Monday, January 07, 2013

Why Joe Biden Has Become The Most Influential Vice President In History (Sorry, But Dick Cheney Doesn't Count)

When Barack Hussein Obama takes the presidential oath of office on January 21, at his side will be Joseph Robinette Biden, without question the most influential vice president for good in American history.  This by way of differentiating him, as if one needs to, from Richard Bruce Cheney, without question the most influential vice president for evil in American history.

Perhaps one reason Biden's star has risen so high is because he succeeded Cheney, who acted as a de facto president when it suited his imperial self, usurped the roles of national security adviser and secretary of state, was a tireless cheerleader for the use of torture and fear mongering, a scold in accusing anyone who didn't agree with him as being unpatriotic, a key player in going to war against Iraq, and a man who brooked no dissent.  Ever.  
By contrast, Biden's chops as a conciliator, honed through 36 years in the Senate, has thrust him into the spotlight at key junctures since Obama was elected, most recently in breaking the fiscal cliff logjam.  Additionally, and perhaps most importantly as history will show, Biden has played a special role as Obama's devil's advocate with the encouragement of a president nearly two decades his junior. 
Biden has spoken up when he believed Obama was not making the correct decision, notably in being the sole holdout among the president's inner circle in opposing the daring raid that took out Osama bin Laden, and as the harshest skeptic of the president's Afghanistan strategy, so harsh that some Pentagon bigs labeled him a traitor behind his back.  As history will also show, Obama got lucky with Bin Laden and Biden was right regarding Afghanistan.
There are those who will tell you that Biden was destined for greatness, but I would not be one of them.

I met the future vice president when I was 12 and on my way to junior high school, and he was 17 and entering his senior year at a Roman Catholic boy's school. He was a gangly kid with no apparent social skills and had a stutter. We played beach volleyball together at the Delaware shore for a couple of summers, and his folks and my folks became friends. Delaware, you see, is even smaller than it looks on a map.
Biden went on to the University of Delaware, where he excelled at political science in a department later chaired by the late Jim Soles, who was to attract the future managers of both the 2008 Obama and McCain campaigns to Delaware as undergrads. I followed Joe to Delaware where I excelled at nothing except getting in trouble with the university administration as editor of the student newspaper.
Although I sort of kept up with Biden through my parents' friendship with his, our paths didn't cross again until 1972, my second election as a voter, when I pulled the lever for a Joe who had long left behind the traits of awkward adolescence.
Biden upset a longtime Republican U.S. senator, but within days of the election suffered the tragic deaths of his wife and baby daughter in a traffic accident.  (Years later, he had his own brush with mortality after suffering a potentially fatal brain aneurysm.) Persuaded by Senate Majority Leader Mike Mansfield to not quit, he began the first of six terms in Washington -- at 29 the youngest senator in modern history -- and a tenure in the upper chamber that was to be characterized by hard work, growing foreign relations expertise, a willingness to conciliate, which is to say compromise, and a successful hair weave, as well as a tendency to shoot from the lip.
As my friend Mark Bowden wrote in an Atlantic essay, Biden is in some respects the antithesis of the president he serves.
"No one believes Obama would want, need, or tolerate a Rasputin across the [West Wing] lobby," Bowden wrote. "But whether it has been managing the tricky drawdown of American involvement in Iraq, or implementing the $787 billion Recovery Act, or soothing worries in Eastern Europe over Obama’s revised missile-defense strategy, or helping select two Supreme Court nominees, Biden seems the opposite of a pain in the ass. He has made himself indispensable."
Biden's indispensability was on offer during the many meetings on how to take out Osama bin Laden.  Defense Secretary Robert Gates, like the vice president, also opposed an air or ground operation, but later went along with the high-risk ground mission that Obama advocated.

"Mr. President, my suggestion is: don’t go," Biden said during one Situation Room meeting. "We have to do . . . more things to see if he's [at a compound in Abbottabad, Pakistan]." Biden believed that if the raid failed, Obama could say good-bye to a second term. 
Like vice presidents in general, Biden has been subjected to ridicule.
Beyond his verbal blunders, there was The Awl's liveblog (with the sound off) of the Biden-Ryan vice president debate and a hilarious series of articles and images in The Onion to which Biden has reacted to with good humor and then some.  A consequence is that these send-ups have burnished his image as a Joe Sixpack.  (For the record, Biden does not drink alcohol.)
"Look, I ran for president [in 2008]," Biden told Bowden, "because I honest-to-God believed that for the moment, given the cast of characters and the problems of the country, I thought I was clearly the best-equipped to lead the country . . . But here's what I underestimated: I had two elements that I focused on, which made me decide to run. One was American foreign policy, and the other was the middle class and what's happening to them economically. If Hillary were elected or I were elected, and assume I did as good a job as I could possibly get done, it would have taken me four years to do what [Obama] did in four weeks, in terms of changing the perception of the world about the United States of America. Literally. It was overnight. It wasn’t about him. It was about the American people . . . It said, these guys really do mean what they say. All that stuff about the Constitution, and all about equality, I guess it's right."
The biggest reason for Biden's success is revealed in that reflection on 2008: As in the Senate, he has made his own political fortunes secondary and those of the president and country he serves first and foremost.

Wednesday, January 02, 2013

Dance Of The Dunes: The Biggest Lesson To Be Learned From Superstorm Sandy

An iconic Sandy-damaged house in Union Beach, New Jersey
I was a beach baby, a fortunate child who spent much of each summer at the Delaware shore.  I was able to swim in the ocean by age three, mindful of big breakers and undertows because of a father who had been a lifeguard.  And had met my mother when she introduced herself to a ruggedly handsome man atop a lifeguard stand at the very beach where my brother, sister and I were to later swim, built sand castles, eat Boardwalk fries and Old Bay-seasoned steamed blue crabs, took surreptitious sips of beer offered by my father's Irish emigre mother, and endure raucous late-night poker games while tossing and turning on uncomfortable cots in the hot and stuffy attics of rental cottages. 
I cannot recollect exactly when I first understood that this beach was a sort of house of cards, but I did eventually become aware that cottages, hotels, and boardwalk shops and concessions had been built chockablock on the dunes that are the environmental underpinnings of many beaches, disrupting the cyclical ebb and flow of the beach.  That became obvious after the Great Nor'easter of 1962, which pretty much wiped out the beach block and dozens of ratty wood frame buildings, including the cottages where we had stayed.
When this beach town rebuilt, it was mindful of allowing the dunes free rein.  Then in a second victory for common sense, in 1971 Delaware established a landmark Coastal Zone in which construction of industrial plants and high rises were prohibited.  Most of the shoreline, save for a few relatively small incorporated communities, became state park where the dunes could come and go unfettered.  And have provided surprises on our first trips to our particular state beach of choice each spring.  Had the beach grown or shrunk over the winter?  How much had the dune line moved?  Toward or away from the ocean? 
This so-called Dance of the Dunes was a lesson never understood -- and in some cases rejected outright --  by many of the New York and New Jersey shore communities devastated by Superstorm Sandy in late October.  Meanwhile, communities mindful of the dunes' crucial role that had allowed their beaches free rein, suffered substantially less damage from Sandy's vicious storm surge.
There perhaps is no more pungent example of the wisdom of allowing Mother Nature to have her way than Long Beach, New York and three neighboring beaches on the westernmost barrier island off Long Island's South Shore. 
Barrier islands are narrow strips of sand that are parallel to mainland coasts and especially vulnerable to hurricanes.  This prompted the Army Corps of Engineers to propose a $98 million plan in the late 1990s to build dunes and elevate beaches along the six miles of barrier island where Long Beach is located, but its city ouncil voted unanimously against paying the community's $7 million initial share in the project.  Surfers said a new beach would interfere with the curl of the waves, while businesses dependent on tourists railed against it because the ocean view from the Boardwalk would be obscured by new dunes.
The neighboring communities of Point Lookout, Lido Beach and Atlantic Beach approved construction of 15-foot-high dunes. Those dunes -- sea walls of sand and vegetation -- spared them a catastrophe, while Long Beach was flattened, suffering at least $200 million in damage. 
Other examples abound.
Bradley Beach, on the North Jersey shore, began building a 15-foot-high dune barrier along its mile-long beach in the 1990s, laying 25,000 feet of snow fencing in a saw-tooth pattern, and later adding 20,000 recycled Christmas trees as traps for drifting sand. After wind pushed sand over this artificial dune, shoots of dune grass were planted to further stabilize the barrier.

When Sandy came knocking, the force of her surge flattened the dunes but left the town's Boardwalk and houses only 75 feet from it intact.  The town suffered a mere $3 million in damage, while many of its unprotected neighbors were destroyed.
(Overall, Sandy caused an estimate $80 billion in damage, second only to Hurricane Katrina at $108 billion, but this did not move 32 Republican senators who voted against giving New York, New Jersey and Connecticut disaster relief, although the senators in those Mid-Atlantic states stepped up when disaster hit the Gulf Coast and elsewhere.)
The big question for this beach baby in the weeks since Sandy has been whether those devastated shore communities have gotten religion.  The short answer, fueled in part by an Obama administration that is making aid largely contingent on not repeating old mistakes, seems to be "you betcha."
The Long Beach City Council now embraces an environmentally-friendly beach rebuilding project, while the Surfrider Foundation, an advocacy group that opposed dunes at Long Beach, has softened its stance. 

Chad Nelsen, environmental director for the national group, said rising sea levels and the threat of more intense storms required a thoughtful consideration of all strategies.
"We're more likely to have a less black-and-white view of the issue," he said, however belatedly.
Awareness that climate change is not merely a liberal fantasy has been growing by the year.  Superstorm Sandy should be a knockout punch for conservatives and industry stooges who have been in denial.
At least one can hope in the New Year.