Joe Biden Joins a Long Line of 'Happy Warriors'

Last night Obama called Joe Biden a "happy warrior." There have been others before him.

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The cliché: Last night in his victory speech Obama called Joe Biden "America's happy warrior." It was an amusing way to describe someone who by all accounts has been a fighter, but has often been characterized as more of a "weird uncle" figure. The Hollywood Reporter noted that moments after Obama uttered those words "the phrase shot to the top of Twitter's trending topics with people taking to microblogging website in reaction." Twitchy chronicled those conservatives who took offense at the epithet. But this is not the first time Biden has gotten this nickname. David Weigel at Slate explained that following Biden's debate performance Obama campaign manager Jim Messina said “You saw the vice president be a happy warrior out there." Weigel continued: "In my short time in the Messina scrum, he made the 'happy warrior' reference—a  callback to Hubert Humphrey—twice."

Where it's from: The phrase originally comes from a William Wordsworth poem, "Character of the Happy Warrior," written following the death of British war hero Lord Nelson, which begins:

WHO is the happy Warrior? Who is he
What every man in arms should wish to be?
—It is the generous Spirit, who, when brought
Among the tasks of real life, hath wrought
Upon the plan that pleased his childish thought:
Whose high endeavours are an inward light
That makes the path before him always bright:
Who, with a natural instinct to discern
What knowledge can perform, is diligent to learn,
Abides by this resolve, and stops not there,
But makes his moral being his prime care;

Though, as Weigel noted, Hubert Humphrey is often associated with "happy warrior" nickname, it has a political history even before him. The American Spectator wrote in 2006 that Grover Cleveland "loved the poem, would gladly recite it to friends, and directed that it be read at his funeral." But it was politically popularized—as William Safire noted in a 2004 "On Language" column—when F.D.R. used it in a speech nominating New York Governor Al Smith for president at the 1924 Democratic National Convention. Smith's campaign manager Joseph Proskauer claims to have written the speech, and included the happy warrior reference, but F.D.R. was allegedly none-to-happy to include it. Per Safire, F.D.R. tried to write a version of the speech without the reference, and saying ''You can't give poetry to a political convention." Apparently, you can. Obama also called another political figure a happy warrior: Ted Kennedy.

Why it's catching on: Obviously the Obama camp likes giving Biden this label. And it works. Especially in the context of his debate performance, which was characterized by his laugh (hence, the happy) and his feisty responses to Paul Ryan (who, by the way, has also been called a "happy warrior.")

Why else? For liberals, its a term that puts the silliness "uncle Joe" into a more serious context. Perhaps it can be turned into a 2016 slogan.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.