WASHINGTON, Jan. 31, 2007 -- 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."
Shortly after Obama's office released this statement, Biden followed suit with a short written statement of his own, reading simply, "I deeply regret any offense my remark in the New York Observer might have caused anyone. That was not my intent and I expressed that to Senator Obama."
But, in an earlier conference call with reporters about his presidential campaign, Biden acknowledged that he "was quoted accurately" in the New York Observer, but insists his comments are being misunderstood.
"Barack Obama is probably the most exciting candidate that either the Democratic or Republican party has produced at least since I've been around," Biden said. "He's fresh, he's new, he's insightful."
Biden said he regretted that "some have taken totally out of context my use of the word 'clean.'"
"My mother has an expression 'clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack,'" Biden said. "Look, the idea is, this guy is something brand new no one has seen before."
Biden reminded those on the call that he has a long record of support within the African-American community in Delaware and claimed he had spoken with Obama personally about the remark.
According to Biden, Obama told his colleague, "'Joe, you don't have to explain anything to me.'" Biden said he felt Obama "knew what I meant by it."
When asked why, if he feels so strongly about Obama, he is running against him for the Democratic nomination, Biden responded: "I think he's great, I think they're all great. I think I'm better. I think I'm more prepared."
Democratic observers shook their heads at the latest example of how Biden's garrulousness often gets him into trouble.
In the book "What It Takes," which chronicles the campaigns of six presidential hopefuls running in 1988, including Biden, Richard Ben Cramer wrote: "Biden is 'speech-driven' his guys would explain. But that was just guru-talk for the fact that Joe often didn't know what he thought until he had to say it. Then, too, there was the sorry corollary: sometimes Biden spoke before he thought."
Biden's campaign insists he is being misunderstood.
"Clean is a synonym for fresh and new," Biden campaign spokesman Larry Rasky told ABC News. "And if you look at the context of the quote it's obvious that's what he meant. And certainly anybody who knows Sen. Biden wouldn't question that."
The Biden campaign also pointed out that on "Good Morning America" today, the senator disputed the notion that Obama is too inexperienced to be president.
"Look, this guy's incredible," Biden said on the program. "He is really bright. He's fresh. He's new. He has great ideas. And the question will be whether or not on the campaign trail he fleshes out his ideas. I think experience does matter, but you'd expect me to say that. But, you know, this also relates to judgment, as he says. And so the folks are going to look at all of us. But he is a real star. This is a really incredible person."
And late in the day Wednesday, Biden issued a statement saying: "I deeply regret any offense my remark in the New York Observer might have caused anyone. That was not my intent and I expressed that to Sen. Obama.?
History of Gaffes
This is not the first accusation of racial insensitivity Biden has faced. In June 2006, C-SPAN caught him speaking to an Indian-American man, saying: "In Delaware, the largest growth in population is Indian-Americans moving from India. You cannot go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking." (You can see the Youtube video of that here.)
Last November at a Rotary Club meeting in Columbia, S.C., Biden joked about the state's Confederate history, saying that his home state of Delaware was "a slave state that fought beside the North." He added, "that's only because we couldn't figure out how to get to the South, there were a couple of other states in the way."
But Biden has been a consistent liberal voice on civil rights issues, and Jackson called him "a decent man and a smart man" today. This month he joined an NAACP rally against the presence of the Confederate flag at the South Carolina statehouse, and said, "if I were a state legislator, I'd vote for it to move off the grounds, out of the state."
Getting less attention were Biden's comments to the Observer in which he described previous Democratic presidential nominees Gore and Sen. John Kerry, D-Mass., as "blow-dried candidates" who "couldn't connect" and went after other rivals for the 2008 nomination.
"Everyone in the world knows her," he told the Observer about Sen. Hillary Clinton, D-N.Y. "Her husband has used every single legitimate tool in his behalf to lock people in, shut people down. Legitimate. And she can't break out of 30 percent for a choice for Democrats? Where do you want to be? Do you want to be in a place where 100 percent of the Democrats know you? They've looked at you for the last three years. And four out of 10 is the max you can get?"
And of the proposal by Sen. John Edwards, D-N.C., to remove 40,000 UL.S. troops from Iraq, Biden said, "I don't think John Edwards knows what the heck he is talking about."
Asked if his talkative nature might hinder his presidential hopes, Rasky earlier told ABC News that "it's a double-edged sword."
"It's chatter for the grist in Washington, D.C., but when you walk into a living room in Cedar Rapids [Iowa], or spend time as he recently did with college students in Manchester [N.H.] and give them a 20-minute answer on Iraq or North Korea, they know the answers to these problems are not simple and they want to be respected. We have seen this repeatedly."
"Yes, he does sometimes talk more than is politically correct," Rasky added. "But he always has something meaningful to say."
Biden ran for president 20 years ago and saw his campaign consumed by scandal after senior aides to campaign rival Mike Dukakis, the former governor of Massachusetts, made sure reporters saw that Biden had plagiarized a campaign speech from Neil Kinnock, then the leader of the British Labor Party. Biden had mentioned Kinnock in previous deliveries of that speech, though not in the one distributed to the press.
Other similar revelations -- news of "borrowing" from speeches by former Democratic icons Robert Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey, the story that he'd received a failing grade in a Syracuse Law School course for plagiarizing a legal article, a C-SPAN video of him telling New Hampshire voters that he'd graduated in the "top half" of his law school class (actual standing: 76 out of 85) -- combined to drive him from the race. The Delaware Supreme Court's board on professional responsibility later ruled that Biden had not violated any rules in the law school incident.
On today's conference call, Biden concluded: "I have no doubt that Jesse Jackson and every other black leader -- Al Sharpton and the rest -- will know exactly what I meant. I have a long, long relationship with these folks, they all know what I was saying?(Obama) is a very special guy, this is a guy that's like catching lightning in a jar."
As to whether Biden's penchant for "straight talk" might eventually hurt his campaign, the senator demurred.
"That will be something for the voters to decide," he said. "I don't see it as the problem you apparently see it. The voters will decide that."