That's So Joe: How The Senate Swearing-In Became Must-See TV

Originally published on January 7, 2015 10:35 am

Administering the oath of office to the U.S. Senate sounds like a mundane job. That task falls to the vice president.

But the current occupant of that office, Joe Biden, turns it into an event that's so joyful, and so lacking the partisan rancor that typically dominates American politics, that it's almost hard to believe that you're watching a scene from Washington.

Every two years, a third of the U.S. Senate is elected — and there's a formal oath-taking on the Senate floor. But then, right afterward, each senator takes his or her turn in a ceremonial swearing in.

This one is for photos, and for family. During Tuesday's session, Biden charmed senators' moms and teased their kids over the course of nearly two hours.

But the essence of Vice President Joe Biden being Joe Biden — a politician who truly loves his work — has turned this tradition into must-see TV, C-SPAN style.

Biden administers the Senate oath to incoming Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.
Jacquelyn Martin / AP

Swearing in Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, the two men shared a warm greeting. McConnell's been a leading White House nemesis, but you wouldn't know it. Biden hugs his wife and welcomes the senator's family.

Then Biden spots an infant — McConnell's grandchild. "You doing OK?" Biden asks. "Say 'Grandpa, can I talk to a Democrat?' "

Biden gets laughs all around, and he's just getting warmed up. He greets Mississippi Sen. Thad Cochran, who was re-elected to a seventh term after surviving a Tea Party challenge in his primary.

"Thaddeus!" Biden exclaims. Republican Cochran and Democrat Biden are old friends.

"Best guy in the United States Senate right here. I can say that now because it can't hurt him. Great to see you, Thad," Biden says. "I'm not generous 'cause it happens to be true."

During his photo op, Democratic Sen. Dick Durbin introduced a family member as the mother of 10 children. Biden's reaction: "Lorraine, how are you? Mother of 10. My mother would say 'No purgatory for you. Straight to heaven.' "

When Sen. Shelley Moore Capito's grandson began crying, Biden quipped: "This is boring!"
Susan Walsh / AP

And it goes and goes and goes like that. Biden smiling. Senators' daughters — and granddaughters — blushing. "No dating 'til you're 30," he tells them.

Occasionally a baby cries, and sympathy is offered. "Oh man, this is boring, boring, boring. How you doing? Can I borrow your hat?"

Senators and their families keep coming. The cameras keep clicking. At one point Biden turns to a TV crew and asks if any of them want to be sworn in.

Selfies are snapped. And if you're a teenager with a certain name — "Hey Joey, great name, man."

At one point Biden makes a cellphone call to the grandmother of Republican Sen. Cory Gardner of Colorado. She told him she couldn't talk because she was watching her grandson get sworn in on TV.

For Biden this is about fulfilling a constitutional duty as vice president. But it's also — clearly — about his deep love for the United States Senate. He served there 36 years.

Yesterday, he left each new senator with these words:

"I hope you love the Senate as much as I did. I think it's the greatest institution in the world. Thank you."

Copyright 2020 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

During many years in the United States Senate, Joe Biden went through a ritual. Again and again, he had to be sworn in as a senator. The oath was administered by the vice president of the United States, who under the Constitution, is the Senate's presiding officer. These days, Vice President Biden administers the oath. He did it one more time as Congress started yesterday. And he spent nearly two hours relishing the ritual, as NPR's Don Gonyea reports.

DON GONYEA, BYLINE: Every two years, a third of the U.S. Senate is elected. And the mix of old and new faces needs to be sworn in. There's a formal oath-taking on the Senate floor. But then, right afterward, each senator takes their turn in a ceremonial swearing-in. This one is for photos and for family. But the essence of Vice President Joe Biden being Joe Biden, a politician who truly loves his work, has turned this tradition into must-see TV, C-SPAN style.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

VICE PRESIDENT JOE BIDEN: And do you take this oath freely, without any mental reservation or purpose of evasion - that you will well and faithfully discharge the duties of the office upon which you are about to enter, So help you God?

GONYEA: That's Biden with Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, who has been a leading White House nemesis. You wouldn't know it. The two men share a warm greeting. Biden hugs McConnell's wife and then welcomes the Senator's family.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

SENATOR MITCH MCCONNELL: My daughter, Ellie.

BIDEN: Ellie, how are you?

GONYEA: Biden spots an infant - McConnell's grandchild.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: I don't know.

BIDEN: Can you say, grandpa, can I talk to a Democrat?

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: And he's just getting warmed up. Biden greets Senator Thad Cochran, re-elected to a seventh term after surviving a Tea Party challenge in the primary.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Thaddeus.

GONYEA: Republican Cochran and Democrat Biden are old friends.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: The best guy in the United States Senate right here. I can say that now because it won't hurt him. Great to see you, Thad. I'm not generous. It happens to be true.

GONYEA: During his photo-op, Democratic Senator Dick Durbin introduced a family member as the mother of 10 children. Biden's reaction...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Lorraine, how are you?

LORRAINE: I'm a mother of 10.

BIDEN: My mother would say, no purgatory for you - straight to heaven.

GONYEA: And it goes and goes and goes like that - Biden smiling, senators' daughters and granddaughters blushing - no dating until you're 30, he tells them.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Hi, Emily, how are you? Hope you have a big fence around the house.

GONYEA: Occasionally, a baby cries.

(SOUNDBITE OF BABY CRYING)

GONYEA: Sympathy is offered.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Oh, man. This is boring, boring, boring. How are you doing? Can I borrow your hat?

GONYEA: Senators and their families keep coming. The cameras keep clicking. At one point, Biden turns to a TV crew and asks if any of them want to be sworn in. Selfies are snapped. And if you're a teenager with a certain name...

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Hey, Joey. Great name, man.

(LAUGHTER)

GONYEA: At one point, Biden makes a cell phone call to the grandmother of Republican Senator Cory Gardner of Colorado. She told him she couldn't talk because she was watching her grandson get sworn in on TV. For Biden, this is about fulfilling a constitutional duty as vice president. But it's also clearly about his deep love for the United States Senate. He served there 36 years. Yesterday, he left each new senator with these words.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: I hope you love the Senate as much as I did. I think it's the greatest institution in the world. Thank you.

GONYEA: Don Gonyea, NPR News, Washington.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

BIDEN: Come on, let's do a picture. Why don't you get next to me so I can see that beautiful baby? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.