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Biden’s Decline Is a Legitimate News Story
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Biden’s Decline Is a Legitimate News Story

Whether some in the media want it to be or not.

President Joe Biden delivers remarks at the Grand Staircase of the White House on May 24, 2023, in Washington, D.C. (Photo by Drew Angerer/Getty Images)

Editor’s Note: Kevin D. Williamson is kinda-sorta on leave for a bit; Wanderland will return to its regular form, with possible interruptions, in the immediate future.

The media isn’t the driver—the media is the passenger. That’s one of the things we consistently get wrong in how we talk about politics and political discourse. 

Former New York Times ombudsman Margaret Sullivan writes

Biden’s advanced age is, granted, far from ideal for a president seeking a second term, even the very effective president that he has been. Yes, he’s old; and, never a gifted public speaker, he makes cringe-inducing mistakes. It would be great if he were 20 years younger. His age really is a legitimate concern for many voters.

But for the media to make this the overarching issue of the campaign is nothing short of journalistic malpractice.

In other words, after the throat-clearing and the obligatory “to be sure” bit: Stop trying to make “fetch” happen.

But “fetch” is happening. And not because the “corporate media,” as Dahlia Lithwick of Slate calls it—meaning CNN and the New York Times and presumably the outlet in which she writes (Slate’s parent company does approximately $4 billion a year in revenue; it isn’t exactly Fugazi on tour in 1989)—wills it to be so. It is not as though media outlets and like-minded groupings of media outlets do not have agendas of their own—they certainly do. But their ability to drive the national political agenda is wildly overstated—traditionally by conservatives, who have got a lot of mileage out of complaining about being shut out of the mainstream media and persecuted by it, but also by Democrats and progressives when it suits them. 

In reality, the media doesn’t have that kind of power. Consider the Democrat-aligned media’s hysteria campaign, now in its fourth decade, intended to turn Americans against gun rights and in favor of more rigid police measures against firearms owners. That hasn’t worked, not only as a matter of jurisprudence (the Second Amendment is one of those things conservatives have successfully conserved through old-line institutions such as the Federalist Society and without much help from the endless belly-aching from right-wing populist dopes online) but as a matter of public opinion and way of life. The share of American households with one or more guns has fluctuated predictably between 35 percent and 45 percent for decades, and the number of Americans who tell Gallup they want stricter gun laws has declined since 1990 while the number who say they want more libertarian gun laws has increased. (The share of Americans who think the laws should stay about where they are is about 30 percent, right where it was a quarter-century ago.) The anti-gun elements in the media can make a lot of hay out of mass shootings, while Second Amendment advocates rarely have anything as dramatic to deploy on their side, and that hasn’t mattered very much at all. Americans are equally obdurate on other hot-button issues: The number of Americans who say they believe abortion should be legal but only in certain circumstances—by far the most common view—hasn’t really budged in 50 years

Contra Sullivan and Lithwick, Biden’s age and his mental fitness for the office are a problem not because the New York Times and its “corporate” associates have issued a command but because Joe Biden currently is the president of the United States of America and, as such, is frequently in view of the public, which can plainly see that he is a diminished man who is rapidly declining from what was—let’s face it—not exactly an Olympian height of intellect to begin with. Democrats who point out that Donald Trump is himself an elderly doofus who was no great shakes an age ago when he was a 46-year-old political dilettante and a certified schmuck—and who today is a declining man who has aged not like a fine Bordeaux but more like convenience-store sashimi—are right, as far as that goes, but they are not right in a way that helps their case. Trump and Biden are both sliding down the same slippery slope toward the same final shock that flesh is heir to, but Biden is a good deal farther down the road than Trump is, having had a head start. Put another way, the two men’s defects do not at the moment cancel each other out: Biden is, as every honest person can see, worse off. “Sure, our guy has the mental acuity of an eggplant, but the other guy is no Richard Feynman, either” doesn’t get ’er done.

This puts Democrats in an awkward position. Their best argument is one that they do not want to make, i.e., that a literally brain-dead Joe Biden would present less of a danger to the world than would Donald Trump, a relatively energetic psychopath who attempted to stage a coup d’état against his legitimately elected successor the last time he was in power. Unable to make the most direct argument, Democrats have to pretend that this is a kind of parliamentary democracy and that what is on the ballot in November is a ministerial slate. It isn’t. Like many other conservatives, I am no great admirer of Antony Blinken’s or Janet Yellen’s, but I am not eager to see them replaced by Tucker Carlson and Mike Lindell or J. D. Vance and Marjorie Taylor Greene. But the structure of the U.S. government is not like that of the United Kingdom. We elect a president, not a parliament. Who gets what post with what mandate under what terms is one of those hairy issues that Joe Biden does not seem up to thinking through.

And it is a predictably rotten thing that he is inflicting himself on the 2024 election. 

Despite the partisan insistence to the contrary, Joe Biden has never been a decent, patriotic, public-minded man. He has always been a lying, conniving, self-serving creature—and a mediocrity and a dolt to boot. And at age 81, he remains true to form: A decent, patriotic, public-minded man would not put Americans in the position of being forced to choose between a would-be caudillo in the clutches of some bizarre and unspeakable pre-Oedipal narcissism who named his youngest child after the imaginary friend he invented to lie to the New York Post about his sex life or … an eggplant—even though the eggplant beat the caudillo last time around. 

The New York Times has its problems, beginning with the fact that a good third of its pages are edited by nitwits. But don’t blame “the media” for Americans’ noticing that Joe Biden thinks he’s still dealing with François Mitterrand.

But if you are going to make that argument, then make the argument honestly: The real complaint from Democratic partisans isn’t that the Times et al. are doing a bad job reporting the news—it is that they will not oblige Democrats more than they already do by engaging in a cover-up.

In Other News …

Alexei Navalny is dead. He was likely murdered by Vladimir Putin’s government right around the time Americans were being treated to Tucker Carlson’s softball interview of the Russian dictator and Carlson’s tourism department testimony to the loveliness of Moscow, at least the bits that his Russian minders let him see. Maybe my old colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty can ask the Russian ladies at the Manhattan wristwatch boutiques about that. I am sure they will have some fascinating insights.

In Other Other News …

Responding to my criticism of Wolfish, author Erica Berry writes: “Every now and then (like today) i get a Google alert that a man has written a blog post about how terrible and crazy my writing and person are, and when it happens I buy myself a really really fancy treat and also cast some spells.” That’s great. I hope the treat is something really good, like a Porsche or a month in Montreux. But my criticism isn’t that Berry is a terrible person; in fact, I wrote the opposite—that she represents a way of looking at the world associated with “perfectly nice people.” My criticism is that her work contains substantive errors that are germane to her main argument, including claims of fact that are demonstrably false, misrepresentations of news stories and headlines, etc. Berry—and her editors and publishers at the New York Times and Macmillan—have an intellectual duty to address those errors, to acknowledge and correct them. 

If you believe, as I believe, that writing really does matter—and if you desire, as I desire, that books should play a larger role in our public discourse than tweets and posts and whatever is on Fox News this evening—then it should matter to you that Erica Berry in her book and in her recent New York Times essay makes claims that are not true. Above all, it should matter to Erica Berry. I do not lose sleep over much, but when I make a serious error in a piece, I’m out of sorts for a week. Making mistakes is no great sin—refusing to address them is. 

And Furthermore …

That’s a funny thing I learned as an editor: The counterintuitive fact is that good reporters often end up writing a lot more corrections than mediocre reporters. The better ones usually are writing in greater detail about more complicated subjects—they also may just be producing more, period—and they tend to be more scrupulous about fixing errors. More generally, a person who has failed at a lot of things is often someone who has tried a lot of different hard things, and you’d rather have his record of failure than the “successful” record of the well-paid man who never did anything very interesting but did what he did with unremarkable competence. I know a lot of high-dollar lawyers in their 50s whose dearest wish is that they had done something else with their lives. 

In Closing

Maybe it is a weird tic of mine, or maybe you have it, too, but I am kind of protective of other people’s religions, especially public worship and public festivals. E.g., I always have thought it is kind of gross that tourists go to black churches in some parts of the country just to listen to the music, as though they were attending a concert rather than worship. I know that some of these churches welcome and encourage that—it is a way to raise money, in some cases, and the tourists are going to hear the preaching as well as the singing—but it always makes me cringe a little. (It is always something to see white politicians clapping along awkwardly in some Harlem church, or moving, like the Lord, in mysterious ways.) The tourists at St. Patrick’s in New York or at the various churches in Rome have always creeped me out. 

That being said, if I were going to impose my firangi self on a Hindu festival, it definitely would be Maha Shivaratri, which is coming up in March. I do not pretend to understand the relevant religious material, but I heard the festival being celebrated in Delhi a long time ago, and I still remember the music. 

The music isn’t the whole thing—but it isn’t nothing, either.

Kevin D. Williamson is national correspondent at The Dispatch and is based in Virginia. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 15 years as a writer and editor at National Review, worked as the theater critic at the New Criterion, and had a long career in local newspapers. He is also a writer in residence at the Competitive Enterprise Institute. When Kevin is not reporting on the world outside Washington for his Wanderland newsletter, you can find him at the rifle range or reading a book about literally almost anything other than politics.