Is it frustration? Something deeper, or more shallow? I woke up this morning to see that the front page of the Times has five stories above the virtual fold. All five were about Joe Biden’s memory, press conference, special counsel report. Full news day, I guess. Yesterday I noticed the Times’ Astead Herndon on this on Twitter. He is not some slightly younger version of David Broder. He’s a pretty new entrant to the upper echelon of elite DC news media. I think he graduated from college as Trump’s first campaign was getting underway. But the acculturation appears complete. After Hur’s report dropped he wrote that despite questions about Biden’s age being “the most impt non-Trump issue in this elec[tion]” the DC press corps has “a sorta gentleman’s agreement for the last year to pretend like it’s not. Maybe that ends now.”
Am I taking crazy pills here? Do I have dementia? I think it’s fair to say that at least a third of the political chatter about President Biden for the last year, and quite possibly half of it, is about the President’s age. But maybe the omertà is about to end? I’m still trying to process the idea that a top Washington reporter really thinks there’s been some kind of fix-is-in ban on discussing the President’s age.
As David says, the press sees the blood in the water and this will keep up for a while now. As for the report itself, if you missed it, I shared my thoughts on that yesterday. The President’s ongoing verbal gaffes speak for themselves. I wanted to zoom in on something a bit different about yesterday’s spectacle. Aside from discussions of the President’s cognitive faculties, the main focus — actually the two were melded together — was commentary about his anger. This seemed to be a universal response from the DC press corps, that the whole impromptu press conference was a mess because the President displayed clear and clearly genuine anger.
Is that wrong? As George Constanza might have said.
This goes to the heart of the etiquette of official Washington and who plays by those rules and who doesn’t. Anger is a natural human emotion. It’s a reaction to being attacked, being treated unfairly. Whatever you think of Biden, he clearly had a lot to react to. Special Counsel Robert Hur was charged with investigating whether Biden had violated the law by retaining classified documents. He decided, quite likely because he had found no basis for bringing charges, to take a series of gratuitous and transparently political swipes at Biden’s mental faculties, going so far as to claim that Biden was unable to remember when his son Beau died. Everyone knows that this was the central injury and core event of the latter part of Biden’s life. I experienced one profoundly traumatic loss in my life and four decades on if anyone seems to disrespect or make light of it, even unintentionally, it puts me in a mood to fight. It would be unnatural not to be angry. It’s a gratuitous and deeply personal swipe.
It’s probably not lost on you that Donald Trump is basically permanently angry. And not just angry in response to particular events but the kind of perpetual and often peristaltic anger that in day to day life most people find threatening or at least off-putting. But we virtually never hear anything about the purported damage from expressions of anger when it’s Donald Trump. That’s not bias. It’s simply that it’s assumed. So it just doesn’t come up. It’s no longer policed. That’s just what Donald Trump does. But there’s an additional factor that people don’t notice. Being responsive to this kind of press policing signals a basic weakness, a perpetual hedging, a practice of being controlled and responsive to the press chorus rather than indifferent to it. Trump’s able to work outside this framework of policing because he simply ignores it and because of that reporters decide it doesn’t apply to him. This isn’t just Biden. It’s not even just Trump. Democrats for a host of reasons tend to be far more responsive to this kind of policing. People want to see expressions of agency and power from political leaders. Trump’s ability to set the terms for how the press reacts and interprets his actions is itself an expression of power.
All of which is to say that it wasn’t just okay that Biden showed some anger. It was good. And he should do more of it. Both because people expect people to have normal and appropriate human responses and grow latent suspicions when they don’t see it but also because it’s Biden showing some energy and direction. They should put him in front of reporters and the cameras more, not less. If you are responding to the tut-tutting and line-drawing of the prestige media you’re losing. It’s as simple as that. You’re always either reacting or being reacted to. The latter is always better.