Senator Joe Biden, D-Del., the loquacious chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee who launched his presidential campaign today, may be experiencing an ailment not entirely unknown to him: foot in mouth disease.
Biden is taking some heat for comments he made to the New York Observer, in which he said of Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., a rival for the nomination: "I mean, you got the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy. I mean, that's a storybook, man."
Immediately the conservative media establishment -- Rush Limbaugh, the Drudge Report, bloggers -- publicly pounced. At Townhall.com, Mary Katherine Ham wrote: "A clean black man? The first black guy on the American political scene who can both shower regularly and speak properly? Is that really what Biden thinks? If a Republican had said this, we'd have a national outpouring of grief over the residual ignorance and racial insensitivity in our country, and the guy would be in sensitivity training until around about the time John Kerry is elected president."
"'He is a clean African-American'?" Limbaugh asked. "If Biden thinks that Obama is clean then he has to think that others are not clean. Does he mean that he knows that Jesse Jackson is not clean? Does he mean that he knows that Reverend Sharpton is not clean? ... See, folks, this is the problem for the libs. Once they get off script they expose their idiocy, they expose their prejudice."
But it wasn't just conservatives.
"When I heard his comments I thought Joe Biden was referring to a bygone era," said Donna Brazile, the former campaign manager for Al Gore's 2000 presidential campaign and a prominent African-American political consultant. "Years ago when white folks referred to black people with education they often used words like articulate. To suggest they were different, they were acceptable. That they were OK as compared to rest of African-Americans. So I think it came across that Joe Biden was referring to Sen. Obama as if he was a candidate running in the 1960s, not in the 21st century."
"They are loaded words," Rev. Jesse Jackson told ABC News. "And that's why he should interpret what he meant by those loaded words. It was an attempt I thought to diminish Barack's attributes and dismissive of our previous campaigns that made Barack's candidacy possible."
Jackson said Biden's remarks "could be divisive."
And notably, Obama himself didn't do much to knock the story down.
Asked about the comments at a press conference this afternoon, Obama said, "you'd have to ask Senator Clinton, uh, Senator Biden what he was thinking," initially stumbling by mentioning the name of the Democratic front-runner for the nomination, Sen. Hillary Clinton of New York. "I don't spend too much time worrying about what folks are talking about during a campaign season."
Asked if Biden meant to be complimentary, Obama said, "I'm not going to parse his words that carefully."
Late today, Obama's office issued a written statement on the subject in which the senator declared, "I didn't take Senator Biden's comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate. African-American presidential candidates like Jesse Jackson, Shirley Chisholm, Carol Moseley Braun and Al Sharpton gave a voice to many important issues through their campaigns, and no one would call them inarticulate."