Here comes Joe Biden

Posted: Sep 05, 2006 12:01 AM
Here comes Joe Biden

You may not think of Delaware as a Southern state but Joe Biden, its senior senator, has just redrawn the Mason-Dixon line. The way he describes Delaware, it sounds almost Southern. Why would he want to do that?

Maybe because he's one of the many presidential contenders and pretenders already lining up at the gate two years before Aught-Eight. And there are all those Southern presidential primaries to think about.

Asked how he would do down South against rivals from there, Joe (Bubba) Biden explained that actually he comes from (ITALICS) up (END ITALICS) South: "My state was a slave state. My state is a border state. My state has the eighth-largest black population in the country." And old times there are not forgotten.

For a Democrat with presidential aspirations, to abandon the South would be the equivalent of abandoning all hope. The last three successful Democratic candidates for president - Bill Clinton, Jimmy Carter and Lyndon Johnson - were from the South, if you make allowances and consider Texas a Southern state rather than an empire and anomaly all its own.

Sen. Biden's conversion to Southernness brings to mind a politician I used to know in Pine Bluff, Ark., which is a very Southern town indeed, who had the misfortune of being born in Illinois or Indiana or one of those Frost Belt states, and therefore felt the need to declare himself as Southern as his rival, if not more so. So he explained: "Just 'cause a cat has her kittens in the stove don't make 'em biscuits."

I forget whether said politico won or lost his race, but the line is worth remembering for any yankee trying to identify with the natives in these latitudes. It has the ring of both the Southern patois and universal folk wisdom or, as we say in these parts, mother wit.

By the time Oh-Eight rolls around, Sen. Biden could be dusting off his great-grandpappy's Confederate uniform, lengthening his vowels, laying on the Y'alls thick as molasses, and generally playing Old South to beat the band.

O Times, O Mores! There was a misbegotten era when upwardly mobile Southerners who wanted to get anywhere in national politics - or in business or radio or almost any other field - were seriously advised to get rid of their accent. Now the Southern lilt is chic, as in Dixie Chicks and country music on urban radio. So some Northerners are working hard to acquire a Southern background even if they have to invent one.

Not only is Delaware no longer a Northeastern state in "Biden's Official Atlas and Political Manual," but don't call Delaware liberal, either. To quote the senator: "My state is anything (but) a Northeast liberal state." Northeast Liberal State are apparently fightin' words these neo-conservative days, and the senator is quick to disown them, at least when campaigning in a southerly direction.

There's only one thing missing from the senator's new identity as a stalwart Son of the South: A true Southerner never proclaims himself one. Or needs to. He leaves that sort of thing to the embarrassing breed known as professional Southerners.

Whether he's a yankee or Southerner or something in between, whether borrowing somebody else's words or some other region's identity, Joe Biden remains Joe Biden. That is, someone who has a tendency to make others squirm. The more he talks, the more uncomfortable he makes his listeners. Maybe because he seems to have this unfortunate desire to be more chummy with folks than they might want to be with him. And now, it seems, he wants to be One of Us down here.

The senator might prove more popular in these latitudes if he just stayed himself, whatever that is. Look at how welcome Rudy Giuliani is in these parts, even though you can hear New York, in his every word.

The thing about Southerners - well, one of the many things about Southerners - is that we'd prefer folks to be what they are, and be comfortable in their own skin instead of molting regularly in accordance with political necessity.

The hardest thing in the world for politicians to do is just to be who they are. And it's not so easy for the rest of us, either. Some of the more pitiable among us tend to think of the self as a fungible commodity. All the fake alter egos that tempt us can be so distracting we may never find ourselves. Call it the Chameleon Syndrome. Its victims change personas as regularly as most people do shoes. And sometimes, especially when fashion takes precedence over comfort, the choices made can be painful.

Before the next presidential election, it's liable to get mighty crowded in the Southern Lineage Dept. It wouldn't surprise if, by the time of the Southern primaries, Hillary Clinton nee Rodham, who quietly dropped her maiden name here in Arkansas when it became a political burden, emerges as a demure Southern belle.