Sometimes it's hard to tell the difference between Joe Biden, the vice president of the United States, and "Diamond" Joe Biden, his doppelganger on The Onion. One instance was Monday, when the real VP was running zigzags down the inaugural-parade route, gesturing toward the crowd as though he was the star of the show. They are both larger-than-life characters, and there are times when headlines about one could be written about the other. For instance:
Onion "Diamond" Joe Biden: Asks White House visitor if he wants to “check out the roof.”
Onion "Diamond" Joe Biden: Washes Trans Am in White House driveway, shirtless.
“He's one part 1980s high school dirtbag, one part your disgusting uncle, and there's a part of him that has a natural charm,” says Chad Nackers, an Onion writer who has been on the Biden beat for five years and a lead writer on a new Biden "autobiography" released last week. In another breath, he described Biden as being akin to those rebel teenagers who stand outside high schools smoking cigarettes. You know, "those kids out there with their Pantera shirts talking about metal concerts."
In reality, that description doesn’t make any sense at all. The vice president is a straight edge: He never drinks, he's a devout Catholic, and he is very much a family man. He likes folk music, for heaven's sake. But on The Onion, Biden has become a swashbuckling, ponytail wearing dirty uncle, someone who slacks off from work, "ignoring his responsibilities, cruising for chicks.”
It's not just The Onion; the vice president has proven to be a political character with an uncanny Internet appeal. For instance, when he used a funny word at the VP debate, malarkey, we got this. White House petitioners have even called for a Biden reality show. But you wonder at times if the vice president is also aware of his pull on the Web. For instance, is he aware that when he goes to Costco, the pictures of him shopping around the store will go viral? Especially seeing how that November trip to the wholesaler was used as a platform to discuss middle-class taxes (not to mention a possible kickback to Costco cofounder Jim Sinegal, a longtime Democratic supporter who spoke at last year’s Democratic National Convention).
The Onion version of Joe Biden is a character who both wildly diverges from, yet reflects, the real living vice president. Their writers take the Biden who hangs out with bikers, but they make him a drunk. They take the Biden who swoons women and have him make out with Janna Ryan after the VP debate. "I'm sure Joe Biden would deny most of our coverage," Nackers says. But he seems to like it. Last January, Biden told Yahoo! News that he thought the spoofs were “hilarious.” Then, on Friday, while the fake Joe was taking questions on Reddit, the real VP sent this tweet insulting the former's taste in cars:
— Office of VP Biden (@VP) Jan. 18, 2013
The Onion's new e-book, The President of Vice, follows the tale of the dirty-uncle Biden, the one who, in that glorious summer of 1987, had a “mystical experience” in the New Mexico desert. “I think it's brought on by sniffing Oxycontin or something,” Nackers says. “But the whole time he's talking about this perfect time that he could light up a joint in front of a cop and that cop can either ask for a hit off of it or throw him in the clink for the night, and then he'd make some awesome friends while he was in jail. No matter what, it was all kind of smooth sailing for him.”
With section titles such as "Places I've Gotten Down and Dirty in D.C.," there aren't many passages in the book that are safe for work. Here's "Diamond" Joe talking about his congressional legacy:
OK, now here's the achievement that I was most proud of and will be the centerpiece of my legacy. It was in that Summer of '87 that I became the first member of Congress to break the 3-minute barrier for keg stands. That's enuf said.… Let's just say I blew Strom Thurmond's 2 minutes and 15 seconds out of the water.
I asked Nackers how The Onion conceives of such adventures. It’s not exactly scientific. Here's his description of the pitch meeting when the shirtless Trans Am idea came up. “I think originally there was a headline that was pitched that was a little more intense, like he was hammered or something, and crashed his car,” he says. “And we were thinking there’s more of a story to be told if he's hanging out. And a lot of times that's how an idea is pitched, and then it transforms into something else."
That story transformed further when the publication set out to find a body double for the veep, “on Craigslist or something,” and lucked out to find a white Trans Am owner who also “was quite like Joe Biden in a way."
Perhaps the publication’s affinity for Biden echoes its own editorial roots. The classic Onion story is a spoof on the “local man” story that you might see in the pages of a small-circulation paper. Such as “Area Man Winded After Particularly Lengthy Wendy's Order.”
Biden’s that guy to them, but in Washington.
“He's like the real guy in Washington,” Nackers says. “A lot of politicians hide that, they're kind of glossy and they're all about reaching out to their constituents or whoever, or climbing up that D.C. ladder, and Joe is just a real guy.“