In Defense of Naked Joe Biden

The political press is tittering over the idea of the vice president skinny-dipping—and missing the real news in a forthcoming book on his Secret Service detail.
Kevin Lamarque/Reuters

According to a new book, Joe Biden's Secret Service detail is leaking information about where the vice president is most vulnerable to being assassinated, as well engaging in less dangerous breaches of decorum, like gossiping about when he gets naked. These are breaches of the strict privacy code usually kept by the agents.

That's my takeaway from a Washington Post article on a new book, The First Family Detail. But like journalists at Politico, Fox, the New York Daily News, the Washington Times, and Breitbart, among others, Post reporter Sebastian Payne characterized the facts I've presented differently. Here's how he judged their news value:

Vice President Biden is well known for passing himself off as a regular Joe, but apparently this regular Joe likes to indulge in a naked swim every now and then, according to a new book. In "The First Family Detail," author Ronald Kessler claims to have the skinny on Biden from Secret Service agents who protect senior politicians. "Agents say that, whether at the vice president's residence or at his home in Delaware, Biden has a habit of swimming in his pool nude. Female Secret Service agents find the behavior offensive," Kessler writes.

"Biden likes to be revered as everyday Joe, and that's his thing" says one unnamed agent. "But the reality is no agents want to go on his detail because Biden makes agents' lives so tough." Kessler writes that Biden's "lack of consideration" means he is considered the second-worst assignment after Hillary Clinton. The book also claims Biden does not take proper security precautions in his home state of Delaware. Not wanting to disturb his neighbors, Kessler writes that Biden travels with a more limited motorcade, leaving his military aide and doctor to follow a mile behind his limousine. "What’s going to happen is either you're going to have a dead vice president in Delaware or you're going to have agents killed in Delaware because Secret Service management refused to stand up to (Biden)," says one anonymous Secret Service agent.

Boy, do I hate the coverage of this book. 

A few thoughts:

  1. That a man presents himself as "a regular guy" and also swims naked in his own backyard pool are not inconsistent! 
  2. Even if you disagree, how can skinny-dipping be the focus of articles that treat as credible a Secret Service agent revealing where the VP is most vulnerable to being murdered?
  3. Having bizarrely chosen "is Joe Biden a regular guy?" as the focus of the article, how is the fact that he's averse to driving through his longtime neighborhood with a full-on motorcade not cited as evidence in favor of "normal guy"?
  4. If ever there was a revelation about a senior government official that has no civic value, it's that Biden swims naked in his own pool. Yet the article never even considers that the scandal is a Secret Service agent violating Biden's sphere of personal privacy, not that multiple female agents purportedly find this offensive (which seems questionable given that just one in 10 agents are female—it's hard to imagine finding someone else to handle swimming sessions is undoable.)

More broadly, let me tell you that virtually no one in the Washington, D.C., political press is scandalized by skinny dipping. But every time it emerges that someone in public life has swam naked, there is widespread, disingenuous playacting on the question. You'd suddenly think that Maude Flanders was managing the newsroom. While I have no idea if the reporting in the new book on the Secret Service is credible, outlets treating it as credible enough to report have been distracted by skinny-dipping from what is indisputably more important news.

I noted something similar two years ago in a piece that offered a bit of historical context on D.C. skinny dipping:

When President John Quincy Adams lived in the White House, between 1825 and 1829, the former diplomat and U.S. Senator frequently went skinny-dipping in the Potomac River, causing no fuss. President Teddy Roosevelt, an avid outdoorsman, swam naked in the Potomac. Billy Graham was one of many to go skinny-dipping with President Lyndon Johnson in the White House pool. Yet today in a story emailed out to media professionals as a "POLITICO EXCLUSIVE," Jake Sherman and John Bresnahan write about mere congressional skinny-dipping like it's a serious scandal ...

The press missed the real story on that occasion too. When it comes to skinny dipping, press-corps veterans who've seen behavior far more scandalous go all to pieces.

Why?

Presented by

Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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