That was some story about the balloon flying over Colorado: Good for hours of breathless, credulous coverage on all the cable TV news shows. We couldn't take our eyes off it.
But as balloon stories go, it was scarcely more effective than the one about Vice President Biden that's been all over the news all week. And this is not a joke about hot air.
The vice president has suddenly emerged as the face of policymaking at the White House on the biggest foreign policy decision of the young Obama presidency: the direction and scope of the mission in Afghanistan. And that's all the more surprising because Biden and his boss would appear to be at odds on the issue.
Candidate Obama told us this was the good war, the one we had to win. President Obama stuck with that line and committed 20,000 additional troops earlier this year. We were getting out of Iraq and into Afghanistan. And we had a new general with a new strategy.
Then that general, Stanley McChrystal, told the world the war was not going so well, and that he needed still more troops to keep from losing it entirely. The president plunged into a series of five meetings with his national security team so as to consider the request.
That's when we began hearing about how the vice president, known as a doubter on Afghanistan through most of this year, was becoming more influential. We learned in national newspapers and magazines that Biden, a promoter of the Afghanistan mission in his own presidential bid in 2007 and 2008, had spent enough time on the ground in that country and neighboring Pakistan to revise his view.
We also learned that Biden's new view was more widely shared within the White House than previously thought. More hawkish elements of the administration, such as Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, seemed suddenly in eclipse.
It could be a coincidence. But positions on Afghanistan have long been as much about politics as they are about strategic policy. Support for the Afghanistan war worked as a safe harbor or halfway house for plenty of Democrats in recent years.
They could oppose the war in Iraq and support the longer but smaller effort in Afghanistan so as not to appear too dovish. Besides, everyone seemed to think the essential goal had been achieved when the Taliban was ousted in 2001.
Now that we all know a little more about the situation on the Afghan-Pakistani border and about the difference between the Taliban and al-Qaida, it becomes possible to think about reordering the U.S. commitment to Kabul. That is especially true since our client ruler there, Hamid Karzai, appears to have tried to rig the election results earlier this year — botching the job in the bargain.
The headless government problem in Afghanistan looms all the larger now that a runoff vote appears likely.
Polls of public attitudes offer conflicting signals. The country clearly believes the sacrifice of those who have died there fighting al-Qaida was worthwhile. But ask about sending more Americans to do the same and the sentiment turns negative. We may believe in what we've been doing there up to now, but we're far less sure about where it's going from here.
Still, if this president is going to make a turn this dramatic this early, someone has to prepare the ground. Enter Joe Biden, the man known for speaking his mind, or at least for speaking. Everyone knows he likes to hear himself talk and lets out random thoughts he later regrets.
But it's also true that Biden often has something to say. He wound up his 26 years in the Senate as chairman of the prestigious Senate Foreign Relations Committee, and he has been a serious student of the world and its ways.
Who better to advance a vision radically at odds with McChrystal's and to get global, respectful media attention for it? After all, Biden has tacked artfully back and forth on war issues throughout his long career.
In 1972, a year when the Vietnam War dominated American politics, Biden was a 29-year-old county councilman mounting a long-shot challenge to a veteran Republican senator. Fueled in part by anti-war sentiment in urban and suburban Delaware, his campaign also reached out to far more traditional voters in rural, southern Delaware. And it worked.
In 1991, when Congress spent days debating the first President Bush's war with Iraq, Biden was among those voting no. But in 2002, when another President Bush asked authorization to use force against Iraq, Biden voted yes.
The president took a calculated risk in adding Biden to his ticket and, later, to his innermost circle. If the Delawarean can help him find a middle ground and moderate the risk of the Afghanistan decision, Obama will have reason to be glad about his gamble.