WASHINGTON — It was hard not to feel sorry for John Boehner, wounded, weepy, mercilessly flogged by Chris Christie. The miserable-looking Boehner was even scaring small children.
After squeaking out re-election as House speaker when crazed conservatives rebelled on Thursday, Boehner summoned gruff bonhomie as he presided at a ceremonial swearing-in for House members.
But some of the kids posing for pictures seemed a little alarmed at Boehner’s awkward pats, brusque small talk and barked orders when someone posed the wrong way.
The speaker opened his arms to help out Sean Duffy, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who was juggling five small children and two stuffed animals. Duffy, who met his wife, Rachel, through MTV after they were on different seasons of “The Real World,” tried to hand over his young daughter, who recoiled.
“No?” the rejected speaker asked her, muttering sardonically, “You could be a member of our caucus.” He followed the girl as she rolled away on the floor, trying to tickle her and making Donald Duck quacking noises. That kind of thing may work on Michele Bachmann, but Miss Duffy was having none of it.
It was a day for old-pol shtick. And if Boehner was the nicotine-stained prince of darkness in the House, Joe Biden was the garrulous white knight over in the Senate. Fresh from his deal-making triumph with Mitch McConnell — no Tickle Monster, he — Biden presided over the Senate ceremonial swearing-in and lived up to his reputation for “bringing sexy back to the Medicare-eligible set,” as Politico once put it.
Every time Biden spied a member’s mom, he called out with utter delight, “Mom!” as though she were his own, enfolding the glowing woman in a tender embrace.
“Mom, I’ll see you in a little bit,” he flirted with the mother of Sen. Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. “I hope I’ll sneak over and see you.” To the mother of Sen. Deb Fischer, a new Republican from Nebraska, he cooed, “You’ve got beautiful eyes, Mom.”
The bouncy, irrepressible Biden also had better karma with kids, persuading one little boy to raise his hand to take the oath with his father, the new Connecticut senator, Chris Murphy. It turned into a YouTube moment so adorable it even melted the hearts of jaded journalists who usually prefer videos of Ukrainian pols fistfighting.
The prolix vice president had his off-kilter moments, of course. He made a risque frisking joke to the husband of Sen. Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and he gushed over a brunette accompanying Sen. Robert Menendez of New Jersey: “You are so pretty. God love you, holy mackerel.”
But it was hard not to fall for his daffy charm — a rare 86 minutes of feeling good about a Congress that has now officially entered Ionesco territory as the most absurd place on earth.
When the young daughter of Sen. Ted Cruz, the new Tea Party hotshot from Texas, began crying, the vice president reassured her, noting that he was a Democrat but that “it’s OK.”
When Tim Scott, the first black senator from South Carolina, came up with his muscular brother, a former football player, to pose, the 70-year-old Biden deadpanned, “Need any help with your pecs, let me know.”
The vice president has come in for his share of mockery by late-night comics. But fox-trotting in to save the day on the fiscal cliff as the “dancing partner” of McConnell, Biden seemed more like an indispensable partner to the detached president who loathes dealing with Congress — a capable, genial Captain Kirk balancing out Obama’s brilliant but rigid Spock.
As the presidential historian Michael Beschloss said on Twitter, “Biden did for the president on Capitol Hill what JFK was always too wary to let the experienced LBJ do for him.”
A petition even popped up on the White House website suggesting that the Obama administration create a reality show around the vice president. C-SPAN ratings would go through the Capitol dome, giving Julia Louis-Dreyfus’ “Veep” a run for its money.
It was sweet justice for a man who was the victim of friendly fire from White House aides after he blurted out his support for gay marriage during the campaign while the president was still dithering, spurring Obama to do the right thing. From the beginning of their alliance in 2008, Biden felt passionately that he needed to interpret the dispassionate Obama for regular folk. It was an attitude that probably annoyed Obama, who does not like to feel dependent or beholden, having fought his way up in the world mostly under his own steam.
But when Obama let Biden take over the cliff talks, and when he noted with asperity that he would not debate Congress again over paying its bills, he dug into his revulsion at playing the game, his reluctance to even fake the flattering, schmoozing and ring-kissing needed to coax Congress into doing what he wants.
Even members of his own party have lost faith in his ability to use the White House as a social lubricant to get his agenda passed, or to use that big brain of his to become a more clever negotiator, rather than a scolding lecturer.
“His inability to engage the politicians here has been a real liability,” one Democratic lawmaker complained. It’s odd, given that he was renowned for making a group of egotists feel that they were being heeded at The Harvard Law Review.
The vice president was in the Senate for 36 years while the president merely breezed through. Obama radiates contempt at Congress for not being a bunch of high-minded, effective people, and for expecting him to clean up its mess. He thinks reasonable people should see things his way in a reasonable amount of time, and gets impatient when ideology, ego, identity politics and pork-project whining hold up progress.
Biden is a realist. He understands lawmakers’ limitations, motivations and needs. He leans right in and speaks — and speaks and speaks — their language. That’s who he is. And he believes, as creaky and unwieldy as the system is, that it still has integrity. More Rocky than Spocky, Biden can spread everything out on the table and negotiate his way through all of his former colleagues’ shortcomings, weaknesses, fears and frailties.
It’s actually fun for him, while Obama seems so often to be pulling back, aggrieved by the need to engage. The president and his staff seem clueless about what Republicans on the Hill are thinking. And Obama ignores those who urge him to be less insular and — like Jefferson, Lincoln, LBJ and Reagan — socialize more with political players, combining fairy dust, elbow grease, intimidation and seduction to get his way.
Joe Biden has a valuable skill: He knows how to stoop to conquer.
Maureen Dowd is a columnist for The New York Times.