Ethics & Public Policy Center

Biden in an Age of Amazements

Published in City Journal on March 4, 2020


I thought for a moment, last night, of Harry Truman’s victory in 1948, after politicians and pundits had been certain, for months, that he didn’t have a chance. I thought of the famous image of Truman holding up a copy of the Chicago Tribune with the banner headline, DEWEY DEFEATS TRUMAN: the amazing comeback, the vindicated grin. There was a touch of that in Joe Biden’s return from the dead on Super Tuesday. Of course, it was the presidency itself that Truman won in November 1948; Biden’s victory was preliminary, a cluster of primaries in early March. And yet, his triumph came as a shock, considering what had come before, and a satisfying turn of the plot—an unexpected resurrection: “Says I but Joe,/ you’re ten years dead./ I never died, said he.”

On the other hand, these things are getting to be routine. America in 2020 has endless amazements with which to startle those with long memories. The more things change, the more they . . .  are unrecognizably different. Think, for example, that, until a moment ago, a 78-year-old Jewish man with a heavy New York accent—a red-diaper democratic socialist, who honeymooned in the shadow of the Kremlin when the Soviets were in residence and who says nice things about Fidel Castro—was the Democratic front-runner. He now finds himself cast, so to speak, in the role of Thomas E. Dewey in the primary drama—the front-runner suddenly capsized. And, again, until a moment ago, there was a second Jewish presidential candidate—Donald Trump’s “mini-Mike” Bloomberg, calmly spending the inconceivable sum of half a billion dollars so that he might emerge from Super Tuesday with one delegate, from American Samoa. He had the good sense to bow out of the race this morning.

Other amazements:

Many years ago, a man contemplating a run for president shared with me what politicians of that time regarded as an iron-clad truism: “Blacks don’t vote.” Flash forward to today and think of the astonishing extent to which black voters have become decisive in turning the 2020 Democratic presidential race around and putting Biden in the lead. South Carolina congressman James Clyburn played the king-maker, the wizard presiding over his state’s primary on Saturday, which opened the gate for Biden’s big Super Tuesday.

Think of the role of Latino voters, especially in California and Texas. Not so long ago they were inconsequential, except when a boss in South Texas might need to borrow the names of a few Mexican-Americans to write on phony ballots—in order, for example, to assure the 1948 election of Lyndon Johnson to the U.S. Senate.

Consider the scene a few nights ago, when South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg advanced to the microphone to withdraw from the race and to endorse Joe Biden. Before speaking, Buttigieg kissed his husband Chasten on the lips and embraced him. This was a Rip Van Winkle astonishment to someone who remembers an older America, a country that is, like Atlantis, sunk in the depths of time.

We have become, among other things, a society of rearranged or entirely repudiated taboos. America has adopted new ways.

Think of a moment that occurred in the East Room of the White House, just after the impeached President Trump was acquitted by the Senate. He celebrated by addressing a crowd of his loyalists and lawyers. Referring to the Democrats’ charges against him, he used the word bulls—.”  Trump uses the word in public as well as (one presumes) in private. He enjoys the effect of mild effrontery that it produces—not, of course, because it’s such an inherently offensive word but because it is the president of the United States saying it.

Calculated offense becomes a presidential style. In language, Presidents Johnson and Nixon were as crude as they come, but always out of public earshot. Trump experiments with the violation of taboos: the defiant, aggressive publication of the authentic and private and almost chthonic presidential self is an integral part of the art of being Trump.  His presidency is Exhibit A among the astonishments of which I’m speaking.

Trump’s performance of stream-of-consciousness vaudeville at his rallies owes something to the 1950s monologues of Lenny Bruce and Mort Sahl. Chris Matthews, the impresario of MSNBC’s Hardball and, until a moment ago, a seemingly permanent fixture of the old liberal commentariat, applied something of the same technique to his hectic, impressionistic political analyses. It was another minor shock last week to see that MSNBC had abruptly forced Matthews off his show. It happened apparently because of a procession of arguably oafish or subliminally domineering “compliments” that Matthews paid to various women—remarks that at one time would’ve been considered nothing worse than samples of aggressive charm or boorishness, but, in the era of #MeToo, are deemed to be as retrograde as the droit de seigneur.

Matthews’s compliments to the women were of a piece with his own stream-of-consciousness commentary—his manically self-confident and overbearing yet also sometimes endearing and vulnerable habit of saying the first thing that came into his head. His tongue was a vessel that tumbled along on the rapids of his thoughts. And so, if he saw a good-looking woman, he might say something vivid or intrusive: the effect might be of the sort produced by a mostly benevolent case of Tourette’s. These sallies were ultimately, it seems, condemned as systemic patriarchal bullying; in a more understanding world, they might be forgiven as the gestures of a personality formed at an earlier stage of American life.

It’s a disrupted landscape, a world of globalized extremes. The future feels as if it were stalked by Inspector Clouseau’s cunning house servant, who waits to ambush us from unexpected angles. The immense Chinese economy puts itself on hold while a hatching pandemic, apparently originating in bats, scares the world with intimations of the Black Death. And Wall Street is getting used to the Dow Jones Industrial Average falling—or rallying—by 1,000 points in an afternoon.

The results from Super Tuesday relieved the dramatic tension, if only for a moment. Still to come are many more primaries (Sanders v. Biden), and, in the summer, the conventions—and, eight months from now, the election. And who knows how long before a vaccine will be ready?

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