WASHINGTON — In this town, you can always judge the significance of a major political event by the number of jokes it generates.
Thus, even before Sen. Joseph R. Biden (D-Del.) announced Wednesday that he was withdrawing from the presidential race amid reports that he had plagiarized speeches and exaggerated his academic record, almost everyone had heard that he was going to pull out--as soon as he found a copy of the speech that former Sen. Gary Hart had used a couple of months ago.
That theme was being replayed all over Washington, across lunch tables, around office coffee pots and over the phone.
"This is my last press conference," went one version of Biden's withdrawal statement. "You won't have Joe Biden to kick around any more."
Some said that Biden tried to get his campaign staff to look on the bright side: "The only thing you have to fear is fear itself."
The humor also dragged in the name of U.S. Supreme Court nominee Judge Robert H. Bork, who is facing a tough confirmation fight before the Senate Judiciary Committee. One apocryphal story making the rounds with several variations had him telling Biden, chairman of the panel: "To coin a phrase, senator, I have not yet begun to fight."
Even the normally strait-laced House minority leader, Robert H. Michel, got a few laughs at Biden's expense when he presented his views of the budget deficit Tuesday night on the House floor.
Michel carefully noted: "Since rhetoric gets such scrutiny from the media these days, let me say I am paraphrasing remarks of Winston Churchill when I say that the agreement we have reached is not the end of our need to act, nor the beginning of the end--but it is the end of the beginning."
Seeing he was on a roll, Michel couldn't help adding another jab:
"Just as beauty is in the eye of the beholder--I don't know who to acknowledge as first having said that one--so is progress on the deficit."
But perhaps the biggest hit was a lengthy version of Biden's resume--author unknown--that was circulating through Xerox machines all over Capitol Hill.
Added to the claims that the senator actually made about his academic record were such distinctions as:
"Triple B.S. degrees in political science, history and bionuclear physics from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology . . . Crew Chief, Apollo 13; Grand Marshal, Rose Bowl Parade (1968-69); silver medalist, 1964 Olympic Games (Summer); . . . member, Rockettes (1968); Assistant Chief Surgeon, first heart transplant 1963; . . . member of the 1969, 1970, 1971 National League All-Star Team; Inventor of polyurethane and the Weedeater."