07/30/2005 08:52 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Joe Biden Misses the Historical Boat

I've always liked Joe Biden. I liked him back when his hair implants were so vividly visible, and I like him now that they're not. I even like the way he gets carried away with his voice and gestures—traits that others make fun of. I don't mind them. I think the guy is really trying to do the right thing. Make judgments that matter for selfless reasons. So I forgive him self-indulgence. I understand how that can keep a man going, day by day. Hell, I might even support him for president.

But I gotta challenge him on a basic founding-fathers historical point. It's important, because he's positioning himself as a long-view scholar of the constitution kind of guy and he concluded a speech he made tonight about the confirmation process for Roberts with what he obviously thought was a slam-dunk closer. He said something like this: can you imagine the founding fathers insisting that two branches of government must be subject to the people's political will and then allowing criteria for the third branch (meaning the Supreme Court) to be limited to personal character and professional credentials? The rhetorical spin was obvious and his audience was with him, so Biden figured it was sufficient to close by quoting his little daughter—who evidently said "give me a break" when he consulted her on this question of state (shades of somebody...Jimmy Carter?).

But here's the thing. I won't pretend to have the Federalist papers at my elbow, but I have the strong impression that the founders were committed to the idea of disinterested public servants. I don't mean that Roberts is one, I have no idea. My point to Biden is more philosophical. It goes ironically to the persona he has been assuming, I hope sincerely, these last few years. I think the founders wanted exactly what Biden is himself (on his best days) trying to be—that is, exactly what he mocked at the end of his speech. A qualified person of good character with no political agenda.

Don't get me wrong. I'm not saying such people exist. I'm just saying the Enlightenment philosophy that shaped our constitution assumed they did, and relied upon them in designing our government.