Last week, at a convention for Black and Hispanic journalists, a Black reporter asked Joe Biden whether he has taken a cognitive test.
This was Biden’s response: “No, I haven’t taken a test. Why the hell would I take a test? Come on, man! That’s like saying you, before you got in this program, you’re taking a test whether you’re taking cocaine or not. What do you think, huh? Are you a junkie?”
Had that answer come from President Trump it would have been blasted, virtually nonstop, as blatantly racist. But the Biden campaign was basically allowed to brush off the query as “preposterous” rather than address the appropriateness of the words spoken by Trump’s Democratic challenger. Besides the matter of relatively low-key media coverage of Biden’s over-wrought objections to a perfectly valid question posed to a 77-year-old presidential candidate, it raises another serious political issue: How many more insults will Black voters take from Biden in the interest of defeating Trump? And at this point, wouldn’t a failure to select a Black woman as his running mate be the ultimate insult? Biden’s credibility as Barack Obama’s friend and vice president can go only so far.
“He’s making us all nervous,” said Joyce Ferriabough Bolling, a media and political strategist, about Biden’s recent gaffes. “I think some of his responses are just plain sloppy.” And Ferriabough Bolling knows sloppy and what it’s like to clean it up. She was Jesse Jackson’s New England press secretary when Jackson was running for president in 1984 and referred to Jews as “Hymies” and New York City as “Hymietown” during a conversation with a Washington Post reporter. Today, she defends Biden the same way she defended Jackson — saying she knows “what’s in his heart,” no matter how awkwardly those feelings may be expressed. In contrast, she said, “Trump doesn’t make gaffes”; in other words, he’s as racist as he sounds.
But Ferriabough Bolling has her forgiveness limits, too. Last May, she chided Biden after his “You ain’t Black” quip to Charlamagne tha God, cohost of the radio show “The Breakfast Club.” As she wrote in a Boston Herald column, “You definitely don’t want black folks to feel taken for granted and so disillusioned that they sit out the election.” And she still worries about that, especially with young Black voters.
During that convention of Black and Hispanic journalists, Biden also made some waves when, in response to a question about engagement with Cuba, he said, “Unlike the African-American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community, with incredibly diverse attitudes about different things.” For that, he’s also forgiven, on the same essential grounds that he’s not Trump. Or as Jeffrey Sanchez, a former state representative and longtime Biden supporter, put it, “He’s not the shell of a human being that’s in the president’s office right now.” Sanchez — now a senior adviser at the public affairs firm Rasky Partners — said he applauds the discussion of diversity in the Black and Latino communities, and that Biden’s record of fighting for health care and economic justice is what matters. For those troubled by Biden’s sometimes cringe-worthy statements, Sanchez said, “Look where he puts his heart. I have faith in him. I have faith in what he’s done and what he’s going to do.”
To Ferriabough Bolling, “Anything is better than Trump. And Biden is better than most because of his relationship with Obama.” Still, an insurance policy beyond he’s-better-than-Trump would help. “With all the gaffes lending themselves to various interpretations, a woman of color as vice president becomes a necessity, especially in this climate,” said Ferriabough Bolling.
Biden wouldn’t be where he is without Black voters. Representative James Clyburn helped set up the South Carolina primary win that resurrected Biden’s candidacy and turned him from loser into nominee. Once he said he would choose a woman as a running mate, several smart, accomplished, and politically savvy Black women made the short list. After much jockeying, the reveal is said to be imminent. If a Black woman isn’t the final choice, Biden will have a lot more explaining to do.
And answers like the ones he gave last week won’t be so easy to forgive and forget.
Joan Vennochi is a Globe columnist. She can be reached at email@example.com. Follow her on Twitter @joan_vennochi.