"Joe Biden," wrote the editorialists of the Salt Lake Tribune four years ago, “is smart, articulate, and blunt.” Well, grant our Utah colleagues this much: One out of three is better than nothing. Joe Biden is blunt as a night stick, as he proved once more last week with his instantly infamous declaration that Mitt Romney hoped to enchain his fellow citizens (whom Biden articulately referred to as y’all). As for “smart” and “articulate,” the Trib’s editorialists were writing at a time, August 2008, when we were all required to marvel at what a formidable personage old Joe was. At least they didn’t use the word “gravitas”—an omission that could have gotten them run right out of the International Guild of Opinionmakers and Gasbags.

Remember? There was a period there, in the early days of the Obama Delusion, where Biden and gravitas were nearly synonymous. Why, if you looked up “gravitas” in the dictionary you’d see those pearly Biden choppers gleaming right back at you. The New York Daily News praised his “experience and gravitas.” The Washington Post said he “immediately added gravitas” to the Obama ticket. John Harwood on MSNBC said Biden’s “gravitas would enable him to take the fight to John McCain.” A Philadelphia Inquirer columnist went further: Biden was capable of “trumping the presumptive Republican nominee with gravitas.” Trumping John McCain with gravitas? Didn’t the North Vietnamese try that too? 

And now the cliché makers say Biden has gone from gravitas to gaffe-prone. 

But the reversal ignores the fact that the imputation of gravitas should have struck anyone familiar with Biden’s career as ludicrous. His gravitas, said 2008’s cliché makers, applied especially to his experience in foreign policy. Having first come to the Senate in 1973, Biden did indeed face all the great issues of the second half of the Cold War—and came down on the wrong side on every one of them, from the abandonment of South Vietnam to the deployment of Pershing missiles to the arming of the Nicaraguan contras. His record was pristine—completely untouched by good judgment. 

The same limitations could be seen in domestic matters, often to painful effect. Two decades before Obama picked him as a running mate, Biden presided over the confirmation hearings of the Supreme Court nominee Robert Bork. Biden made the cringe-making mistake of assuming he understood such issues as substantive due process and the role of natural law in judging. He was just smart enough not to know what he didn’t know—half-fluent with the words but utterly confused about their meaning. The televised hours in which Bork tried patiently to explain the law to him seemed to last for days. 

Biden’s confusion and lack of knowledge might be traced back to his law school career, when he imported several paragraphs from a law review article into a paper of his own. Accusations of plagiarism have dogged him ever since. Among other things, plagiarism is a crime of the intellectually insecure, and that same insecurity may account for his emphatic, and implausible, insistence on his own prodigious IQ. 

In his revealing autobiography, published in 2007 to coincide with his second failed presidential campaign, he instructed his ghostwriter to include extended quotes from letters of recommendation he long ago received from various teachers, praising his “sharp and incisive intellect.” Indeed, one of the themes of Biden’s book is that with all that intellectual horsepower humming just beneath the hair plugs, life for him has been no day at the Delaware beach. 

“I’ve made life difficult for myself,” the ghostwriter wrote for Biden, “by putting intellectual consistency and personal principle above expediency.” America should have understood such sentences as a cry for help. Instead, our opinion makers saw in them gravitas.

The Obama Delusion that gripped so much of the country was built on many assumptions that the last three years have proved to be false. The president was an intellectual, his countless admirers believed; he was a uniquely persuasive speaker, he was as eloquent off the cuff as he was on the stump, his deep thinking about politics transcended ideology, he understood both history and contemporary policy with rare penetration—and when it came time to choose his vice president, he “opted for gravitas.” This last false assumption was the most amusing of them all, and may yet prove to be the most dangerous.