Thursday, February 01, 2007

Biden tosses hat in ring, puts foot in mouth - Senator backpedals on Obama remark

Biden tosses hat in ring, puts foot in mouth - Senator backpedals on Obama remark
By Jill Zuckman
Copyright © 2007, Chicago Tribune
Published February 1, 2007

WASHINGTON -- Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware, a foreign policy expert and Iraq war critic with a propensity for long-winded oratory, entered the Democratic race for president Wednesday with a clumsy comment about Sen. Barack Obama of Illinois that was taken by some to be racially insensitive.

Though he touted his foreign affairs experience during a news conference, Biden was forced to explain why he had described Obama, a potential rival for the Democratic presidential nomination, as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."

Biden challenges context

Biden made the comments to the New York Observer and said his use of the word "clean" to describe Obama was "taken totally out of context."

Obama initially told reporters they would have to ask Biden what he was thinking when he made the comment: "I don't spend too much time worrying about what folks are talking about during a campaign season."

But by day's end, the senator from Illinois took a sharper tone, issuing a public rebuke to his more senior colleague.

"I didn't take Sen. Biden's comments personally, but obviously they were historically inaccurate," Obama said. "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."

Biden called Obama to explain his comments and Obama told him he did not take the comments personally, according to aides to the Illinois senator.

"This guy is a superstar," Biden said, praising Obama's attributes in what was supposed to be his own presidential debut. "He is probably the most exciting candidate this party has had in a long time."

Even so, Biden released a separate statement Wednesday as he tried to tamp down the controversy.

"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," he said.

Biden told reporters that he has long enjoyed the support of the black community in Delaware and did not intend to cause offense. He also said he did not believe that Sharpton, Jackson or other black leaders would misunderstand his remarks.

"My mom has an expression, `clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack.' He is crisp and clear. I think a lot of him," said Biden, describing Obama as "lightning in a bottle" and adding that Obama had captured the imagination of the country like no other politician.

In an interview, Jackson called Biden "a decent man" who had made a verbal gaffe while trying to slight the competition.

"He was saying in effect that Barack is more style than substance, that he is just coming onto the scene," Jackson said. "In doing so, he seemed to be dismissive of our 1988 campaign and diminishing Barack's potential campaign."

Jackson, who spoke with Obama and Biden by telephone Wednesday, said he would not characterize Biden's comments as racially motivated.

"That is my interpretation and Barack's interpretation," he said, adding that he hoped Biden's campaign would not be harmed by his choice of words.

As he kicked off his candidacy, Biden, 64, said he believes he would be a better president than Obama or Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), two of the top contenders.

"I make no apologies for saying I believe I am the best prepared of all the candidates," said Biden, the chairman of the Foreign Relations Committee who has served in the Senate for 34 years.

`No margin for error' in Iraq

"The next president, left with the debacle this president will leave us, will have no margin for error and will need a fully thought out, comprehensive notion of what he or she will do with the problems in the world," Biden said.

In some ways, Biden's entry into the race signals the preeminent role that the war in Iraq will play in the 2008 election. The issue dominated midterm elections as Democrats swept to power in Congress. Now, each of the presidential candidates has detailed positions on how to approach the conflict and the region.

Biden criticized both Clinton's and Obama's positions on Iraq, singling out Clinton's ideas as "incorrect for how to proceed." Clinton would cap American troop levels and has threatened to cut off funding for Iraqi troops.

"From the part of Hillary's proposal, the part that really baffles me is, `We're going to teach the Iraqis a lesson,'" Biden said. "We're not going to equip them? OK. Cap our troops and withdraw support from the Iraqis? That's a real good idea," he added sarcastically.

The Clinton campaign had no comment on Biden's criticism.

Like Clinton, Biden voted in 2002 to authorize President Bush to use force if necessary in Iraq. Since that time, Biden has become an ardent critic of the administration and the war, complaining about poor preparation and field intelligence, as well as insufficient troop levels. His proposal would divide Iraq along ethnic lines to end civil strife.

This is not Biden's first time running for president. In 1988, he was forced to withdraw from the race six months before the first primary after it became public that he had plagiarized some passages in his speeches from a British politician.

Biden has a compelling personal story. In 1972, while a 29-year-old county councilman, he challenged a Republican senator with an anti-Vietnam War platform, winning by a little more than 3,000 votes. Five weeks later, his wife and baby daughter were killed in a car accident, and his two sons were badly injured. Biden was sworn into office at the side of one son's bed. Since then, he has made it a point to commute home by train every day.



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