On Wednesday, March 3, a televised Biden event turned into a head-scratcher. The president seemed to at last open himself up to answering the press’s questions in a serious way. Fifty days into his presidency, he has still not held a regular press conference at which he answers questions in full media glare. There has been no address to a joint session of Congress. The presidency is proceeding much as the Biden campaign did, minimizing Joe’s exposure to unscripted questions and scheduling in a great deal of off time.
But it suddenly seemed that Joe was ready to show that yes, he can answer an unscripted question. Said the president: “Thank you! And I’m happy to take questions if that’s what I’m supposed to do, Nance, whatever you want me to do … ” And here the three-dot ellipsis mark indicates his voice trailing off. And then the White House cut the feed and replaced it with a visual telling us, “Thank You for Joining.” And, with no explanation offered, that was that.
If one had even the least bit of skepticism — a very healthy thing to have when dealing with politicians — one might wonder whether something is being concealed. And among the most likely of explanations that a skeptic might want to investigate is whether a health issue is being managed for political purposes.
An acquaintance with presidential history might make such an investigation even more urgent than natural skepticism alone.
If one had even the least bit of skepticism, one might wonder whether something about Biden is being concealed.
As the 1944 Democratic National Convention prepared to nominate Franklin Roosevelt to run a fourth time for the presidency, FDR was in a train in California, getting ready to review the troops engaging in practice for an amphibious invasion. Suddenly, Roosevelt turned deathly white and told his son that he was feeling terrible pains in his gut. His son helped him to lie on the floor of the rail car.
James Roosevelt later recalled, “For perhaps ten minutes … Father lay on the floor of the railroad car, his eyes closed, his face drawn, his powerful torso occasionally convulsed as the waves of pain stabbed him.”
FDR recovered, but within a day, a widely published newspaper photo showed him looking nearly as bad as he had felt in the train. Historian Doris Kearns Goodwin describes the image: “The open mouth made Roosevelt look terrible: his eyes were glassy, his face was haggard, his expression weary.”
This spelled political opportunity for the Republicans, who raised the issue of FDR’s physical and mental ability to bear the tremendous burdens of the war. After plummeting in the polls, FDR was able to gather his strength and make a few key speeches in his old, formidable style — smiling, in charge, masterful, and wickedly and effectively ironic in his barbs, evoking laughter to the point of tears from his audience and reassuring his party. To complete the victory on this point, FDR paraded through New York in an open car, getting soaked to the skin by a cold rain and delivering an outdoor address with vigor. Although members of the Secret Service got colds, Roosevelt, after a few bourbons, seemed none the worse for it. And in November, he won the election easily.
But FDR was already a dying man. Back in March 1944, a medical checkup in Bethesda Naval Hospital found the president suffering from severe hypertension, congestive heart failure, a grossly enlarged heart, and bubbling in the lungs. The doctor who conducted the exam believed that FDR was unlikely to live another year unless he was treated.
But the diagnosis was hushed up, and Roosevelt was able to effectively conceal his real condition. Reelected and dying, he went to meet Stalin at Yalta and settle the nature of the post-war world. By the middle of April 1945, he was dead.
This wasn’t the first time that a severely compromising health condition was effectively concealed from the American public. Woodrow Wilson suffered a stroke in the midst of his campaign tour to sell the League of Nations to the American public. For the rest of his term, for nearly a year and a half, he was mostly an invalid, but the extent of his illness was effectively hidden from the public by his wife, Edith.
The public is privy to little medical information about the current president’s health. But the way in which he has been shielded from the usual vigorous give and take with the press that has been expected of modern presidents, along with the pattern shown during the campaign of isolating him for days at a time before a debate or a major speech, creates a growing impression that a very real problem is being concealed from the public.
Add to this some recent history. On March 8, Biden seemed not to remember the name of his secretary of defense or even the name of the Pentagon. Neither did he remember the names of two generals he had just appointed to important combat-leading roles. In a soft monotone with plenty of small “ah’s” to gain time, he finally fudged his way through: “And I want to thank the sec — the, the, ah former general. I keep calling him general, but my, my — the guy who runs that outfit over there.”
Try this for a little thought experiment. Review a recording or live broadcast of Question Time in the UK’s House of Commons (try this link for one from a few months back). Relish the ability of these political leaders to engage in substantive debate ad lib. No holds barred, a full hour.
Now imagine Mr. Biden in a similar forum. I only wish we could see it.
Or perhaps not. I imagine it would be a guilt-inducing exercise in voyeurism and schadenfreude. In accordance with the spirit of the New Puritanism, the mainstream media seems deeply committed to preventing my indulgence in such a guilty pleasure.
The press used to do what the opposition leader does in the video, but it has been a long time since they have done anything of the sort with a Democrat president.
Is there no limit to the lack of curiosity in the mainstream media? Accusations are not necessary now, just some questions. What is behind these constant little errors? Why is the president consistently shielded from any vigorous questioning?
Knowing our history should allow us to ask a little more insistently for some substantive, spin-free answers. Not many people would look forward to a Harris presidency. There are an increasing number, however, who do not want to be managed, who want to know why the president breaks records each day for not holding a press conference, and who legitimately wonder what is behind his many gaffes in his unscripted moments. One should not have to be a conservative to want to know what is really behind all of this.
Just the truth, please — even if it is uncomfortable.
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