WASHINGTON—Sen. Joseph Biden of Delaware found the first day of his bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination overshadowed Wednesday by his remarks describing presidential candidate Barack Obama as "the first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."
Biden made the comments in an interview with the New York Observer published hours before he declared his candidacy.
Biden said Wednesday that he meant no insult to the Illinois senator or to other black politicians who might've been slighted by comparison as inarticulate or unclean. Among those who've run for president are the late Shirley Chisholm in 1972, Jesse Jackson in 1984 and 1988, Alan Keyes in 1996 and 2000, and Al Sharpton and Carol Moseley-Braun in 2004.
Biden, who was first elected to the Senate in 1972, on Wednesday called Obama "probably the most exciting candidate the Democratic or Republican parties have produced since I've been around. He's fresh, new, smart, insightful. Lightning in a jar."
He added in a conference call: "I really regret some have taken totally out of context my use of the word `clean.'
"My mother has a saying, `clean as a whistle, sharp as a tack.' That is the context. He is crisp and clear."
Biden said he called Obama to assure him he meant no insult.
"I took no offense," Obama said later. "I think Joe was just making news, being Joe. Joe, I think, certainly didn't intend to offend and I'll leave it at that. He called me. I told him it wasn't necessary. We have more important things to think about. We've got Iraq. We've got health care. We've got energy. This is low on the list. He was very gracious and I have no problems with Joe Biden."
Obama added that though he didn't take Biden's comments personally, his remarks were "historically inaccurate."
"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," Obama said.
Some other prominent African-Americans were less forgiving.
"It's certainly highly suggestive," Jackson told CNN.
"It came across as a very insensitive thing to say," said Donna Brazile, a Democratic strategist who ran Al Gore's campaign and advised Jesse Jackson's.
"I take him at his word that he meant no harm. But if he didn't have a 100 percent record on civil rights, it would be easy to infer something different. It was almost as though he were thinking of another era, when people thought of smart, articulate African-Americans as different from other African-Americans."
The statement drowned out Biden's hope to launch his long-shot campaign with a focus on his experience in the Senate and familiarity with foreign policy. He's chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and is trying to use that position to grab the spotlight away from such rivals as Obama and Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, D-N.Y., and to remind voters that he's got more government experience than they do.
Yet Biden's Obama comment also served as a reminder of his tendency to talk too much and get himself in trouble—such as the time he was forced to drop his bid for the 1988 nomination after he was caught plagiarizing British Labour Party leader Neil Kinnock. Last year he said his that "you cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin' Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent."
Rep. Charles Rangel, D-N.Y., chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, dismissed Biden's comment—and candidacy—with a thinly veiled slap at his forced withdrawal from his last presidential campaign.
"I didn't even know he was a candidate, so I don't see how he could have hurt himself," Rangel deadpanned. "It probably was something someone else said and he picked it up and used it himself," he said, adding with emphasis, "by mistake."
Freshman Rep. Steve Cohen, D-Tenn., a white lawmaker who represents a largely black district, said Biden "was trying to pay Obama a compliment," but that his word choice was all wrong.
"Shirley Chisholm was obviously clean; Jesse Jackson was clean," Cohen said. But Cohen predicted that Biden's self-inflicted damage would be small because he doesn't have the standing among black voters to lose. "I think in my community, Senator Obama and Senator Clinton will be out in front," he said.
(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from MCT Graphics, 202-383-6064):
Need to map