The thing about Vice President Joe Biden is that he's not cool. He isn't. He isn't now and he wasn't when he was younger. But on the occasion of the generally beloved vice president's 71st birthday, it's worth looking at what his popularity as a cultural figure says about being cool in Washington. Spoiler: Being older helps.
We're on a bit of a hobbyhorse about coolness these days, having earlier this week broken down the "coolness" of each of the 2016 candidates by evaluating how cool they were in high school. The idea, which we proved without question, is that the cooler the candidate, the more likely he or she is to be elected president. Seriously. Proven.
Here's how cool Biden is on the six metrics we measured for that scientific study: his romantic life in high school and college, looks, fashion sense, use of alcohol and drugs, musical taste, and involvement in sports and activities. (Again providing the fashion assessment: actual high school senior/homecoming queen Bridget Jones.)
Here's what Biden's "how cool in high school" profile looks like.
- Romantic life: 4. Biden married his first wife after meeting her in college. He was so smitten, in fact, that he dropped off of his school's football team so he could go visit her on the weekends.
- Looks: 7.56. Again, we used Anaface.com to test how symmetrical Biden's face is. He was deemed to be more attractive than President Obama and Sen. Marco Rubio, but not as good-looking as Sen. Rand Paul or Hillary Clinton.
- Fashion: 8. Bridget says, "He is so cute and had definite 10 out of 10 potential (I love the skinny ties) but the haircut in the one picture (at right) is not even ok."
- Alcohol and drugs: 0. Biden is an avowed teetotaler. He told The New York Times in 2008, "There are enough alcoholics in my family." To be clear: this is a bold and admirable stance! But it wouldn't have made him cool in high school. At least, not in high school in the 1960s or 1970s.
- Musical taste: 2. Biden told People that his favorite band is The Chieftains. Here is the YouTube search we did when we heard that name. They are an Irish band.
- Sports and activities: 7. Biden was on the football and baseball teams and was class president his junior and senior years.
Overall, a decent score. But we didn't include Biden in the list of 2016 contenders (topped by New Jersey Chris Christie, who was clearly the coolest candidate in high school) because Biden came in sixth — behind Paul Ryan and just ahead of Jeb Bush. Biden isn't as cool as Paul Ryan? How does that work? This is a guy that still has a Corvette he was given in the 1960s. We doubted our methodology.
But then we realized the difference. Biden has emerged from the Uncool Middle Aged Dead Zone™, a point past which he can do things that are considered dorky or offensive in other contexts and get away with them. Think of why people like Biden: He talks without thinking, he flirts (totally safely) with older women, he uses dumb slang, he tells silly jokes. All of those things are only acceptable because of his age. (And, we'll note, the flirting is very, very subjective.) We've graphed this shift, using science and also probably some math.
Granted, Biden still can go too far. He'll say the wrong thing or call the wrong person and so on. Much of our perception of Biden's current coolness is based on the profile from The Onion, but not all. Much of who we consider Biden to be is actually Biden being Biden, an older guy who's now old enough for us to laugh at and with. In other words, what we mistake for coolness is just affection.
Biden gets away with his behavior also because he's generally considered pretty innocuous. He's vice president, which is not the easiest job in the world, but is also probably not in the top 10 hardest jobs at the White House. If and when he runs in 2016, a lot of the goodwill he's given, a lot of the perceived coolness, will evaporate. Remember when he praised Obama for being "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean"? That was deeply inappropriate for a presidential candidate. For the nice old guy that pals around with Obama, it's a little less egregious.
So the moral of the story is this: Joe Biden is not now and has never been cool. He is liked and admired, but he's not actually the cool, Camaro-driving Romeo that popular depiction who have us believe. He's an older guy that takes advantage of the ability to make bad jokes and wink a lot. How that correlates to electoral success is not exactly clear.
Update, 3:15 p.m.: Our fashion expert, Bridget, offered some additional thoughts on Biden via text message, after learning that the anonymous photos she reviewed were of the vice president.
This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.