Politics & Media
Jul 08, 2024, 06:27AM

The Emperor's New Eloquence

It's over now, after half a century.

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This amounts as a defense of Joe Biden, though perhaps not of the sort that his staff would prefer. The defense goes like this: Biden's verbal difficulties have always been this extreme. But you pretended not to notice, until the moment it was socially required to: the moment, more or less, when the editorial board of The New York Times noticed. The people who did that are the sort of people who believe as strongly as possible whatever they think most people like themselves believe.

It’s a beautiful example of people believing for reasons, or rather, due to causes, that are completely irrelevant to whether what they believe is true or false, but are primarily social. They want to believe the consensus of people they take to be like themselves, and to express that with the utmost vociferousness. When the consensus shifts, they shift. This one happened so hard and fast that it was hard to miss.

Debate night on X, the whole mainstream left managed to notice, and dismiss, the verbal problems. Who would you rather have, they asked, a president who tells the truth haltingly, or a president who has greater fluency, but lies all the time? Or as Peter Baker put it a week later, "One of America’s political parties has a presidential candidate who is really old and showing it. The other has a presidential candidate who is a convicted felon, adjudicated sexual abuser, business fraudster and self-described aspiring dictator for a day. And also really old." For Baker and so many others, self-congratulation was in order for the incoherence. It always is.

But the backlash against Biden among Democrats has been fast and astonishing. That Biden wasn’t immediately dropping out, said the Atlantic, repeatedly, embodied a "crisis of democracy," a phrase they previously and chronically reserved for the activities of right-wingers. That wasn't the only insult that they'd previously thrown at Trump that they immediately started hurling at Biden, whom they'd previously purported to venerate.

The constitutional law professor and philosophy maven Brian Leiter was one of several who, like David Brooks trying to diagnose Donald Trump once and for all, is satisfied to make remarks like the following about the man who he’ll likely vote for anyway if he's on the ballot, and whom he may well have purported to admire as late as early last month.

What went wrong at that debate, I theorize, what made the editorial board and the law professors hop off, is the way Biden looked on the split screen: kind of gaping, blank, bewildered. But the seemingly random clutter of self-aggrandizing fragments that he was producing at that debate were just the same sorts of things he was producing in 2020, and in 2005, and in 1988, and (one suspects) in 1968. I don't think you can blame the random non sequiturs, sentence fragments, pronouns without antecedents, predicates without subjects, premises without conclusions, mixed-up verb tenses, misplaced modifiers, “number twos” without number ones or threes, on his age.

The obsession with Biden's age and decline seems misplaced, and I think that in their desperation to crush Trumpism, mainstream types are liable to be hurting Biden's chances as well as manifesting their prejudice against oldsters. I agree with Ross Douthat that Biden is likely to withdraw. But if he doesn’t, you just tried to damage him as hard as you could, though you are a Dem. You endorsed him like crazy two weeks ago, and then said over and over he can’t be elected and he's an insufferable narcissist and senile old man and must be replaced.

I don't know what you may think yourselves are doing, but you’re taking a series of steps that are very likely to help put Donald Trump back in the White House. I realize that you feel forced to say whatever your group is saying. I just think that on this one you're all insulting yourselves and undermining your own power.

I’ve collected examples of Biden verbal incompetence on and off for decades. (I've assembled some before.) He was completely incoherent debating in 2020. Perhaps you recall items such as this, in response to a question about reparations for slavery: "Social workers help parents deal with how to raise their children. It’s not that they don’t want to help, they don’t know what to play the radio, make sure the television—excuse me, make sure you have the record player on at night, the—make sure that kids hear words, a kid coming from a very poor school—a very poor background will hear 4 million words fewer spoken by the time we get there."

It's not that black parents don't want to help, it's that they don't know what to play on the radio. It's hard to express how completely incompetent that is. Every sentence is garbled horseshit, every supposed factoid is flubbed. But the stuff from the Trump debate isn't any worse. It's exactly the same.

In 2005, Biden was the chairman of the Senate Judiciary Committee, conducting the confirmation hearings for Supreme Court nominee Samuel Alito. In his main opportunity to question Alito, no doubt after much rehearsal, he started with this:

I don’t think anybody thinks that you are a person who is not independent. I think that what people are wondering about and puzzled about is not whether you lack independence, but whether you independently conclude that the Executive trumps the other two branches. They wonder when you back—granted, it is back in 1985 or 1984 when you wrote, ‘‘I do not question the Attorney General should have this immunity, has absolute immunity. But for tactical reasons,’’ et cetera. So people are puzzled, at least some are puzzled, and so I don’t want you to read any of this, at least from my perspective, as I have read it so far, that people think that this is a bad guy. What people are puzzled about with the recusal issue was under oath you said, ‘‘I will recuse myself on anything relating to’’—and then a case comes up. So they are looking for an explanation. So it is not about whether you are profiting or whether you are, you know, all this malarkey about what you broke judicial ethics. It is a simple kind of thing. You know, you under oath said, ‘‘I promise if this ever comes up, I will recuse myself,’’ and then you gave an explanation. You know, it slipped, you forgot, it had been years earlier, et cetera. So don’t read it as, you know, this is one of these things where we know you are—the people I have spoken to on your court—and it is my circuit—have a very high regard for you, and I think you are a man of integrity. The question is sometimes some of the things you have said and done at least puzzle me. And I would like to—and one of the things—this is not part of the line of questioning I wanted to ask, but I did ask you when you were kind enough to come to my office about the Concerned Alumni of Princeton. Were you aware of some of the other things they were saying that had nothing to do with ROTC? Because there was a great deal of controversy. I mean, I can remember—I can remember this. My son was—well, anyway, he ended up going to that other university, the University of Pennsylvania. But I remember, you know, Princeton. I had spoken on campus in the early 1970s. This was a big thing, up at Princeton at the Woodrow Wilson School. And I remember—I didn’t remember Bill Frist, but I remember that there was this disavowing, that Bill Bradley, this great basketball star and now U.S. Senator, was, you know, disassociating himself with this outfit, that there was a magazine called Prospect. I remember the magazine. And all I want to ask is: Were you aware of the other things that this outfit was talking about? Were you aware of this controversy going on in 1972?

It's not an answerable question, and even if Alito understood some of the obscure references to cases and so on, few others in the audience could have. Biden's misrepresenting his own motives, or would be, if he was making sense. "And I remember—I didn’t remember Bill Frist, but I remember that there was this disavowing," is just the way he’s always talked. No one remarked on it at the time but me, who also put that clip up on C-SPAN.

So it's not my fault, or even Biden's, that each of you was incapable of noticing the problem until you all noticed it together. We were showing you, all the time. Meanwhile, you suddenly and viciously turned on Biden (even if you're expressing pity, that's an insult toward a presidential candidate), on the grounds that he's old old old. Seems incompatible with who you were two weeks ago. And are you sure it's not helping Trump?

—Follow Crispin Sartwell on Twitter: @CrispinSartwell


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