Shock news: the President of the United States, Joseph Robinette Biden Jr, is ‘a well-meaning, elderly man with a poor memory’.
In fact, everyone knew that. But because this was the reason given in a legal report for not prosecuting the President for mishandling classified documents, it has shaken the campaign to re-elect Biden much more than if the special counsel had recommended the case proceeded against the 81-year-old in the White House.
The normally supportive New York Times launched a barrage of articles questioning Biden’s capacity, with one stating: ‘The impression the President gives in public is not senility, so much as extreme frailty, like a lightbulb that still burns so long as you keep it on a dimmer.’ And the NYT’s own editorial board’s published opinion was: ‘This is a dark moment for Mr Biden’s Presidency.’
It didn’t help that the author of the 388-page report, Robert Hur, gave examples of why he thought Biden would strike a jury as not in full command of his faculties: ‘He did not remember when he was vice president, forgetting on the first day of the interview when his term ended … He did not remember, even within several years, when his son Beau died.’
To those who have followed Biden’s astonishingly long political career (he became a senator in 1972, when this country’s prime minister was Ted Heath), there is nothing surprising even in those apparently bizarre lapses of memory. During the 2020 presidential election the former British ambassador to Washington, Kim Darroch, undiplomatically observed of Biden: ‘What we used to say inside the Embassy … was that he is certainly past his best and his best was never that great.’
To those who have followed Biden’s astonishingly long political career, there is nothing surprising even in those apparently bizarre lapses of memory, says Dominic
Donald Trump’s own grip on reality, and, indeed, the English language, seems now to be scarcely less tenuous than his opponent’s
As far as the details of his own life are concerned, Biden has always struggled to distinguish fact from fiction. This scuppered his first presidential bid, when in 1987 he plagiarised, of all things, a speech by Neil Kinnock, declaiming: ‘Why is it that Joe Biden is the first in his family ever to go to university?’ But he wasn’t.
And he claimed his own ancestors ‘worked the coal mines of north-east Pennsylvania and would come up after 12 hours’. When asked to supply evidence of these alleged coalmining forebears, Biden was unable to do so.
While it is understandable that Biden angrily denounced the special counsel’s claim that the President could not say when his son Beau died, Mr Hur’s account merely gives a sort of legal version of what we already know. Joe Biden has on more than one occasion claimed that Beau, who did serve in the Iraq War of 2003-2011, died on active service there.
In Colorado in 2022, Biden declared he was speaking as ‘the father of a man who…lost his life in Iraq’. The real Beau Biden died of brain cancer at the Walter Reed Medical Centre, in Bethesda, Maryland, in 2015.
Donald Trump, almost inevitably the Republican candidate for the 2024 presidential election, has naturally made great play of the special counsel’s claims about the man he lost to in 2020 (though, in his own self-serving mythology, Trump claims that he and not Biden won that election).
In fact, two years ago, Trump, with characteristic delicacy of touch, had already described Biden as suffering from ‘late-stage dementia’.
But what of Donald J. Trump himself? Come election day he will be 78, when Biden will be on the verge of turning 82. Trump’s own grip on reality, and, indeed, the English language, seems now to be scarcely less tenuous than his opponent’s. Those attending Trump’s rallies witness long passages which defy parsing. And that, too, is hardly new.
Try this, from one of his campaign speeches in 2016: ‘Look, having nuclear — my uncle was a great professor and scientist and engineer, Dr John Trump at MIT; good genes, very good genes, OK, very smart, the Wharton School of Finance, very good, very smart — you know, if you’re a conservative Republican, if I were a liberal, if, like, OK, if I ran as a liberal Democrat, they would say I’m one of the smartest people anywhere in the world — it’s true! — but when you’re a Conservative Republican they try — oh, they do a number — that’s why I always start off: went to Wharton, was a good student, went there, went there, did this, built a fortune — you know I have to give my like credentials all the time, because we’re a little disadvantaged — but you look at the nuclear deal, the thing that really bothers me — it would have been so easy, and it’s not as important as these lives are…’
And he rambles on in the same incoherent vein, for a while longer. At times like that, we have to remind ourselves that Trump is a teetotaller, just to rule out the most obvious explanation.
In the current campaign, he has confused President Biden with President Obama, President Orban of Hungary with President Erdogan of Turkey — OK, that could happen to any of us — and Nikki Haley, his remaining rival for the Republican nomination, with Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat Speaker of the House of Representatives when Trump fomented a mob of his supporters who stormed Congress three years ago.
At a recent rally, Trump bellowed: ‘Nikki Haley is in charge of security. We offered her 10,000 people, soldiers, National Guard, whatever they want. They turned it down!’
In fact, Trump’s claim that he had authorised 10,000 National Guardsmen to be deployed to defend the Capitol that day was proven to have been a fiction, in the official report on the shocking events of January 6, 2021 (for which the former president is still facing charges of what amounts to sedition).
Having won a third general election in October 1974, on March 16, 1976, only five days after his 60th birthday, Wilson stunned the nation by announcing his resignation
The real Nikki Haley, whom Trump had appointed ambassador to the UN, has linked Biden and Trump together as too old for the job of president (understandably, as she is 51).
In an interview with CBS, Haley said Trump was ‘just not at the same level’ as when he had been president in 2016-2020: ‘Are we really gonna go into a situation where we have wars around the world…and we’re gonna have someone who we can or can’t be sure that they’re gonna get confused?’
And at a rally in New Hampshire, she asked: ‘Do we really want to go into an election with two fellas that are gonna be president in their 80s? We can’t have someone else that we question whether they are mentally fit to do this.’
Her point, however self-serving, is especially relevant not just because of America’s vital role at a time of war both in the Middle East and Europe, but also because of the remarkable power of the presidency. He — it always has been a he — is commander-in-chief, and with executive powers that exceed anything a British prime minister can exercise.
Just as it has long been observed that Britain is ‘a republic disguised as a monarchy’, it can equally be said that the U.S. is a monarchy disguised as a republic — with the president as a sort of elected monarch.
It would be a good thing — whichever of Biden and Trump might end up as president-elect in November — if they had the self-awareness of the British Prime Minister Harold Wilson. Having won a third general election in October 1974, on March 16, 1976, only five days after his 60th birthday, Wilson stunned the nation by announcing his resignation.
It seems he had become aware that his previously extraordinary powers of recall and grip on detail — he had a stellar academic career before entering politics — were failing. In short, the Yorkshireman did not feel he could any longer do the job of prime minister.
It turned out that he was beginning to suffer the effects of Alzheimer’s disease, a sad degeneration which became much more obvious in the former PM after his departure from office.
In any case, I suspect the American people, just from witnessing Joe Biden’s purely physical deterioration, will decide themselves that he is no longer fit for office.