Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Biden's Big Night

Tonight is Joe Biden's big night. The Guardian has posted a piece I wrote on what to expect from Joe Biden tonight.
Biden's speeches can run long, which invites another comparison with another gifted speechmaker, Bill Clinton. Isaiah Berlin wrote a famous essay (more quoted than read) called the Hedgehog and the Fox, based on the punch line of the Aesop fable: "The fox knows many things, but the hedgehog knows one big thing."
In Isaiah Berlin's formulation, Clinton is the fox and Biden the hedgehog. Clinton speeches would run long because he just had to insert six more, or a dozen more policy ideas, just to cover all the bases. When a Biden speech runs long, it's because he wants to make sure everyone in the room understands the one big idea that's on his mind. He will repeat key phrases for emphasis and describe at length why we should all care as much as he does about putting more cops on the street, or protecting the right to privacy, or the influence of Nato on Eastern Europe. Even when he slips into a parenthetical phrase, which can last several minutes, it's in support of the big idea.
When I said Berlin's essay is more quoted than read, I wasn't kidding. I should have read it again myself before referring to it.
Berlin attributes the saying to a fragment from the Greek poet Archilochus.
The essay sums up the difference between the fox and hedgehog in a sentence of Bidenesque length:
For there exists a great chasm between those, on one side, who relate everything to a single central vision, one system less or more coherent or articulate, in terms of which they understand, think and feel-a single, universal, organizing principle in terms of which alone all that they are and say has significance-and, on the other side, those who pursue many ends, often unrelated and even contradictory, connected, if at all, only in some de facto way, for some psychological or physiological cause, related by no moral or aesthetic principle; these last lead lives, perform acts, and entertain ideas that are centrifugal rather than centripetal, their thought is scattered or diffused, moving on many levels, seizing upon the essence of a vast variety of experiences and objects for what they are in themselves, without consciously or unconsciously, seeking to fit them into, or exclude them from, any one unchanging, all-embracing, sometimes self-contradictory and incomplete, at times fanatical, unitary inner vision.
Biden is not the sort to toss off an idea and move on. We will see this single-mindedness and tenacity when he takes the stage tonight.

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