New York Times political personality reporter Mark Leibovich, whose mission is delivering profiles with attitude, mostly laid off the jabs in his Sunday front-page profile of what would seem to be an easy target -- the garrulous, gaffe-prone Vice President Joe Biden -- in "Speaking Freely, Sometimes, Biden Finds Influential Role."
Biden's history of colorful statements should have made him a prime target for a Leibovich fillet. But Leibovich has a habit of only bringing out his carving knife against conservative Republicans, while flattering Democrats. He didn't call Biden "a bit of a screwball," as he did conservative Kentucky Republican Sen. Jim Bunning.
To the contrary, Leibovich buttered up Biden, trying to convince readers that, appearances aside, Biden really is an active player in the Obama administration. The front-page photo caption read: "The influence Vice President Biden wielded in the debate on Afghan war policy is a signal of his stature in the administration."
When President Obama and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. meet for their standing Friday lunch engagement, Mr. Obama always picks the cuisine -- a subtle break from previous administrations in which the president and the vice president typically ordered off a menu, and a reminder, if any was needed, about who is in charge.
"The dietary bar is set by the president," said Ron Klain, Mr. Biden's chief of staff, who recently fielded a prelunch query from the White House kitchen about whether Mr. Biden wanted sour cream with his tacos (he did). "Biden eats anything. He's a pretty easy guy that way."
The description ("Biden eats anything") extends to the heaping plate of policy assignments the vice president has been served in recent weeks. He has been charged with overseeing the distribution of the $787 billion authorized by the economic stimulus bill, heading the White House's "middle-class task force" and jumping into any number of treacherous diplomatic arenas, from Pakistan to Capitol Hill.
Officials involved in the deliberations said Mr. Biden had been influential in Mr. Obama's development of a new approach to Afghanistan, announced Friday, arguing for a relatively limited increase of military, diplomatic and economic involvement.
Leibovich makes a brief and dutiful rundown of Biden's well-known negatives but doesn't go into details. Biden's plagiarism and racial comment gaffes are left unmentioned, and Leibovich closes the paragraph on an up note.
Mr. Biden's reputation for windiness, self-regard and unrestrained ambition have long prompted some degree of eye-rolling around him and probably always will. But what has been striking to many in the administration has been how strenuously the president has worked to include him and, perhaps most notably, the influence Mr. Biden appears to be wielding.
Leibovich made Biden look good, saying the president "has come to see Mr. Biden as a useful contrarian in the course of decision-making" despite his occasional "unhelpful" remarks.
Compare Biden's treatment to Leibovich's disrespectfully loosey-goosey profile of Republican Vice President Dick Cheney in October 2006 that mocked him as an old dullard. It was full of specific details on "odd episodes" showing just how crazy Cheney allegedly was, mocking him for repeating campaign stories, and condescending descriptions of Cheney's fans:
Mr. Cheney's favorability ratings might be in an underground bunker, somewhere beneath the president's (at 20 percent in the most recent New York Times poll). Critics deride him as a Prince of Darkness whose occasional odd episodes -- swearing at a United States senator, shooting a friend in a hunting accident and then barely acknowledging it publicly -- suggest a striking indifference to how he is perceived. Even admirers who laud his intellect and steadiness rarely mention anything about his electrifying rooms or people. But then there are people like these, at the Capitol Plaza Hotel Manor Conference Center in Topeka.....After a sustained and rollicking ovation that inspires a rare smile with both sides of his mouth, Mr. Cheney starts into a variant of the same talk he has delivered literally hundreds of times. He tells how the first vice president, John Adams, enjoyed Senate floor privileges until they were revoked. (Mr. Cheney has told this story at least 48 times in official remarks since 2001, according to the White House's Web site.) He skips the bit about how he had been the lone congressman from Wyoming -- "It was a small delegation, but it was quality," which he has told at least 67 times as vice president."