Joe Biden comes to Ottawa, and it feels oddly familiar

On two career politicians—including one longtime Canadian PM—who weren’t crude populists and stayed cool

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden arrive at a state dinner on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden arrive at a state dinner on Thursday, Dec. 8, 2016 in Ottawa. (Justin Tang/CP)

While we waited for U.S. Vice-President Joe Biden to arrive for dinner last night at the Sir John A. Macdonald building, a handsomely repurposed beaux-arts bank just off Parliament Hill, a particular mix of expectation and amusement filled the air. I felt sure I’d breathed it in before.

But what was it? Definitely something about the blend of pop culture fun and political culture lore that surrounds this U.S. vice president. Biden makes everybody feel good. He’s famously hard to script. His smile is visible through heavy snow at night. He’s 74 and exudes unvanquished pleasure in the politician’s craft and calling.

And then I saw Jean Chrétien in the crowd and it hit me. This was how it often felt during, let’s say, the second half of Chrétien’s run as prime minister. Still does today when he gets up in front of a crowd. He enters a room and folks are delighted to hear that rasp. Glad he’s still himself, hasn’t gone away.

When he was in power, Canadians laughed easily about Chrétien, and 22 Minutes had a field day with him. Just like Americans laughed about Biden, who furnished pure Saturday Night Live gold. But, in both cases, it was relaxed laughter, not the worried kind. Because, hey, even if these guys sometimes sounded a bit foolish, they weren’t fooling around with public office. They were old pros.

Biden was born in Scranton, Penn., and grew up in Delaware. His dad sold cars. He married young, became a lawyer, and was elected to the Senate before he turned 30. Chrétien was born in Shawinigan, Que., where his dad was a machinist in the paper mill. He married young, became a lawyer, and was elected to the House of Commons just shy of his 30th birthday.

Making too much of these coming-of-age parallels, I know, is contrived. Just one detail more, though: Biden’s childhood was marked by his struggle to overcome a bad stutter, while speech was made difficult for Chrétien by a childhood bout of Bell’s palsy that partly paralyzed one side of his face.

So they didn’t come up easy or glib. Yet they arrived awfully young on their respective national political stages. Biden went on to serve for 36 years in the U.S. Senate, chairing during two long stints its powerful judiciary committee and its foreign affairs committee. Chrétien sat in the cabinets of Lester Pearson and Pierre Trudeau from the early ’60s to the mid-’80s, holding prestige portfolios like Justice and Finance.

They were surely, by any objective measure, high-ranking, longstanding members of the political elite. But it didn’t land that way. They weren’t smooth talkers, sometimes with memorable results. Biden: “Folks, I can tell you I’ve known eight presidents, three of them intimately.” Chretien: “A proof is a proof, and when you have a good proof, it’s because it’s proven.”

That everyman quality must be baked on hard for decades of wielding serious power not to wear it off.

There was also always the possibility of a flash of anger, an expression of a tough-guy streak, just the folksy side of thuggish. Biden saying, during the recent election campaign, that he’d like to take Trump “behind the gym.” Chrétien applying the “Shawinigan handshake” to that unfortunate protester who got in his way.

The sunglasses Chrétien scowled through that day. Biden’s customary aviator shades.

What Biden represents, however, should not be trivialized. There’s a tendency to be cautious that comes with, first, not being the aristocratic type, and, second, sticking around long enough to see sure things go sideways. Chrétien opted out of the 2003 invasion of Iraq; Biden was, in the Obama administration, reluctant about using military force, certainly compared with Hillary Clinton.

Their parties’ establishments readily embraced neither of them. But don’t Democrats wish they’d put up Biden, instead of Clinton, against Trump? Just like a lot of Liberals realized, as they languished in the opposition wilderness in the 1980s, that they should have gone with Chrétien, instead of John Turner, against Brian Mulroney.

None of this matters, except as a little game of finding patterns, unless you think Biden carried something more meaningful than his own cool persona into that glittery dinner in Ottawa last night. I think he stands for the way a career politician, one who doesn’t lose touch with how most voters talk and think, needn’t end up being remote, much less reviled.

People are often said not to like career politicians, even hate them, but that’s not really true. The crude right-wing populists on the rise today are wrong about that. Mostly voters end up liking politicians who can be seen to like politics, and people, and platforms, and power, and don’t pretend otherwise. This attribute isn’t diminished by decades in office, it’s burnished by time.

Experience amplifies the meaning of words that might otherwise seem unexceptional. “I’ve never seen Europe as engaged in as much self-doubt as they are now,” Biden, who’s had an insider’s view of European politics for so long, said last night. And, bringing it closer to home: “There is a lot of soul searching going on in Europe, and you saw some of it in my country.”

Hardly indelible words. Coming from a guy who’s seen it all, though, worth mulling. He also addressed some sentimental remarks to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, including some about how it’s even better to have granddaughters than it was to have daughters. Stick around, kid, he seemed to being saying, the long game is what it’s all about.


Joe Biden comes to Ottawa, and it feels oddly familiar

  1. Your morning cup of Joe and Jean, Authentic, Outspoken and Honest. A message to US Secret Service next time they come to Canada in winter season, invest in some ‘Toques’, looked like a lot of cold bald heads on the tarmac last night.

  2. just another excuse for potatohead to spend another $150,000 on a supper he’s looking @ 40 billion deficit from dummy , he had enough money to retire y come n screw up canada

  3. This is the loser thank you tourfor the Democrats and Liberals…..LOL. Can you get any sense of how neutered the Vice president and his host must feel. Looking forward to Trump laying waste to Juniors stupidity, and Obama’s pointless 8 years.
    You can’t sell this in Hollywood… Jan 20 can’t come soon enough.

    • “Jan 20 can’t come soon enough” Have to agree with you there. The sooner Trump voters become disillusioned with him the better :-)

      • To agree with the previous insulting remarks makes you implicit in them, and using a ‘smiley’ as a form of punctuation is pointlessly transparent.

  4. Are you kidding. Chretien was and will be known for being the liberal hack that he is. He was a bagman for the Liberals in Quebec. A government employee proud of sucking taxpayer’s money for 40 years. Why is it these people seem to think this is some kind of laudable career. They go into government jobs becasue they suck at the private sector. Hopefully the Little Trudeau is smoked by the economy and his stupid policies before he wrecks our country. There.. the layman’s rant. Chretien artificially held our dollar down in the 90’s to prop up the two loser manufacturing provinces. Thankfully now we in western Canada do not need to by their crappy goods anymore. Looking forward to Vancouver becoming the Asian powerhouse that draws business because of its geographical proximity to China. Toronto should be toast by 2030. The best part of this trend is Trudeau thinks the Vancouver demographic change will some how impact all of Canada. Lightweight thinking eh!!!

  5. OH please. This is getting a little tired. An American comes to Ottawa to tell us they care and how the relationship is so special. Blah blah blah. If, this Administration cared about us, they would have approved the Keystone pipeline.

  6. Boy…..these comments sure show the difference between college and non-college.

    • Standing Rock is Joe Biden and Barrack Obama’s legacy. Why did he come to Ottawa? To remind Justin Trudeau of his Paris accord promises? Does it take a university degree to be able to live in the land of denial where one can pretend the US didn’t become the biggest oil producer in the world under Biden and Obama’s careful caretaking?

      • Like I aid….the difference is obvious

    • Now that is a very ignorant remark so guess if you have some college it was totally lost time and you were too busy getting drugged out to take in any knowledge.. Maybe you should take a course on being a human being.

      • Maybe you should take a course on growing up.

    • Speaking of College. Mr. Biden was accused of and admitted to plagiarism — multiple times. You would think you would have learned the first time — duh.

      He also graduated in the bottom 10-15% of his class.

      Is that the difference between college and non-college? You know cheating — and poor grades?

      • The difference between college and non-college is that the morons believe tripe like you just spouted.

        • Are you really that ignorant Emily?

          The very paper (NY Times) that endorsed Biden in 1987 later broke the story on his plagiarism habit. Remember Maureen Dowd?

          Now you don’t have to believe me. The video of his confession is on YouTube.

          But in case you have a problem with YouTube, you can read his confession in his autobiography. LOL!

          • Well we can tell YOU never went to college.

    • Your insulting comments directed at those you don’t agree with are tiresome. I look forward to the day when you learn how to disagree with people without being disagreeable.

      • Gosh yeah…like all the Cons [and Yanks] on here

        Go worry about someone else.

  7. Hope that molester Biden kept his hands to himself and off the young ladies in attendance. Creepy Uncle Joe.

    • Tsk…..Cons always have to lie themselves over the top.

      • Lol what? Have you changed your dosage because you seem like you’re becoming even more unhinged.

        • What did I just say dude??

    • Mmmm……if you are pretending to be a white European male……you should learn English