Opinion | The Ghastly vs. the Ghostly

He’s being selfish. He’s putting himself ahead of the country. He’s surrounded by opportunistic enablers. He has created a reality distortion field where we’re told not to believe what we’ve plainly seen. His hubris is infuriating. He says he’s doing this for us, but he’s really doing it for himself.

I’m not talking about Donald Trump. I’m talking about the other president.

In Washington, people often become what they start out scorning. This has happened to Joe Biden. In his misguided quest for a second term that would end when he’s 86, he has succumbed to behavior redolent of Trump. And he is jeopardizing the democracy he says he wants to save.

I got to know Biden in 1987 when he was running for president. He was hailed then as a leading orator of the Democratic Party, even though he could be windy. I knocked him out of that race when I wrote about how he cloaked himself in the life of Neil Kinnock, the British Labour leader who was a soaring speaker, and how he gave speeches that borrowed, probably unwittingly, from Robert F. Kennedy and Hubert Humphrey.

I ran into Biden in a Senate stairwell on his way to make a speech dropping out. He was alone, studying his script. We looked at each other in silence — struck by the weight of the moment — then went our separate ways to the same news conference.

Biden was a buoyant soul who had been told he should be president since he was elected to the Senate at 29. And he wasn’t going to let the plagiarism scandal, or his pursuant health problems, stop him. He had two aneurysms in 1988 and later said his doctors told him he wouldn’t be alive if his campaign had continued, and he kidded me that I’d saved his life. He also did not let the other tragedies that scarred his life drag him down.

I marveled at the fact that Biden forgave me. He told me that it was better that we stay on good terms. He did not get mad, even when I joked that his new hair plugs looked like a field of okra during the Clarence Thomas-Anita Hill hearings. He called to chastise me, with good humor, but I hid under my desk, afraid to take the call.

I was critical of his performance as chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee during the nasty, raunchy hearings; in his effort to be fair, he let the Republicans win unfairly, and that led to a very unethical and deceitful right-winger (with a highly partisan wife who years later pushed Trump’s coup) being put on the Supreme Court for life.

Yet Biden still didn’t cut me off. When he became vice president, he invited me to his St. Patrick’s Day breakfasts and Christmas parties. He was so un-vengeful, I doubted he was Irish.

Having elevated Biden to a height many thought he would never reach, the hoity-toity Obama team proceeded to treat their vice president with scarcely veiled disdain. Barack Obama’s aides would trash Biden to reporters, a betrayal an angry Hunter told me was like “friendly fire.”

Biden was a good and loyal vice president, and I thought it was a mistake on Obama’s part to pass him over for Hillary in 2016. Hillary was an elitist, status-quo candidate, and the mood of the electorate was anti-elitist and anti-status quo. Biden had his Scranton Joe vibe going for him.

The Obama crew peddled the idea that Biden was too distraught over Beau’s death to campaign, but Biden is the one person on earth who could have used his grief to fuel an empathetic candidacy. Biden told people that Beau had wanted him in the White House, not a Clinton restoration.

If Biden had been the nominee, he would have beaten the immoral Alley Cat and he would now be ending his second term, ready for a golden retirement in his plastic beach chair at his beloved Rehoboth Beach.

Instead, he started his presidency too late. He has clearly been declining for the last couple of years — a dangerous development in a volatile world, with A.I. revolutionizing our country and with a Supreme Court full of religious fanatics reshaping American life.

That’s why almost two years ago I wrote a column, “Hey, Joe, Don’t Give It a Go,” suggesting he take the win for the good things he accomplished and let the younger stars of the party have their shot.

“The timing of your exit can determine your place in the history books,” I advised.

But, partly because he had been pushed aside by the Ivy League crowd, he got his Irish up; the working-class chip on his shoulder grew. He was driven to prove he could be a better president than the one who sidelined him.

Jill Biden, lacking the detachment of a Melania and enjoying the role of first lady more, has been pushing — and shielding — her husband, beyond a reasonable point. After Thursday’s embarrassing debate performance, she exhorted the crowd and played teacher to a prized student: “You did a great job! You answered every question! You knew all the facts!” This, to the guy who controls the nuclear codes.

After Democrats — even the ordinarily fawning MSNBC anchors — commiserated about the debate in a cloud of gloom, Nancy Pelosi, Jim Clyburn, Bill & Hillary, and Obama pushed back and circled the wagons. CNN’s Van Jones said that a Black leader called him and chewed him out for accurately assessing the calamity.

After a reassuring Friday rally in Raleigh, N.C., where the crowd yelled “Four More Years!” and “Lock Him Up!” the presidential historian Doug Brinkley called Biden “the Rebound Kid” on CNN.

The Democratic strategist Paul Begala, who deemed the debate “a catastrophe,” explained on CNN: “The first Democratic politician to call on Biden to step down, it’s going to end their career.” He added: “None of them are going to say, ‘Hey, let me step forward and knife Julius Caesar.’ Biden is a beloved man in the Democratic Party.”

It is because Biden is beloved, and because he has real accomplishments as president, that he needs to stop this nerve-racking, maddening tightrope walk to the Oval.

He will have sprightly moments, like Raleigh. But he will also have sepulchral ones, as he did in the debate dubbed “the Infirm vs. the Unstable” by CNN’s Audie Cornish.

He didn’t just have an off night, like Obama had when he acted huffy in his first debate with Mitt Romney. Biden looked ghostly, with that trepidatious gait; he couldn’t remember his rehearsed lines or numbers. He has age-related issues, and those go in only one direction. It was heart-wrenching to watch the president’s childhood stammer return.

His wife and staff will build their protective wall ever higher and shoo away reporters, pressing on the age spiral, ever more vigorously. But Biden, Jill and Democratic leaders have to face the fact that this is an extraordinarily risky bet, with — as they drum into us — democracy on the line.

James Carville, who also said a while back that the president should renounce a second term, told me Biden should call former Presidents Clinton and Obama to the White House and decide on five Democratic stars to address their convention in August.

“You know what the ratings for that would be?” he asked. “The whole world would watch and people would go, ‘Oh, God, they have real talent!’”

Carville said the president should give a July 4 speech announcing he will let the next generation of Democratic leaders bloom.

The 79-year-old strategist dryly noted that you can’t win a contest against aging.

“I do everything I can to try to beat this thing,” he said. “It don’t work.” A staircase can ruin his day.

And what if Joe and Jill cling on?

In reply, Carville quoted Herb Stein, a top economist under Presidents Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford: That which can’t continue, won’t.



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