I know a guy who claimed to have run into Bob Dylan, in the early 1970s, in the men's restroom of the old Palomino Club, in North Hollywood. According to this guy (a huge Dylan fan), he shook Dylan's hand and told him he was "the greatest American songwriter in the last hundred years." He said that Dylan, in return, mumbled something inaudible, and left the room.
Hearing this guy recount the Dylan story -- which he did often and, with each re-telling, in more elaborate detail (including a version where Dylan's previously inaudible reply had blossomed into, "Hey, thanks a lot, man.... really appreciate it") -- I asked why he made the reference to "the last hundred years"? I was puzzled. Unless he was referring to a specific songwriter who plied his trade 100 years ago (Stephen Foster?), why not just say he was the "best American songwriter ever," and leave it at that?
Which brings us to Joe Biden. Gushing with praise for Barack Obama's first-term accomplishments as president, Vice President Biden recently told reporters that Obama's daring 2011 raid on Osama bin Laden's residence in Pakistan, resulting in OBL being killed by Navy SEALS, was the "most audacious plan in 500 years."
Hearing Biden's reference to 500 years, my first thought was, of course, that he was taking us all the way back to the Spanish Armada, which occurred in 1588. As history students will recall, in 1588 Spain sent an armed fleet of ships to attack England, but the fleet was wiped out by a violent storm, effectively changing world history.
But if you do the math, you realize Biden wasn't referring to the Armada. He was going back even further. Not only was he going back further, he was suggesting that the OBL raid was more daring than, say, the attempt to blow up the British parliament (1605), Napoleon's invasion of Russia (1812), the Allied invasion of Normandy (1944) and Israel's daring kidnapping of Adolf Eichmann from Argentina (1960), requiring Mossad commandos to bring him back alive and stand trial for Nazi war crimes.
Our words matter. They have consequences. People listen to what we say. And if you're a national leader, you have to be especially careful with your statements. While we've all heard politicians make verbal goofs, Biden's remark was the dumbest thing a vice president has said in the last 200 years.
David Macaray, a Los Angeles playwright and author ("It's Never Been Easy: Essays on Modern Labor"), was a former union rep. He can be reached at email@example.com