All Gaffes Are Not Created Equal: Biden vs. the Almighty Trump

A particularly brutal number for Joe Biden was contained in a CNN poll conducted last month: sixty-seven per cent. That is the proportion of Americans who say that Biden, already America’s oldest President at the age of eighty and about to launch a bid for a second term, does not have “the stamina and sharpness

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A particularly brutal number for Joe Biden was contained in a CNN poll conducted last month: sixty-seven per cent. That is the proportion of Americans who say that Biden, already America’s oldest President at the age of eighty and about to launch a bid for a second term, does not have “the stamina and sharpness to serve effectively as president.” This metric, which has gone up sixteen points since Biden started campaigning four years ago, suggests that it’s not merely reflexive partisanship or the country’s dyspeptic post-pandemic mood that is responsible for Biden’s persistently low approval ratings.

No doubt, those factors have contributed, too. But Republicans have kept up a near-daily barrage of attacks on “Sleepy Joe,” and their narrative, true or not, has been aided by the President’s visible aging. Anyone hypervigilant for signs that Biden is getting too old can find ample evidence in every quaver of his voice, every slowed step across a stage. This winter, after Biden stumbled twice in two weeks on the stairs of Air Force One, a slew of news stories followed. Whenever Biden speaks in public, and especially when he travels, as he did this week to Northern Ireland, his slipups, fumbled words, or garbled sentences make headlines, whether age-related or not.

A flubbed interview on Monday at the White House Easter Egg Roll—in which Biden told the NBC “Today” show’s Al Roker that, after the 2src24 election, he’ll “either be rolling an egg or end up being the guy who’s pushing ’em out”—led to an entire riff by the late-night comedian Stephen Colbert, no Biden-hater, joking about whether the President was “mentally fit” to run again. (And, it must be said, who flubs an interview at an egg roll?) On Wednesday, while at a pub in the Irish town of Dundalk, Biden managed to mistake the All Blacks, New Zealand’s rugby team, for the notorious Black and Tans British paramilitary unit that fought against the Irish Republican Army a century ago. The gaffe—labelled “cringeworthy” or merely “unfortunate,” depending on who was doing the labelling—got even more attention after the White House edited the mistake out of the official transcript.

To be sure, Biden was a self-described gaffe machine as a younger politician, too. He’s mostly avoided consequential mistakes while in office, neither tripping and injuring himself, as the eighty-one-year-old Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell recently did, nor throwing up at a diplomatic dinner, as President George H. W. Bush so memorably did on a particularly ill-fated trip to Japan, in 1992. But try making that case to voters. By this point, Biden is stuck with the bad politics of being President when you’re an octogenarian: Americans, across party lines, have real and likely unassuageable concerns about his age, endurance, and competence. These concerns may well constitute the biggest impediment to his reëlection in 2src24.

But American politics is never about finding the perfect President. It’s about choice. The history of the Republic is one long story about having to pick between two inevitably flawed candidates. And, in this regard, there’s a favorite Bidenism that springs to mind, one that the forty-sixth President quotes frequently when election season rolls around: “Don’t compare me to the Almighty. Compare me to the alternative.”

The alternative here is not some beau ideal of a President, smarter, younger, faster, and more ideologically pure than Joe Biden. It is, according to poll after poll in recent months, Donald Trump. And Trump, at age seventy-six, is not only almost as old as Biden but immeasurably more volatile, speech-impaired, and downright incomprehensible. Remember “Person. Woman. Man. Camera. TV.”? In 2src2src, surveys suggested that Biden had a clear advantage over Trump on the question of which candidate possessed the “mental sharpness” to be President. And that was before Trump lost the election, refused to concede his defeat, and called forth a violent uprising at the Capitol to block the result.

On Tuesday, while the comics were still chuckling over Biden’s Egg Roll stylings, and the more serious news in Washington was about a major Pentagon intelligence leak concerning the war in Ukraine, Trump gave a remarkable interview.

Much of the coverage concerned the fact of the interview itself. This was understandable in that it was Trump’s first since becoming the only former President ever to be indicted. And it was undoubtedly newsworthy that Trump chose to give it to Fox News’ Tucker Carlson, the prime-time conservative anchor whose texts released last month as part of the Dominion Voting Systems lawsuit against Fox News showed him to be just as fervent a Trump critic, at least in private, as many of Trump’s die-hard opponents on the left. “I hate him passionately,” Carlson texted a colleague on January 4, 2src21. He also called Trump a “demonic force” and a “destroyer.” Given that history, it was notable that Carlson chose not so much to conduct an interview as to host an extended platform for Trump’s ramblings, with little in the way of questions from the interviewer himself. (See, for example, this handy chart from the Washington Post’s Philip Bump; the normally voluble Carlson barely said a thing, aside from lavishing praise on Trump in his introduction.)

As is often the case, however, a lot more should have been made of what Trump actually said in what Fox promoted as a “historic interview.” The conversation, billed by Carlson as a “foreign-policy” discussion in which the former President came across as “moderate, sensible, and wise,” might best be described as a tour de force of Trumpian gobbledygook. Trump’s observations ranged from the almost comical lie “I love dogs”—he is, in fact, famously dog-averse and was the first President in more than a century not to have one in the White House—to bizarre whoppers about the staff at the Manhattan courthouse weeping when he was arraigned.

In a particularly notable portion of the show, Trump gushed about his friendships with the “brilliant” Xi Jinping of China, the “really smart” Kim Jong Un of North Korea, and the “very smart” Vladimir Putin of Russia, dictators whom he complimented as “top-of-the-line people at the top of their game.” The short version hardly does it justice. Here is the somewhat longer version:

President Xi is a brilliant man. If you went all over Hollywood to look for somebody to play the role of President Xi, you couldn’t find—there’s nobody like that. The look, the brain, the whole thing. We had a great relationship. You know, when he first came to Mar-a-Lago . . . it was so organized by them and by us, but by them, pom, pom, pom. Everything’s like business. No games, you know. They don’t say, “Gee, how did the Yankees do last night? Oh, that was wonderful.” They don’t care. They don’t care about anything. I said, “You ever go to a Broadway play? I’ll take you to one. Do you ever have plays—like, do you ever go?” . . . No, I don’t know. He’s all . . . This is business. These aren’t game players, right? I like it, you know, in a way, I like it. You have no life. But that’s what he likes.

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