WTF? Leave Biden Alone

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As the week neared its end, an initial Google search of "Joe Biden" with "f-bomb" generated 2,140,000 million results. By Thursday, it seemed there wasn't a cable or network or local television news outlet in America that had not broadcast the Vice President's candidly stoked moment Tuesday at the health reform law signing ceremony. On Facebook, meanwhile, who knows how many idiots couldn't even get the simple story straight and began discussing--with evident earnestness--how terrible (or, more likely, how great) it was the Biden had told his boss, the president of the United States, to fuck off during the signing event.

Welcome to America 2010, Cognitive Dissonance Edition, where our current journalist horde has just spent hundreds of hours of airtime, and millions of words of online and printed space, telling us about the not-exactly-shouted-out use of a word almost all of us use all the time anyway. Let's not kid each other, after all. If you are reading this, chances are that you say the word "fuck" sometimes, to yourself, your friends, your lover, or even to the strangers in the seats next to you at Fenway Park. You probably use it in anger or humor or passion or frustration or any other human emotion. I don't need to tell you when you use it. Let's just stipulate: you probably do.

That's why, no matter what the network censors say, no matter what vestige is left of Puritan prudery in Washington or New York, Vice President Joe Biden was communicating his feelings in a way hundreds of millions of Americans might themselves communicate their emotions at one of the most important moments of their own lives. I am willing to make this cinch bet: a huge majority of Americans who heard or saw the Biden "moment" understood, empathized and connected with precisely how he felt in that instant. He was able--unintentionally, of course, because he did not intend his words to be broadcast--to transform a two-dimensional moment into something much deeper.

We see politicians shake hands all the time. We hear them make fancy speeches. It's about time someone in power actually said something that cut directly through all that political film to that chord in our minds that allows us to say sometimes, when we are happy and without any moralist guilt, "big fucking deal." Biden is a grown man, after all, and from my mother's home town of Scranton, which means he's twice hard-earned the right, even in a public moment, to skirt our nation's thoroughly outdated "official" mores about speech and communication. No one understands this more than President Barack Obama himself, who is reported to have given Biden shit (you might say) for the vice president's exquisitely-timed bout of candor.

But that "transparency" result was not the intention of the journalists who helped deliver the story to the masses. Reporters and producers and executives, most of whom swear both in their public and private lives, all rushed with zeal to repeat one of the silliest "gotcha" moments in modern American political history. What, there's no swearing at the White House? Anyone listen to the Nixon tapes lately? What, it's news that the vice president shoots off his mouth from time to time? To whom is that news anymore? Probably just the yahoos on Facebook who believe that Biden secretly joined forces with the Tea Party movement Tuesday in order to subvert through cussing President Barack Obama's finest hour in office.

The ancient, evocative word in question is spoken around the world in a hundred different languages. That we happen to have a vice president blunt enough after all those polished years in Washington to use it at an historical moment--in his life, in the life of the Congress, in the life of the nation--is more a credit to him than it is a shame to our public discourse. What's that the politicians say in Washington these days? What's that the media executives promise? That they have to listen more to the American people? If they do, both politicians and journalists now ought to be hearing loud and clear the next message from the grassroots: get the f**k back to work!

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Andrew Cohen is a contributing editor at The Atlantic, 60 Minutes' first-ever legal analyst, and a fellow at the Brennan Center for Justice. He is also chief analyst for CBS Radio News and has won a Murrow Award as one of the nation's leading legal journalists. More

Cohen is the winner of the American Bar Association’s 2012 Silver Gavel Award for his Atlantic commentary about the death penalty in America and the winner of the Humane Society’s 2012 Genesis Award for his coverage of the plight of America’s wild horses. A racehorse owner and breeder, Cohen also is a two-time winner of both the John Hervey and O’Brien Awards for distinguished commentary about horse racing.

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