Joe Biden’s overlooked ‘chutzpah’


N.Y. Timesman Clyde Haberman has a story on the infiltration of the word “chutzpah” into our political discourse. The latest such usage was Mitt Romney’s backhanded compliment to Herman Cain on his 9-9-9 tax plan during last week’s Republican presidential debate. “I like your chutzpah on this, Herman,” the Mormon told the Baptist.

Previously, as Haberman noted, Bachmann had deployed the “ch” word to chastise President Obama, though she badly butchered the pronunciation. That prompted Yiddish scholar Michael Wex to muse in an earler Tablet essay on recent “chutzpah” usages by Bachmann, Supreme Court Justice Elena Kagan and other boldface names.

One recent usage of chutzpah by a very prominent political personage, however, has gone unremarked upon: This past Labor Day, in a populist stemwinder delivered to an AFL-CIO picnic in Cincinnati, none other than Vice President Joe Biden used the “ch” word as he railed against Republican-sponsored legislative efforts aimed at unions. Biden said:

As my friend Bob Gold used to say, now, in an exercise of chutzpah that exceeds all, the ironies of all ironies, they literally are using their failed economic policies and excesses to justify taking away your right to bargain for safe working conditions, a livable wage and decent health care because they say we can’t afford it after they wrecked the economy.

The "chutzpah" reference occurs at the 10-minute mark in the following video:

Interestingly, the Biden and Bachmann “chutzpah” usages, on the one hand, and Romney’s, on the other, illuminate two different shades of the word’s contemporary usage. Biden and Bachmann use it in a negative sense (i.e., the nerve, or the gall!) while Romney’s usage is somewhat more positive, suggesting an admirable audacity.

Earlier today, JTA’s Archive Blog noted that the use of “chutzpah” in affairs of state crosses borders — and has traveled as far as Saudi Arabia!

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