Biden White House Run Begins with 'Regrets'

Sen. Joe Biden of Delaware has joined the crowded race for the Democratic presidential nomination. But his announcement Wednesday also included a statement of regret for comments he made about current and former black candidates.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's MORNING EDITION from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne.

In this part of the program we'll talk about three political figures who are in trouble over things they said. And we'll start with Democratic Senator Joe Biden of Delaware, who declared he was a candidate for the presidency yesterday. That announcement was almost immediately overshadowed by a verbal stumble right out of the gate.

NPR's Juan Williams joins us now. And Juan what did he say that got him in hot water, like, immediately?

JUAN WILLIAMS: Renee, in an interview with the "New York Observer," Senator Biden was quoted as saying that Senator Barack Obama of Illinois is the, quote, "first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy." End quote.

His remarks seem to suggest that past black candidates for the presidency -Shirley Chisholm, Jesse Jackson, Carol Moseley-Braun, Al Sharpton, Republican Alan Keyes - were not only inarticulate, but also less than clean. That prompted Biden to call Obama and apologize, and later he issued statements of regret. It was a very rough start to his presidential campaign.

MONTAGNE: Now I gather Senator Obama reacted initially in a low-key way.

WILLIAMS: That's right, Renee. Senator Obama initially said he didn't take any offense and thought that Senator Biden had used an unfortunate construction. But later, apparently after some consultation with some of the former black presidential candidates, Senator Obama issued a statement in which he said, quote, "no one could call someone like Jesse Jackson inarticulate."

Meanwhile, Jesse Jackson said that Biden was guilty of blabbering, and noted that in a 1988 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Jesse Jackson had a campaign that lasted longer and attracted more votes than Senator Biden. But the best retort I think, Renee, came from Al Sharpton, who said that he takes a bath every day.

(Soundbite of laughter)

WILLIAMS: OK, in his effort to fix this, I guess, Senator Biden was on "The Daily Show" and did talk to Jon Stewart last night about his comments.

(Soundbite of "The Daily Show" broadcast)

Senator JOE BIDEN (Democrat, Delaware): What I was attempting to be was - not very artfully - was complimentary. This is an incredible guy. This is a phenomenon. This guy is - and look, the other part of this thing is the word that got me in trouble is using the word clean. I should have said fresh. What I meant is he's got new ideas; he's a new guy on the block.

Mr. JON STEWART (Host, "The Daily Show"): I'm going to help you out. Let me help you out.

MONTAGNE: Juan, Joe Biden got into trouble just a few years ago with some comments about Indian Americans.

WILLIAMS: That's right, Renee. He offended Indian immigrants when he said, and here I quoting, "you can't go to a 7-11 or a Dunkin Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I'm not joking." End quote. And of course he had a major problem back in 1988 when he was found abusing the rhetoric and even parts of the life story of a British politician.

MONTAGNE: Beyond this current, apparently unintended insult, is there a deeper significance to this?

WILLIAMS: I think there is, Renee. You know, this is the first time we've had a black person and a woman as any American party's leading candidates. Twenty years ago, Jesse Jackson was running for president, but that was treated as an oddity. Senator Obama is a mainstream candidate and he's a star. And in fact the biggest political engine running right now belongs to a woman, Hillary Clinton. You know, there's a transition taking place in American demographics with more minorities and immigrants, and I think the transition is also reflected in now national politics.

MONTAGNE: Well, just very briefly, Senator Biden is in a crowded field of Democratic hopefuls. What does this do for his chances?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think he's a second-tier candidate at the moment. But he has strong credentials, so don't be fooled by this stumble out of the gate, as you described it. He's a six-term senator. He voted to authorize military intervention in Iraq, but, you know, he's also co-sponsor of the key resolution this week opposing President Bush's surge into Iraq. I think that he has a serious candidacy and a way to go.

MONTAGNE: Thanks very much. NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

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