IT was hard not to feel sorry for John Boehner, wounded, weepy, mercilessly flogged by Chris Christie. The miserable-looking Boehner was even scaring small children.
After squeaking out re-election as House speaker when crazed conservatives rebelled on Thursday, Boehner summoned gruff bonhomie as he presided at a ceremonial swearing-in for House members.
But some of the kids posing for pictures seemed a little alarmed at Boehner’s awkward pats, brusque small talk and barked orders when someone posed the wrong way.
The speaker opened his arms to help out Sean Duffy, a Republican congressman from Wisconsin who was juggling five small children and two stuffed animals. Duffy, who met his wife, Rachel, through MTV after they were on different seasons of “The Real World,” tried to hand over his young daughter, who recoiled.
“No?” the rejected speaker asked her, muttering sardonically, “You could be a member of our caucus.” He followed the girl as she rolled away on the floor, trying to tickle her and making Donald Duck quacking noises. That kind of thing may work on Michele Bachmann, but Miss Duffy was having none of it.
It was a day for old-pol shtick. And if Boehner was the nicotine-stained prince of darkness in the House, Joe Biden was the garrulous white knight over in the Senate. Fresh from his deal-making triumph with Mitch McConnell — no Tickle Monster, he — Biden presided over the Senate ceremonial swearing-in and lived up to his reputation for “bringing sexy back to the Medicare-eligible set,” as Politico once put it.
Every time Biden spied a member’s mom, he called out with utter delight, “Mom!” as though she were his own, enfolding the glowing woman in a tender embrace.
“Mom, I’ll see you in a little bit,” he flirted with the mother of Senator Bob Casey of Pennsylvania. “I hope I’ll sneak over and see you.” To the mother of Senator Deb Fischer, a new Republican from Nebraska, he cooed, “You’ve got beautiful eyes, Mom.”
The bouncy, irrepressible Biden also had better karma with kids, persuading one little boy to raise his hand to take the oath with his father, the new Connecticut senator, Chris Murphy. It turned into a YouTube moment so adorable it even melted the hearts of jaded journalists who usually prefer videos of Ukrainian pols fistfighting.
The prolix vice president had his off-kilter moments, of course. He made a risqué frisking joke to the husband of Senator Heidi Heitkamp of North Dakota, and he gushed over a brunette accompanying Senator Robert Menendez of New Jersey: “You are so pretty. God love you, holy mackerel.”
But it was hard not to fall for his daffy charm — a rare 86 minutes of feeling good about a Congress that has now officially entered Ionesco territory as the most absurd place on earth.
When the young daughter of Senator Ted Cruz, the new Tea Party hotshot from Texas, began crying, the vice president reassured her, noting that he was a Democrat but that “it’s O.K.”
When Tim Scott, the first black senator from South Carolina, came up with his muscular brother, a former football player, to pose, the 70-year-old Biden deadpanned, “Need any help with your pecs, let me know.”
The vice president has come in for his share of mockery by late-night comics. But fox-trotting in to save the day on the fiscal cliff as the “dancing partner” of McConnell, Biden seemed more like an indispensable partner to the detached president who loathes dealing with Congress — a capable, genial Captain Kirk balancing out Obama’s brilliant but rigid Spock.
As the presidential historian Michael Beschloss said on Twitter, “Biden did for the president on Capitol Hill what J.F.K. was always too wary to let the experienced L.B.J. do for him.”