direct threat to what he was selling and what he’d made his name doing. I had to be swatted like a fly.

The psychoanalyst writer James Hillman writes that “The craving for new ideas and for intellectual skills to deal with the constraining effects of unthought ideas is a deep hunger in the American soul.” (You may have to read that over a couple more times.) What Hillman seems to be suggesting is that for someone like Senator Biden, a powerful man deeply invested in the militarization and criminalization of the nation’s drug problem, the idea of de-criminalizing drugs and how that might actually be a step toward sanity is, in his case, a willfully unthought idea possibly constraining us from positive change. The good doctor might question whether someone like Senator Biden secretly hungers to develop the skills to engage with such an idea. But I don’t have a license to pursue that kind of question.

One thing is certain, Hillman is the antithesis of a post-9/11 sausage-maker. He sees the obsession with security, force and control as “inertia of the spirit, a passivity that feels no vocation and shies from imaginative vision, adventurous thinking and intellectual clarification. That we imagine ourselves today as a nation of victims attests to a vacuum in the spirit of the nation. These are symptoms of the soul in search of clarity.” (From Kinds of Power: A Guide to Its Intelligent Uses by James Hillman.)

Mark Twain understood the corruption endemic to our legislative bodies, and he accordingly recognized that making laws is not always a pretty business. But that doesn’t mean our laws have to be nasty-smelling things forged out of corrupt back-room deals designed to bamboozle tax payers. The only reason the current struggles are so vile is that there is so much secrecy and dishonesty focused on sustaining an American imperial militarism around the world. This militarism, as happens in all cases of declining empire, eats resources that might maintain the nation’s crumbling infrastructure, provide for the social needs of American citizens and the general welfare of the homeland. It’s that simple.

Clarity should be possible. And if there’s a lack of clarity, no one is more to blame than those citizens who hold the likes of likable ol’ Joe Biden up on a pedestal.