During Thursday’s White House press conference, President Joe Biden was asked a number of questions about elevated levels of migration at the U.S.-Mexico border. In response, he tried to walk a moderate line—conveying a humane attitude toward undocumented immigration without encouraging more of it. It was during an expression of the former sentiment that he made the following aside:
It’s not like somebody sitting on a hand-hewn table in Guatemala, I mean, somewhere in Mexico, or in Guadalupe, said, “I got a great idea. Let’s sell everything we have, give it to a coyote. Have them take our kids across the border into a desert where they don’t speak the language. Won’t that be fun? Let’s go.” That’s not how it happens. People don’t want to leave. When my great-grandfather got in a coffin ship in the Irish Sea, expectation was—was he going to live long enough on that ship to get to the United States of America? But they left because of what the Brits had been doing. They were in real, real trouble. They didn’t want to leave, but they had no choice.
(Coffin ship was the slang term for the packed, disease-ridden vessels that carried Irish emigrants across the Atlantic Ocean.)
Here, further, was the president during a virtual St. Patrick’s Day meeting with the Irish prime minister:
My grandfather, Ambrose Finnegan, who was a great football player—American football— and a newspaperman, back at the turn of the 20th century, used to always say when—later, when he was much older, and I’d walk out of his home, he’d say, “Joey, remember: The best drop of blood in you is Irish.” (Laughs.) I remembered it, I promise you. And—because if I didn’t, my grandmother, Geraldine Blewitt Finnegan, would take me down.
He added that his Aunt Gertie “was the best back-scratcher in the world,” and that “no offense to the Greeks, but she made the best rice pudding in the world.”
As a January piece in the New York Review of Books explained, Biden’s genealogical background is not entirely Irish, and his performative emphasis on that part of it could be seen as a savvy political choice—benefiting from the insider status that Irish Americans have achieved while still being able to call on an identity as an underdog. (An indicative semi-authentic moment: Posting a video of himself at the White House listening to a bagpiper, the bagpipe per se being Scottish, but also being what the Irish American–friendly New York Police Department plays, in iconic fashion, at ceremonial events.)
The vice president strode into a local restaurant here with a message for the Greek-Americans enjoying their lunch: “I’m Joe Bidenopoulos.”
“Ask George,” he told some men gathered around a table at the Mocha House. It was unclear who George was, maybe someone at the table, but it was clear that the vice president was talking about himself when he said something about “the most Greek Irishman he’s ever known.”
One facet of Biden’s political and personal history that has become relevant since his post-primary pivot toward the progressive left is that he is old enough to have grown up during an era when Democrats had not yet been scared off of Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s brand of fiscally generous liberalism. Despite having spent most of his career as a centrist, he seems to have correctly intuited early on that the pandemic (and its associated economic crash) presented him with a chance to bring back FDR levels of populist government spending without paying a political price. His white ethnic identity politicking is a throwback to a different aspect of that personally formative era, in which being a man of the people meant being able to draw affectionate distinctions among (certain of) the peoples, be they the Irish, the Poles, or the Greeks—all funny in their own ways, but also honorable. Does this mean anything of consequence to the country, going forward? No, probably not. But it does mean that at some point we might have a news cycle—potentially the United States’ last—about an off-color joke the president told about Italians.
Correction, March 26, 2021: This post originally misspelled Zack Beauchamp’s first name.