“So we have the dilemma put to us, What to do when his power must continue two years longer and when the existence of our country may be endangered before he can be replaced by a man of sense. How hard, in order to save the country, to sustain a man who is incompetent.”
A quip from a liberal talking-head in 2018? A critique drawn from one of many “tell-all” memoirs of the current administration? A sturdy avowal from an unreconstructed ‘never-Trumper’? Or just the lament of a tired Boomer for whom the possibility of change seems to lie not three months but still two years in the future?
None of the above. This desperate assessment of the sitting President was offered in October 1862 by the preeminent American historian of the day, George Bancroft, who likewise confided to his wife concerning the man, “We have a president without brains.”(1) But Bancroft grew to respect Abraham Lincoln–he was one of the few to recognize the quality of the Gettysburg Address when it was given–and voted for him in 1864.
Which of us, having formed a similarly dismissive opinion of our leader during a time of deep division and social upheaval, will embrace a different view before the campaign ends? For Bancroft, it was really the Emancipation Proclamation that did it, persuading him that Lincoln was God’s chosen instrument. Can we expect an act of even partial moral equivalence to come from this White House?
It was also the candidacy of Gen. George McClellan, who did not impress Bancroft. And this brings us to Joe Biden. A young (30-something) acquaintance recently told me that he envisions a Biden presidency as Reagan-redux, which certainly sounds odd to someone who lived through the Iran-Contra affair. But his point was that Biden, like Reagan, could come to power at a time of extraordinary national weakness and embody the desire of the majority simply to get back to normal. Although it’s Trump who has cynically co-opted Reagan’s MAGA slogan, it’s Biden who personifies the calm, sometimes bewildered demeanor of elder statesman–another reminder, if one were needed, of the former VP’s age. We find this image strangely reassuring.
Biden is no more convincing in the guise of ideological firebrand than Reagan was. Both put it on occasionally, but Reagan relied ultimately on U.S. military power and a commonsense policy toward Russia to assuage fears about America’s place in the world. To be sure, he stoked the “culture wars” at home, but he could still get something done in government with the help of Tip O’Neill. Trump’s presence has transformed mere Congressional gridlock into full-blown political psychosis. If people vote in Biden, it will be less because they think the “soul of America” is in peril than because they yearn for predictability. Of course Americans always want to believe they’re on the side of morality–now more than ever–but they’ll settle for a vaccine and safe schools, neither of which will be forthcoming by November. (The return of the NFL alone won’t do it.)
Greatness doesn’t descend on people who claim to be seeking it, even on behalf of their fellow citizens. Nor do we need further divine intervention to derail Trump’s agenda–I’m sure he would agree there’s been a lot of that already–we just need to recover confidence in ourselves. So Joe, put your mask back on, and let’s get this done.